Several years ago my wife and I made a decision – we decided to skip The Christmas Thing. Not all of Christmas, mind you, but all the parts which stress everyone out, but nevertheless don’t seem to do anyone any noticeable good in return. And we didn’t do it all at once, we kind of went through a phased withdrawal from the Christmas Thing over a period of consecutive seasons. But looking back at the results, I wish we hadn’t delayed the process of withdrawal like that but had simply given it up cold turkey (or maybe it’s cold goose.)
It started with my dear wife stressing about Christmas gifts for the kids. We are a family of nine, my wife, myself and seven kids, which makes the holidays very complex. In addition, we have homeschooled all the kids and, in addition to that, my wife and I run several businesses between us. Choosing and shopping for gifts was one gigantic hassle piled on top of a very demanding series of the normal life of school, work, food, house, doctors, dentists and the gigantic pile of tasks named ‘miscellaneous.’
What do they want for Christmas this year? What did we give each of them last year which they liked? What did we give each of them last year which they didn’t like? How had tastes changed in the past year? Whose shoe size, pants size, shirts size, hat size had changed since last year and by how much? What have they grown out of taste-wise? Who would be offended by toys now? How could we possibly manage the dizzying array of video game platforms, their compatibility issues, graphics, and universe of available games? Too much! No wonder Susan was fretting.
“Let’s voucherize Christmas.” I said. Christmas gift giving is, after all, a voluntary social program, as redistributive as any on record. I’d long been an advocate of voucherizing job training, medicare, medicaid and pretty much every other transfer payment. Why not Christmas?
So we did. Each of our children got what we called a ‘spending spree’ allotment. On Christmas morning, they were told the amount. We told them that over the next few weeks, which tended to be rife with after Christmas inventory clearing sales, they could spend it on whatever they wanted. They loved it. Yes, they had to wait a little longer than everybody else (all the better to teach them deferral of gratification), but then they could get what they wanted, not what we guessed that they wanted.
I know, I know “It’s the thought that counts.” and all that. Except that it isn’t the thought that counts. The latest psychological research indicates that the amount of thought you put into a gift has very little impact on how much the recipient likes the gift, let alone how much they bond with you. Research indicates that if you put a lot of thought into a gift that tends to make you feel a lot better than it does the recipient. Furthermore the process of carefully choosing a gift bonds the purchaser more to the recipient than it does the recipient to the purchaser. Then what does make someone feel good about a gift? Getting the gift they wanted, that’s what!
Over the years the concept evolved from spending spree vouchers to gift cards to, well the ultimate voucher, cash: the universally tradable commodity. In all the years of doing this, not one of them has complained about the change, not once. Why? Because they know what they want better than my wife and I could ever hope to.
Well that’s the presents for the kids thing taken care of, but what about presents for adults?
Forget about shopping for adults, that’s what. A couple of years after the voucher pilot program proved to be such a success, we let the extended family know that we’d like to try skipping gift exchanges that year. Please don’t buy us any presents and we won’t buy you any and we can all just scratch that dozen or so to-do items off our list and relax a little more. General response was, “Count us in, and what a relief!”
That doesn’t mean nobody can give anybody else anything. It just means that any exchange is very, very simple, usually just some homemade food. We do loads of cooking around here; it’s kind of the family hobby. We grow things and cook them and invent recipes. So, when we grow our tomatoes and seasonings and cook up a great pot of sauce and can it in the late summer, some gets set aside for Christmas baskets later. Ditto for other special sauces (great Grandma’s Pennsylvania Dutch chili sauce for example), and various baked concoctions. But only stuff we’re already making, no extra work, just fun.
Then there’s the get-togethers. Simple: they’re voluntary. This is a libertarian Christmas, no conscription. We cook something special but easy Christmas Eve, and whoever stops over stops over. No guilt if you want to stay home, no need to come up with an excuse, none of the guilt of what we call the ‘we’re a family, dammit!’ ethic, which means you’d better show up. Some take an hour or so out of their evening to head over to one of the lovely Christmas evening services, and some don’t. After the party ends, early for my sake, we put a big turkey in the oven (after a day of brining) breast down for extra juiciness, and cook it slowly all night. Dry turkey is a tragically missed opportunity and completely unnecessary.
We’re a blended family, so there’s always the issue of competing obligations, who gets whom for the actual holiday. Here’s our simple solution: we surrender! If you want to do something with the other half of the family and it’s a schedule conflict go ahead, no guilt from us, and there will be plenty of leftovers.
Speaking of Christmas Eve services, let’s talk about the religious observance of all of this. It is no sacrilege to skip what passes for Christmas in contemporary American culture. First of all, what we call Christmas Season really isn’t. It’s Advent season, so if you’re going to hit me with the religious guilt thing, then at least get the religion right; beat me up for ignoring the season which begins on December 25th, not the made-up one which ends on it.
Second of all, the Christmas Thing isn’t really Christmas at all. It’s a civic holiday season dedicated to boosting aggregate demand. It’s the high holy day of Keynesian economics (Candy Keynes, anyone?) I’m not here to guilt you for ‘commercializing Christmas,’ just so long as you don’t guilt me for basically opting out of it. We’re not hurting the world by skipping the gouge-the-iPhone-out-of-the-arms-of-your-neighbor retail riots of ‘black Friday’ (Santa Claws?) Remember Say’s Law: all the money gets used in the economy, even the money which gets saved.
So, does that mean we skip everything? No, it just means we skip everything which disturbs our peace. We keep what enhances our peace. Some nice white lights hung around the house; some special foods on Christmas Eve and Day; some special charitable giving; a somewhat slower work pace, and loads and loads of Christmas music, which we just love. We’re especially fond of late Medieval and early Renaissance polyphony, stuff from Anonymous 4 and The Boston Camerata wafts through our home for the whole month of December. Back when I was a radio host, I played that sort of music during the week leading up to Christmas: it’s ten years later and people still tell me how much they liked it. If you want to play Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer, have at it. But as for us, we’re looking for a little peace. That’s what Christmas is, the offer of a peace treaty from God to man, and I think that if we take that seriously, we should do whatever it takes to make it feel that way.
And yes, we do have a tree. Live if possible, so we can plant it in the yard come Spring, but again no granola guilt about that. Susan and the kids have been out shopping for the tree while I’ve been writing this article, and as a matter of fact they just got home now as I finish it. Gracie and Susan just dragged it in from the porch giggling and yelling Merry Christmas, which is my cue to close my lap top and join the low stress festivities. In Terra Pax Hominibus Bonae Voluntatis. Peace on Earth, towards men, good will.
Mr. Bowyer is the author of "The Free Market Capitalists Survival Guide," published by HarperCollins, and a columnist for Forbes.com.