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Orlando Sentinel: How to Simplify Your Christmas Season, and Be Happier For It

By Darryl E. Owens. This post originally appeared in Orlando Sentinel on November 23, 2012.

Days before Americans carved up their turkeys (or tofurky, as the case may be), the media was brimming with reports of bargain-hunters looking to get a jump on Black Friday shopping.

People ditched work and pitched tents outside electronics stores to be among the first to dash inside and snatch up some bargain-priced big-ticket item, unless the store ran out first.

Some participants called these commercialized campouts "fun." In some cases, families crowded into these tents for what they described as (get this) family bonding.

I enjoy a bargain as much as the next fella. But let's not delude ourselves into spinning our annual surrender to holiday commercialism into a Waltons moment.

Not that you can really blame the Black Friday campers. Or the waves of shoppers who'll pack the malls until the 11th hour seeking the perfect gift — in which the recipient soon will lose interest or take for granted.

We're all suckers for allure.

And during Christmas season, we're especially vulnerable to sleighsful of promises. The promise of perfection. Perfect Christmas parties. Perfect gifts. Perfect meals. Perfect Hallmark moments. Promises that always go unfulfilled.

Yet, every year, we give it another shot. "The Christmas Machine has power over us because it knows how to woo us; it speaks to the deepest, profoundest and most sacred desires of the human heart," write the authors of "Unplug the Christmas Machine."

"Commercial messages of Christmas appear as promises that bring tears to our eyes."

Tears of a different sort well up when things, again, don't pan out. Chin up: there's always next year.

Funny thing is, many of us say want off the wild holiday ride. The Center for a New American Dream recently found that 70 percent of Americans surveyed were tired of the stress and tired of emptying their wallets. Yet, many of us still reject the simplicity of a movement that promotes better balance, spirituality and less stress over the barrenness of overconsumption.

Yet, what ought to be a particularly compelling message at this time of year often is strangled in garland and blinded by Christmas light displays.

So maybe you're fed up with the headaches. Maybe you're keen for a little simplicity. But maybe you're short of ideas to help focus on giving things of lasting value — such as time and talent — and not just stuff.

Well, the Center for a New American Dream has a few ideas:

  • Give the gift of time by making a custom gift card for a service (babysitting, car washing, pet sitting, chores, fixing dinner, etc).
  • Share a skill. If you can knit, offer to teach someone. Same if you play a mean banjo, pick hot stocks, or whip up gourmet meals.
  • Consider shopping for used items for gifts.
  • Give back to your community. Put together care packages for the homeless, or donate time to your favorite nonprofit.
  • Cap family holiday spending at $100. Journalist Bill McKibben, author of "The End of Nature," says this limit forces families to be resourceful about their gifts and spending.
  • Consider alternative gift-giving. For roughly what you might spend on a new video game, you could educate a child for a year in some remote parts of the world. That's just one of the many alternative gifts to consider at World Concerns global gift guide. Or, for what you might spend on an iPad mini, you can defray the cost of a deep well to provide children drinkable water. You can give similar gifts of education and food at Alternative Gifts International.

These are just a few ideas. I'm sure families who commit to unplugging the Christmas machine can, as a family, come up with others.

Consider it family bonding (no tent required).

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