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Reclaiming Christmas

Authors offer ways to decommercialize and enrich the holiday season

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NOSTALGIC for the joys of a fulfilling Christmas, many Americans lament the growing commercialism of the season. Caught up in a hectic pace, they seek to simplify their celebrations. But how? Magazines offer helpful hints on organization, decorating, cooking, and gift giving - and all in record time. But Jo Robinson and Jean Coppock Staeheli, the co-authors of "Unplug the Christmas Machine" (Quill/William Morrow, $9), whose first revised edition has just been released, offer more radical solutions to seasonal quagmires and quandaries. The growing secularization of the society has contributed to the season's growing commercialism, say Ms. Robinson and Ms. Staeheli of Portland, Ore., in separate interviews by phone. Even in religious households, they say, gift-giving, social obligations, and holiday chores threaten to overwhelm the spirit of Christmas. "Unplug the Christmas Machine" invites the reader to disengage from commercialism and search for the meaning behind all the fuss. It is full of non-judgmental, helpful hints and questionnaires designed to encourage the reader to consider what matters most to him or her, and then to break out of the old habits of obligation and hurry. Their first workshop was held 14 years ago and surprised them with its intensity. "People cried," Robinson says. "Unexpected marital tensions surfaced. But the workshop worked. They all had such a sense of relief when they left. In the next couple of years we were invited to hold workshops by dozens of groups - women's groups, churches, community centers. We were hearing the same problems over and over and felt then we should write a book." Since that first workshop and the first publication of their book nine years ago, they have, by their own estimation, held more than 1,000 workshops and touched perhaps 100,000 lives in the United States and Canada. The revised edition of "Unplug the Christmas Machine" is substantially the same as the first - the changes come primarily in the updated resource information. "Things have changed very little," Robinson says. "I think the recurring problem is the equation of a 'good Christmas' with the gifts people give. People feel powerless to change things, though they want to find more lasting, joyful, genuine ways to celebrate Christmas." Robinson and Staeheli recommend that people turn tasks into traditions. "People have more traditions than they realize," Robinson says, "but they're on a 'to do' list." The authors recommend a special baking day, "so the whole family can anticipate it and it will be valued as an activity in and of itself," Robinson says. "You put on Christmas music, you only make as many cookies as you comfortably can. And you make sure those recipes have meaning - something that connects you to other people or the past or your culture." Robinson and Staeheli further recommend slowing down, cutting out mere obligations where possible in favor of quieter family joys, focusing on the unfolding events, and giving everyone a part to play. They discovered very quickly that men felt left out of the Christmas preparations - that women took over most of the work (and therefore the control) of the celebrations. So while women were trying to do it all, exhausting themselves in the process, men had no role to play. "But men want the same things women want," Robinson says. "They have the same spiritual needs. We have to start listening to them, we need to pay attention to their values.... Almost invariably, the man in the house is going to want Christmas to be simpler, less expensive, less commercial, and less perfectionistic. 'Compromise' is a bleak word to me; 'include' is a better word." "We list 10 common Christmas values," says Staeheli, "things that matter to people. ... The idea is to take stock of what you really want out of this. So often now, the important is displaced by the urgent." Staeheli explains how kids get caught up in the commercial machine of Christmas, when what they most want are dependable family traditions, loving, relaxed family time, realistic expectations about gifts, and an evenly paced holiday season. So she recommends not trying to lump all of Christmas into one or two days. Staeheli and Johnson's anti-commercialism message has reached the white middle-class audience, but they want, also, to appeal to those economically disadvantaged who are suffering because they can't buy their kids a "good Christmas" this year. What is central about Christmas exists irrespective of the money, the partners remind us. What people in their workshops fantasize about when asked what they want from the season are snowfalls, fires, having the people they love around them, having the children behave, and having the work magically done. "Gifts are important," says Staeheli, "especially to children. But it's up to each family to find the proper balance."

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