Merry Christmas everyone! (Or for those of you who dislike the Christian religious connotation of the event: happy holidays!) I hope that you’re all enjoying the things about Christmas that count, and ignore the things that don’t count or that just provide unnecessary stress.
What doesn’t count
Christmas is not about presents. I firmly believe in minimalism, and that means trying not to have anything more than I need. If you give me something material as a gift, chances are you’ll make my life worse instead of better. The only things I enjoy getting are not things: experiences, food and/or drinks, or something small that stems from creativity and effort rather than from purchasing power.
I have three small hand-made gifts that I received from dear friends over the years, that I carry along when I move to a new destination. They are a tiny photo book from Barcelona, a hand-drawn pop-up card, and a special Vietnamese paper notebook. They fit inside an envelope and weigh less than 100g together. They are among my most treasured possessions. Most of the larger, more expensive gifts that I received over the years I had to sell, give away, or store in a box somewhere, because they didn’t fit into two bags and a suitcase.
Consumer culture has managed to instil in many people the feeling of obligation to give expensive presents to your loved ones (and even not-so-loved-ones). Don’t give in to this feeling. If you care about someone, it’s worth the effort to make them happy any time of the year. Do something nice for them when you feel that they need or deserve it. If you must get them something special for Christmas, I recommend Leo Babauta’s holiday gift guide.
Christmas is also not about preparing the perfect traditional Christmas dinner. You don’t have to stress over buying expensive foods and cooking for days to have a nice Christmas meal. Consider ditching that turkey for a vegetarian risotto. A $10 bottle of wine can be just as enjoyable as a $100 bottle of wine. And you can even opt for a potluck, which people tend to enjoy more because they contributed to it themselves.
My rule of thumb here is simple: if you normally wouldn’t buy it (because of ethical beliefs, or price, or health) for a dinner with friends, don’t buy it for Christmas either. Supermarket advertisements try to push expensive, unsustainable, unhealthy foods down your throat just because “it’s Christmas”. That doesn’t mean you have to buy them.
What does count
The only thing that I think really counts is with whom you spend Christmas. And it doesn’t even have to be with your in-laws, or your extended family, or your closest friends. What matters is that you enjoy the holidays attentively, with people who are also willing to pay attention. They can be family, friends, or total strangers. As long as they’re willing to make an effort to turn Christmas into a nice gathering; willing to share their stories; willing to contribute to the Christmas meal; willing to turn off their mobile phones and listen to each other for once.
Last year I was travelling around Vietnam this time of the year, and I spent the Christmas holidays in Hoi-An. I didn’t know a soul there, so I ended up celebrating Christmas with some total strangers I had met on the bus the day before. We had a very non-traditional Christmas dinner in a cheap Vietnamese restaurant, with good food and good conversations. It was great. Those are the kind of experiences that enrich my life, and that I’ll remember.
This year I’m in my home country to see my family and some friends of old and. Yesterday I had a vegetarian Christmas dinner with a close friend, his girlfriend, and a colleague. Everyone brought something and we cooked together. It was a great evening full of tasty-but-sustainable food, good wine, stories and discussions about the world, and social games. Tomorrow I’ll have a more traditional Christmas gathering with my parents and my sisters (but with no presents). I’m sure it will be nice too.
None of these ways to celebrate Christmas is perfect. And yet they are all perfect. I don’t know where I’ll be next year, but I hope it will be with interesting, attentive people, who make an effort to turn the holiday into something special. And I wish the same to you. Merry Christmas.