In Your Midst

Simple Living at Christmas

Dec. 2008


          Advent is supposed to be a time of spiritual depth and joy.  But so many forces in our secular culture seem to be in overdrive in these weeks leading up to Christmas, leaving many of us frantic.  There are so many demands on us:  to shop too much, eat too much, drink too much and spend too much.  And there are so many expectations:  to make meaningful connections with our family and to reunite with old friends, all in the space of a few days.  The Church tells us that we need to let Advent be Advent… and not celebrate Christmas until Christmas.  It sounds simple, but we all know how difficult it can be to achieve.

          Some years ago, in an effort to observe the season of Advent fully, I tried simply to block out all the Christmas frenzy “out there,” the tinsel, the lights, the mega-sales, the frenzied shopping.  But I’ve found that the monastic approach is not really helpful either.  I learned that preparing for Christmas doesn’t need to be an all-or-nothing proposition. I would like to suggest that there is a middle ground, a way to to make this time of preparation faith-filled and joy-filled, and it is based on the principles of simple living.  How can we bring a fresh approach to the holidays?  I would suggest three expanding circles of care:  care for ourselves; care for others; care for the planet.

          Caring for ourselves comes first.  When we fly on an airplane, we’re told that in the event of an emergency, we have to put on our own oxygen mask before we help someone else with theirs.  In other words, we have to give ourselves some space to breathe before we can be effective in caring for others.  It is the same when it comes to preparing for the holidays.  We have to care for ourselves first.  But that can be hard to remember when we’re so busy taking care of everyone we care about!  So, during Advent, I try to be more careful to set aside time for prayer, to get enough sleep, to simplify my preparations so as to enjoy them more.  Taking time for prayer is especially important in the midst of holiday frenzy, but I try not to turn this increased attention to prayer into another pre-Christmas task, itself another source of stress.  Just a bit of quiet time each day is all that’s needed—time to reflect on the great gift that awaits us.

          Caring for others.  Of course, Christmas is all about care for others.  We give gifts, send cards, entertain friends and family, all to show our love and care.  But sometimes, our gifts can become too expensive, sending cards can become an impersonal chore, and even holiday parties can become too much!  How can we simplify how we care for others?  In a world with so much need, one good place to start is by giving less expensive, more personal gifts.   A great example of this was the year my sister’s family gave their friends a copy of the best book they’d read that year.  Another friend’s family creates a cookbook of their favorite recipes.  These kinds of gifts are often remembered long after more expensive gifts are forgotten or tossed out.

          Caring for our planet.  There are more and more opportunities to give alternative gifts—gifts that express our care not only for the people we love, but for our community and our world.  In their 1991 statement Global Climate Change, the U.S. Catholic Bishops wrote, “Each of us should carefully consider our choices and lifestyles. We live in a culture that prizes the consumption of material goods. While the poor often have too little, many of us can be easily caught up in a frenzy of wanting more and more—a bigger home, a larger car, etc. Even though energy resources literally fuel our economy and provide a good quality of life, we need to ask about ways we can conserve energy, prevent pollution, and live more simply.”  They also suggest:  “Rejecting the false promises of excessive or conspicuous consumption can even allow more time for family, friends, and civic responsibilities. A renewed sense of sacrifice and restraint could make an essential contribution to addressing global climate change.”

          This doesn’t mean we can’t exchange gifts at Christmas!  We can give to good causes—like the Cathedral’s own Hunthausen Fund for homeless families—in lieu of traditional gifts.  We can seek out fair trade items.  We can also try to buy locally-made and American-made gifts.  And instead of breaking our heads trying to come up with the perfect gift for someone, we can exchange gift cards so people can pick out their own gift—something that won’t end up in the closet!
Making this conscious effort to live more simply is not easy.  Nor is it always simple.  But over time, making these kinds of small changes can open up space for a more peaceful and joyous Christmas celebration.  My prayer is that I, too, can slow down and really embrace Christmas this year, and make it truly a celebration of the God who “cast down the mighty from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly,” the celebration of a child born in a stable and laid in a manger.
          Gracious God, when we feel overwhelmed by pressures to shop, decorate, bake, and cook, help us to find the true joy in Christmas.  When money dwindles and expectations increase, help us to find the true grace in Christmas.  When our calendars fill up and our patience runs down, help us to find the true abundance in Christmas.  Help us to experience and celebrate a Christmas that holds a place for Christ’s promise of authentic joy and peace for all.


Some Simple Ideas for Simpler Living
Cathedral parishioners share their ideas for keeping it simple
Elizabeth Falzone:  “In the past I’ve been prone to depression around the holidays.  We’re bombarded with so much, it can overwhelm us.  The commercialism is just nasty sometimes, and sometimes it’s made me nasty.  My advice is to take some breathing space.  Am I shopping more than I’m praying?  If so, there’s something wrong.  I keep telling myself slow down, pray more, shop less.”
Marcia Ditter:  “I have six little godchildren.  I learned a great tip from their mother.  She keeps an eye out for Christmas presents all year round, and finishes her Christmas shopping by October.  That way both she and the children can really enjoy the season.  So I follow her example, buy them presents during the summer months, and ship them off to her.”
Suzanne Lescantz:  “I remember when my children were little.  Christmas was—pardon the expression—hell!  The only prayer I would say was, Lord, help me to get through this!  Now, I find I can focus on the things I really want to do… not just everything I think I should do.  It helps that the whole family has come to an agreement about Christmas gifts.  We do an exchange of books, and not just any books!  They’re used books and there’s a cap of $7 apiece!  It’s OK to be lavish and spend money on those we love.  But why do it only at Christmas?”
Derek Eisel:  “I’ve been trying to eliminate the shoulds from my life.  I realized that this Christmas what I need most is quiet time during those four days off.  I want to go to Mass at Christmas.  This means not going to California to be with family.  It’s a tough decision to make.”
Reeny Olsen:  “Growing up, our kids got three gifts.  Just three.  What was good enough for Jesus, was good enough for them.”


Patty Bowman is the Director of Outreach at St. James Cathedral.

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