Everyone’s busy telling you what you should do, or buy, or cook for the holidays. Let me save you some time by pointing out some things you DON’T have to do.
Don’t misunderstand. I’m not saying you shouldn’t do these things. I’m just pointing out that these are behaviors that are often driven by social pressure, unchallenged assumptions, and a tendency towards conformity. Being free means being able to question why we do things, whether we really experience benefit, and inviting alternative behaviors.
There are many people for whom indulgences are not an option over the holidays, especially this year. The points made here are mostly addressed to people who are experiencing good fortune and have the freedom to celebrate how they choose.
So here are some thoughts on what you don’t need to do for the holidays:
1. Buy Stuff
What happened to the stuff you bought or were given last Christmas? Running out of places to put things? Find yourself throwing things away? Drawers filled with unused stuff?
Americans (and increasingly much of the world) have been systematically trained over the last century to think they must buy gifts for Christmas and birthdays. We experience anxiety trying to think up something clever to buy people. In these days of free shipping and unlimited access to goods, if people actually needed something, wouldn’t they have gotten it already? Why should it wait for a specific occasion. The world is drowning in stuff, and it almost all ends up in landfills, whether immediately or in a few years. Give it a rest.
2. Kill Turkeys
46 million turkeys are killed in America each year for Thanksgiving. Why? Tradition? Isn’t ritual animal sacrifice a bit passe?
3. Go into debt
Americans racked up an average of $1,325 in holiday debt last year, an increase of 8% from the year before, and 34% higher than in 2015. We’re exposed to an enormous amount of advertising, and marketers pull out all the stops to incent end of year buying. Many of these advertisements are specifically targeted at children, who have less ability than adults to identify when they’ve been manipulated or to be skeptical about advertised benefits. Children pass that pressure along to parents. Parents respond to their children’s wishes, but they are really just being driven by advertisers.
4. Drink Alcohol
Celebration and alcohol have become interwoven in our culture. Alcohol is assumed to be present at most parties, and even companies will give alcohol as gifts. The increasing legalization of marijuana across the US gives a chance to reflect on how strangely ubiquitous alcohol is as America’s drug of choice. Could you imagine holiday advertisements showing families getting stoned together over dinner? Could you imagine gifting your corporate clients with an ounce of weed?
Drinking together is taking drugs together. If you find it beneficial, there’s no law stopping you. But it’s worth checking: Do you like how it feels to drink? Do you like how you feel the next day? What’s the impact of your behavior under the influence? Are you able to celebrate without it?
5. Eat lots of sugar
The American diet has been laced with excess sugar for decades. Our tongues are sensitive to sugar and we seek it out instinctively. We associate sugar with celebration and reward. America’s plentiful land has made it easy to produce lots of calories for our people. But subsidies on corn have created unlimited incentives to produce more calories, which then need to find a place to be parked. Sugar is a preservative, like salt. So it helps in creating shelf-stable foods that can pack convenience stores, grocery stores, and liquor stores across the country. Sodas are the most nutrient-poor way of delivering sugar, but sugar is added to 3 out of 4 foods on grocery store shelves.
Research on the harmful effects of sugar was buried for decades, before resurfacing in the last decade. Sugar is implicated in heart disease, cancer, dementia, and Alzheimer’s, not to mention its obvious role in obesity, diabetes, and good old tooth decay.
6. Get into arguments
I suspect I may be kicking a hornet’s nest with this article, but in general I try to stay away from conflict and contention. Many people dread the holidays, in part because of the risk of old wounds resurfacing, political or religious disagreements being inflamed, etc. We’re wired to get defensive when someone pokes fun at us or tries to goad us into an argument. But just like the sound of one hand clapping, there can be no arguments if we don’t take the bait.
We can almost certainly anticipate the areas of disagreement that are most likely to arise with family or friends. Those arguments have been had before (ad nauseum), and no one enters into them prepared to give up ground. The divisiveness in the American political scene should be ample proof that arguments rarely lead to consensus. The emotional tone of arguing is defensiveness (and offensiveness). It invokes totally different parts of our brain than those involved in rational decision making, collective bonding, and creative enjoyment.
Unless stress is something you’re really craving in your life, just skip the fights. Remind yourself that the other person is just like you: A person who wants to be happy, who has a long history that has led to their current beliefs, and who generally wants to be right. Let them be. Be humble enough to see yourself in the mirror of their behavior.
7. Get together in person
This is your special 2020 treat: more isolation. As an introvert, it may be unfair for me to counseling this. This has been a rough year for everyone, especially extroverts. I just ask you to clearly distinguish in your mind what it is that makes it seem necessary to get together in person. There are many kinds of communication and interaction that are far easier in person. But we live in a time of science fiction come to life, where we can have video calls for free with anyone in the world, any time we like. Don’t let sentimentality cloud your judgment. If you get infected with COVID you will infect, on average 2.5 other people. They in turn will infect 2.5 others. Given a mortality rate of about 2%, over the course of 5 transmissions, your illness will cause the deaths of 2 people. To paraphrase Steve Harvey, the best thing you can do for COVID sufferers is to not be one of them.
8. Watch lots of TV
The incredible power of the Internet has been to create a mass medium that enables two-way communication. TV is a mass medium but it’s only one-way: if you talk to the characters on screen they won’t talk back. But the Internet is participatory. That participatory nature can be addictive and problematic, but it also opens the door for us to share and collaborate in positive ways. Clay Shirky speaks compellingly about the available “cognitive surplus” and the power of harnessing even 1% of our collective free time for creative work.
If this article came across as sanctimonious, I’ll state again: I’m not saying you shouldn’t do these things; I’m saying you don’t have to. Culture has been described as a set of invisible assumptions that underlie the behavior of a group. The points mentioned here are mostly recent additions to our culture over the last century. While behaviors like drinking alcohol are long-standing aspects of our culture, they’ve been fetishized and enhanced through advertising to the extent that it’s easy to feel there is no alternative.
If this article saves you any time, money, or pain I’ll be delighted. On the off-chance that you’re looking for any advice on what you should do over the holidays, I’ll go ahead and recommend gratitude, with a nod to Thanksgiving. Take the holiday seriously. Don’t just be thankful for superficial things. Be thankful for your health (even if it’s imperfect). Be thankful for your parents (even though they’re imperfect). Be thankful for the people around you (to the degree they make you angry, they’re also driving you to be patient). And be thankful for having the ability to choose, reflect, and act wisely.
In a time of cultural change, make choices that bring out the best in us all.