It was when I rounded the corner of the Walmart pet food aisle and discovered that the mechanical grinding that had served as the background noise to my attempts to find sale-price cat food was coming from a life-sized light-up demonic plastic Santa gyrating with automaton clumsiness in an unearthly fan-generated wind that lifted his faux beard in uncanny time to tinny Christmas schmaltz that I gave up hope.

When I could run no further in the opposite direction, I stopped and wondered whether there was any point negotiating with a holiday season so patently devoid of the traces of human goodness that this netherworld Father Christmas could adequately serve as its symbol. But the heart is ever optimistic, and so I offer these humble suggestions for those who, like me, are struggling with the more-than-physical darkness of the season.

We can take back the holidays. There are many seasonal traditions that we can pry from the cold, cold fingers of consumer capitalism and refashion to highlight some of their better and more altruistic features.

Giving gifts

There are so many ways to do this without putting additional funds into the pockets of major corporations. Making something, repurposing something, doing something, writing something for someone, cooking something, donating something on someone’s behalf, giving of yourself and buying nothing—all these are ways to redefine the meaning of gift giving.


Yes, this tradition most often involves groups of people wandering around neighbourhoods, malls or historical society events singing about the birth of Jesus and yes, it seems to mostly be done in mid-19th century garb and yes, it does all seem a bit colonial and evangelical and British. No question.

But, the concept of singing songs to celebrate particular times of the year predates the use of carols in religious services. And sharing a love of music isn’t just for the British. And and, there are boatloads of holiday songs that don’t have any lyrics that tie them either to a particular religion or to Santa Claus. Some carols are just plain about outlasting the winter with wine, friends and a good roaring fire. Also, you can always just change the words around to suit yourself. It’s not like everybody knows them all anymore.

Some carollers will spend a night singing and raising money for charities, and some will carol door to door just for the sake of bringing a little music into people’s homes. Just remember—if you do go carolling, you have to ask people if they want to be carolled first. And it’s better if you sound good.

Making lots and lots of desserts

The overconsumption of sugary treats is perfectly aligned with the seasonal emphasis on short-term gratification. At the heart of this tradition, though, is the generally great idea that we should make and share things that other people will enjoy.

As a tradition, it hardly needs repurposing, especially if we expand our sense of who might enjoy freshly made food. Typically we stick to family and friends, but hunger is a real problem in every community everywhere, and for every person we know who would enjoy a holiday treat is someone we maybe don’t know who could use some food to live.

Donating delicious baked goods to local organizations that support people stricken by poverty gives us the opportunity to deepen our connections to the place we live and broaden our circle of people to care about. And it challenges us to really give of ourselves—without receiving individual thanks or compliments and without receiving reciprocal desserts.

Decorating for the holidays

We know what this looks like at its worst. We have all seen it. Walmart’s undead Santa is just the tip of the iceberg. The basics (lights, greenery, pretty things) are still sound, though, aren’t they? Especially if you live in the Northern hemisphere? It’s cold and dark up here during December. A few extra lights, something colourful or shiny and something green to remind us that the earth won’t always be the colour of pavement and stucco, and voilà—instant cheer.

I agree that cheer has to come from within. And I believe that if I could light, warm and beautify my home with my own inner sense of well-being that I would be a better person. But I also think that celebrating the passing of the seasons, or the observance of whatever is important to you is one of the ways human beings create and sustain cultures. Putting energy into that project can make us feel more connected to it.

We needn’t go shopping to do that, though, and it needn’t involve spending money or acquiring crap. The Internet is filled with ideas on how to create home-made festive decorations (you can do the most astonishing things with paper). So, in fact, is nature. Decorating can actually become a way to display the beauty of the natural world, of human ingenuity and of human striving for a better world.

Because you can politicize the crap out of decorating. Yes you can use the fair-trade handicrafts that adorn the potted evergreen you replant every year in the spring to demonstrate your commitment to social justice and environmentalism. Yes you can make a menorah to give people great ideas on how to keep our consumption of materials down. And when people come over to your place for the holidays, yes you can serve them delicious, vegan organic latkes. Of course you can.

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 image: holiday decoration via Shutterstock