Some families seek spirit of the holidays

Posted: Friday, December 12, 2003

NEW YORK (AP) When it comes to the holidays, less can be more.

Many Americans are looking for alternatives to the buy, buy, buy ethic that has become associated with Hanukkah, Christmas and Kwanzaa. For some, it's an attempt to hold their spending in check. For others, it's concern about the environmental impact of overconsumption. For still others, it's about rediscovering the spirit of the holidays.

''The commercialism has always bothered us,'' said Laura Iyer, 40, of Houston. ''There's so much emphasis on gifts, which leads to a lot of hassles.

''We just don't want to spend the season in the mall.''

So Iyer and her husband, Dr. Mohan Iyer, an eye surgeon, have tried to refocus their holiday activities.

The gift for their sons, who are 4 and 6, will probably be full-year passes to the zoo. Together they'll be ''remembering our outdoor friends'' by making feeders for the birds and squirrels that visit their yard. And they'll be baking and decorating gingerbread cookies.

''It's supposed to be fun and a time of building memories, and that's what we're aiming for,'' she said.

Betsy Taylor, president of the Center for a New American Dream in Takoma Park, Md., said a series of holiday polls the nonprofit group has done found that ''people overwhelmingly say they wish Christmas was not so materialistic and that they would prefer a far less commercial season.''

She added that people ''don't want to completely unplug from the commercial machine, but want to put it in balance.''

For Taylor, that translates into homemade gifts, such as pots of vegetarian soup for friends and time for ice skating parties and walks in the woods.

The group's site at offers a free booklet titled ''Simplify the Holidays'' with ideas for low-cost giving, from handmade cookbooks to pledged baby-sitting nights and volunteer activities.

Sister Mary Louise Foley of the University of Dayton, a Roman Catholic university in Dayton, Ohio, runs clinics each holiday season ''to help people take a fresh look at how they celebrate Christmas.''

For many, she said, the first words that come to mind are ''joy'' followed by ''tension'' and ''overspending.''

''When you ask people what they really like and value about Christmas, they'll say things like spending time with family, visiting friends, the midnight (church) service,'' she said. ''But they generally haven't done that. They've done the other stuff.''

Sister Foley says families can refocus, perhaps by starting new traditions:

Stop the expensive gift-giving, and be firm about it.

Plan a ''progressive'' or a ''potluck'' dinner with neighbors or friends.

Find outdoor activities to occupy the entire family.

''Adopt'' an elderly neighbor, who may greatly appreciate a holiday visit and festive baked goods.

Another alternative is sharing the burden, Sister Foley said.

''One woman listed everything that needed to be done for the holiday and told her family, 'Sign up. If you don't sign up, it won't happen this year,''' she said.

The result was that the husband wrote the holiday cards, the daughters baked cookies, a son wrapped all the presents and the youngest twins set the holiday table.

''The woman felt much better, and everyone in the family felt they had a claim on the celebration,'' Sister Foley said.

Cheryl Toth, 37, a health care consultant in Patagonia, Ariz., has begun changing her approach to the holidays out of environmental concerns and to end the sense of being overwhelmed.

''We are so blessed, we have everything we could possibly need,'' Toth said. ''We just didn't need more stuff.''

So several years ago, Toth and her husband, David Winkle, began informing relatives that they didn't want to exchange Christmas gifts any longer, although they continue to buy for nieces and nephews.

They look for educational games for the children, or special items like sponsorship of a nesting box on the ''bluebird trail'' sponsored by the North American Bluebird Society.

Last year they stopped sending greeting cards because ''it's a huge waste of paper and money and most of them aren't recyclable.''

Toth's idea of holiday fun includes a lot of friends.

''This year, my husband and I are having people over to make hard candy,'' she said. ''They'll take some home, and we'll give some away.''

That, she said, will result in true holiday joy because ''for me, the season is about friends and getting together and enjoying each other's company not about opening presents.''

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