Selphiras wrote a thoughtful review of Skipping Christmas last year. Click on the word “review” to read it — though she does give you the whole plot, so you may want to wait till you’ve read it yourself.
The thing that surprised me in the review was that this book had been recommended to her as an example of frugality.
The Kranks (the Christmas skippers in the book) are not frugal. Frugality is not even the point of the book, though Grisham does devote a couple of pages to enumeration of the things that made up the startling $6,100 they spent on the previous year’s celebration. But they refuse to do things that are free (welcoming carolers, decorating with items they already own, attending the company holiday dinner) and instead do other things that are costly (tanning booths, buying cruise gear they do not intend to wear). In fact, since Luther Krank uses his company’s time and paper to prepare announcements that he will not be celebrating, he is not even showing fiscal responsibility or honesty in general, let alone actual frugality at Christmas.
If you were looking for a book that made a good point about frugal living and the holidays, Skipping Christmas would not be it. Try How the Grinch Stole Christmas — not the Jim Carey movie, which got the whole thing backwards, but the original from Dr. Seuss.
“It came without packages, boxes, or bags!… Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before: Maybe Christmas, he thought, doesn’t come from a store. Maybe Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more.”
I’m quoting this from memory, having read the book or watched the TV cartoon version every single year of my life, so I may have a word wrong, but the point is there.
Another option would be The Hundred Dollar Holiday. This excellent little book points out that our Christmas customs date from a time when a feast, a party, a bunch of noise and company, and store-bought trinkets were rarities. Now, the rare and special things are quiet, peacefulness, free time, and handmade things. Author Bill McKibben proposes that we change our celebrations to reflect the change in our society.
Unplug the Christmas Machine would be another good choice. Online resources include the Society to Curtail Outrageous and Ostentatious Gift Exchange, Alternatives for Simple Living, and Buy-nothing Christmas.
I love Christmas, myself, and would never want to skip it. But I do see a lot of people who are miserable at the holidays for one reason or another. People get overwhelmed, overextended, and overstressed.
Frugality and simplicity at Christmas fortunately doesn’t require skipping the holiday. It takes resistance to peer pressure and media pressure, and it takes advance preparation, if only a conversation with the people you celebrate with to determine what parts of the celebration are the most important.
I’ve had that conversation with my kids every year since they were old enough to understand the question, and sometimes I’ve been surprised. Going to see the lights on the square and the annual shopping-for-siblings trip have both been listed as the most important thing in the past. Presents are important to children — they do not have the resources to buy those things for themselves, after all — but they don’t have to be the center of the holiday.
The cost, time crunch, and stress of the holidays are the main complaints from those who suffer at this time of year, but they are not inevitable. A budget and a calendar can help. A sense of perspective can, too. We are not really going to be beset with attack carolers, but there is a lot of pressure to match last year, or the celebrations of our friends, or even what we see in the magazines (the HGP recommends avoiding all holiday issues of magazines for just this reason). I have been stressed out at Christmas myself, in years past, though I don’t have that problem any more.
But there are other sources of holiday unhappiness that sometimes get mixed up with those things.
One is unhappiness about the people we spend our holidays with. The Kranks have a long Christmas card list, but they don’t seem to have anyone they actually want to see at the holidays, except their daughter. Sometimes the Stage 3 shoppers (the unhappy, stressed ones we see in mid-December) can’t keep themselves from talking about how they dislike or disapprove of the kids they are buying toys for, or their parents.
We don’t get issued a new set of family or friends for the holidays. If they are not perfect the rest of the year, they aren’t going to turn into the ones we see in magazines on Thanksgiving day. And the ones in the magazines aren’t really perfect, either. They just get paid to look that way for a few seconds while the picture is snapped.
So I have one more holiday book to recommend: The Perfect Thanksgiving by Eileen Spinelli. This is the story of two families. One has perfect food for Thanksgiving, and a peaceful meal followed by long walks and chess games. The other has mess and crisis and down-market amusements. Where holiday magazines would tell us that the first family is perfect and the second is imperfect — and lots of “don’t feel guilty” columns would tell us that the second is the perfect one because it is somehow more authentic — this children’s book says that both, and indeed all, families are just fine the way they are. And I think that would be true even if your holiday family is you and your friends, or you and your cat, or just you.
That “just you” is the other holiday problem. I remember the only really sad Christmas I ever had: the first year that I couldn’t be with my family for the holidays. I was pretty sorry for myself, as I recall. Fortunately, by the next year I had decided for myself what Christmas traditions I wanted, and I was able to enjoy them by myself or with friends, even though I couldn’t be with my family. Since then, my holidays have been — in the sense in which Eileen Spinelli means it — perfect.
And if it isn’t perfect, it cannot be made perfect by buying the things the perfect magazine family is modeling.