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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Hundred Dollar Christmas

Air Date: Week of

In upstate Johnsburg, New York, some church communities are actively spending less, and doing more, this Christmas. Tatiana Schreiber reports on some of the projects the townspeople are getting involved in, and how some area merchants and press don't like the idea.


NUNLEY: It's Living on Earth. I'm Jan Nunley. Each year the average American spends about $760 buying gifts and celebrating the holiday season. That's according to the Washington, DC-based National Retail Federation. In all, the group says $440 billion holiday dollars were spent last season, and the figure is expected to rise this year by 6%. We report these figures as solace, or perhaps a reality check for weary gift givers, as shopping days dwindle down to a precious few and the carols jingling over the mall PA system carry the subliminal message, "Buy. Now." But the Christmas rush is not happening everywhere. In the Adirondacks mountain region on the border between New York and Vermont, a number of small church groups are urging people not to buy more gifts, but to give more thoughtfully. Tatiana Schreiber reports.

(People singing at the piano: "I just keep trust in my Lord...")

SCHREIBER: It's Sunday morning and children at the Mill Creek United Methodist Church are warming up for their Christmas pageant.

(Singing continues)

SCHREIBER: The church is in the small Adirondack community of Johnsburg, the sort of place you'd expect to find a traditional approach to Christmas.

(Voices milling, chairs scraping)

SCHREIBER: But for the third year in a row, the children in this church are part of an alternative Christmas. They're encouraging people to cut back on gifts and instead help buy an ark of 30 animals that will be sent to families around the world who will use them for food or for wool or as draft animals. It's part of the International Heifer Project, and today the kids are making cards that people who donate can give instead of a regular present.

WOMAN: On the inside it looks like a regular card. And on the back, it says, "This card was decorated by the Mill Creek and North Creek Sunday Schools," and it has a little picture of Noah's Ark and all the animals going onto the ark.

SCHREIBER: The Heifer Project is just one of the new ideas the pastors have come up with as a way to celebrate the joy of Christmas and to think more deeply about the meaning of giving and receiving. Reverend Barbara Lemel remembers the craziness of the pre-Christmas rush from her teenage years in retail sales.

LEMEL: I know that people came in, especially as it got close to Christmas, literally saying, "I will buy this. I know it's not what they want, but I have to have something in a box on Christmas morning." To me that's -- Christmas is about celebrating the joy and the love of God, and that joy and love as we see it in the birth of Jesus. And it's not about giving someone something just because you're supposed to give them something.

SCHREIBER: Reverend Lemel and her spouse, Reverend Mitch Hay, started thinking about alternative giving. Several years ago, when they were working in low-income towns in northern Vermont, they joined with writer Bill McKibben to promote the idea of the $100 holiday, urging families to keep their total Christmas spending down while celebrating in other ways. Bill McKibben, also a Methodist, was struck by the difficulty of being a religious person in a society that worships in the temple of consumerism.

McKIBBEN: It is a powerful gospel that they're spreading, that the advertisers and the marketers, and it tends to shut out the other gospel, gospel meaning "good news." I mean, it's hard to get out the real good news about Christmas, about anything, when you're constantly being surrounded by happy talk from people trying to sell you things.

SCHREIBER: Bill McKibben says he knows people who regularly go into debt trying to provide a memorable Christmas for their children. So he and other Methodists in the region came up with inexpensive ways to celebrate the season, like recording a book on tape for grandkids, assembling a photo album, or drawing up a family tree. While most people seem to welcome these ideas, Mitch Hay and Barb Lemel, with son Micah, remembers some nasty columns in local newspapers.

(Happy sounds from Mica)

HAY: This was seen as a horrible attack on our American way of life. Christmas is what shop owners depended on to be able to make it through the year, and for us to be talking about non-commercial Christmases was an attack on -- on --

LEMEL: It was anti-American.

HAY: It was anti-American, it was anti-Vermont. It was anti-everything that we stand for.

SCHREIBER: This year a similar debate about whether reducing consumption would harm the economy took place in a Brattleboro paper. But Barbara Lemel sees Christmas and consumption in the larger context of stewardship.

LEMEL: Stewardship being the ways we use all the resources we have, and I don't mean just natural resources, but our time, our energy, our money, our lives, our gifts. You know, how do you give yourself instead of just your credit card?

(Milling voices)

SCHREIBER: Back at the Mill Creek Sunday School, some of the children tell me what they think Christmas is about.

CHILD 1: Christmas is about getting together, the whole family together, and just showing each other that you still care.

CHILD 2: Yeah.

CHILD 1: Even though you may not have seen each other all year.

SCHREIBER: So that's more important than the gift part.

CHILD 1: Yeah. It's more important just to have a present not because it was expensive but because it shows you people care.

CHILD 3: Not what it is, but just that they gave it to you.

CHILD 4: Just like a time of happiness.

SCHREIBER: One child thought his mother would love the idea of supporting the Heifer Project instead of buying as many gifts. Why?

CHILD 5: 'Cause she has 4 kids and that's a lot of presents. I think she'd like this a lot more.

SCHREIBER: You're willing to give up your other kind of presents?

CHILD 5: Some of them. Not all of them. (Laughter from the children)

SCHREIBER: Of course, it's not easy to convince children to give up Christmas presents, or even adults. Some parishioners said their friends reacted to alternative gifts -- well, politely. But the idea seems to be catching on anyway.

WOMAN: I think it's great because this is helping other people. You can't give a child anything nowadays that's going to mean anything to him unless you spend $30 or $40 on a gift. And you can't do that. It's going to teach them something, too. They're giving.

(Piano and singing: "Gloria! Gloria!...")

SCHREIBER: At the Mill Creek Church in Johnsburg, New York, I'm Tatiana Schreiber for Living on Earth.



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