Reclaiming Christmas, Radical Homemaker Style

Shannon Hayes: Can you take on consumerism without being a Scrooge?
candle carols by domaindiva

Photo by domainviva

I signed on to my email this morning, and there, at the top of the list, was a very sensitive, careful email from my Aunt Katie. She was broaching the ever-touchy subject of Christmas presents for my daughters, Saoirse and Ula. What is acceptable this year? USA-made? Eco-friendly? We will be allowing gifts, yes? And, can we please make some time to talk about the holiday menu and what foods will be allowed?

Here’s the bitter truth. I’m my family’s biggest pain the ass every Christmas. Most radical homemakers probably are. We want to honor the earth and her inhabitants at all times, to create quiet time for reflection, to encourage generosity in our children (as opposed to the greed of gift-receiving). And, more likely than not, we adhere to dreadfully annoying dietary regimes that render our relatives insane: gluten-free, local foods only, no refined sugars, vegetarian fare, no processed foods, only organic and grassfed meats, dairy-free—the list is endless and (admittedly) ever-changing. We’re sick of the consumerism, we’re sick of feeling sick after all the crappy food, we’re sick of being pushed around with our kids in an endless stream of command visits and activities, we’re sick of the over-stimulation wrought by endless, ecologically rapacious, quickly- broken toys.

Since we embarked on our path 12 years ago, every Christmas has been different as we’ve experimented with new ideas for traditions.

From the time Bob and I entered onto our radical homemaking path, Christmas has been a touchy subject. The worst Christmas ever ended, 7 years ago, with my mother standing six inches from my face screaming “SCROOGE” at the top of her lungs while tears of frustration poured down her face. I held baby Saoirse close to my body in an effort to protect her from the toxicity of an American holiday. The best Christmas was last year, when Bob and I woke up with a stomach bug on Christmas Eve, and my extended family whisked Saoirse and Ula away from our tree-side, eco-friendly vomitorium to have a holiday while we barfed in peace and watched foreign movies.

This year, we’re changing things. Again. We’re ambushing relatives well in advance with pre-approved, inexpensive gift suggestions for the girls; we’re advocating for all away-from-home holiday meals to be potlucks so that our quirky food choices won’t interfere with other friends and relatives’ celebrations. We’re paring back our schedule so that we are not out of the house more than once or twice per week over the season. We’ve hand-made candles with the kids from our beef tallow and beeswax so that we can have our own Yule altar, complete with 12 days of quiet family-only ceremonies to honor the change in light. And this year, for the first time, Bob and I are making gifts to ourselves. While the days are short and the nights are long, we are indulging our desires to learn new things we’ve always wanted to know. Bob is teaching himself DADGAD tuning on the guitar and practicing jazz chords to accompany the girls’ favorite Christmas songs. I’m finally learning how to work my sewing machine and teaching myself how to cable-knit.

beavan and daughter by paul dunn
Christmas with No Presents?

"No Impact Man" suspected the holidays would be just as merry without all the stuff.

Since we embarked on our path 12 years ago, every Christmas has been different as we’ve experimented with new ideas for traditions that fit the kind of holiday we want to have. That can be pretty unnerving for a family that reveres never-changing holiday rituals from year to year. But in 12 years on this path, the extended family has gotten used to us. Our evolving holiday experiments have become a tradition of their own. If Christmas is supposed to be about surprises, then perhaps our perpetual change-in-traditions might be considered a special annual family surprise in their own rite.

Thankfully, our relatives understand that we are committed to our own, alternative life path, and they have made room for our perpetual efforts to reclaim the Christmas season for our own family and ideals. As for Bob and me, we acknowledge that we can’t simply dismiss the holidays all together. We need to find balance, and try again each year to find ways to make the holidays work with us and our relatives. Some years are better than others, and that’s okay. 

  • I longed for simpler surroundings. So I made a resolution: Each week I would move more stuff out of the house than came in.

  • The Story of Stuff will take you on a provocative tour of our consumer-driven culture—from resourc extraction to iPod incineration—exposing the real costs of our use-it and lose-it approach to stuff.

  • Shannon Hayes on the process of replacing the “givens” of mainstream life with more resilient ways of living.
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