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Alternative to traditional Christmas celebration

Berkeley Parents Network > Advice > Holidays and Special Events > Alternative to traditional Christmas celebration


December 2004

We need help! My husband gets very anxious and unhappy around Christmas. He grew up Catholic, and it didn't agree with him (his experience of it was mostly judgment and guilt). So in his mind Christmas is utter hypocrisy (e.g. it is all about materialism...and he also believes that people are ''good'' to other people at Christmas as an attempt to make themselves feel better about the fact that they do not act charitably, or treat others with forgiveness, during most of the year.). He is also an environmentalist, and so he has decided that it is an abomination to cut down a tree to decorate. So here is my problem -- I LOVE Christmas. I love the music, the tree, the decorations, the lights, the rituals, the anticipation, the whole thing. I grew up with no religion and a very unceremonial and independent family -- Christmas was the BEST time of year for me because we have always honored it as a special family time, and we decorated, and sang, and focused on each other and loved each other.

My husband and I now have a 1-1/2 yr old son. And we are trying to figure out a way to honor both of our feelings re the holidays, as well as navigate our son through all this. What we agreed is that we would try to create some NEW RITUALS that are meaningful to us both, that can help us reflect on our shared values. I thought maybe there would be many of you out there that have untraditional Christmas celebrations and rituals. Could you share them with me? We would like to focus on the fact that god (and santa) loves *everyone* (i.e. we don't like the idea that santa doesn't bring presents to ''bad'' kids, especially given how many families struggle with the price of presents at Christmas). We also want to express that community with your family, neighbors, and friends is an essential component to living happily on this earth. And the best of what Jesus had to teach us: forgive others, have compassion. But lastly, we want to have FUN (have silliness, decorations, sing songs, anticipation, etc). Don't want it to be a solely earnest and serious event -- especially with a toddler! Also, as far as I can tell the tree is still a no-man's land ... so any ideas for substitutes for that?
Your help will be the best Christmas gift ever!


As a recovering Catholic myself, I don't share your husband's deep aversions to the traditional religious Christmas elements, but I have certainly done my own picking and choosing among both religious and commercial traditions. Out: Mass, going caroling, certain religious carols, big tree, heaps of gifts, sitting on Santa's lap at a store. In: Advent wreath, nativity set, cookie baking & decoration, certain religious carols. New family traditions: putting shoes out for St. Nicholas Day on Dec 6th, small tree, decorating little gingerbread houses (either a kit or graham crackers), white house lights, secular songs. I would ask your husband to consider the deep-rooted human tradition of celebrating light at this darkest time of year, the winter solstice. I can't think of a holiday more profoundly connected to the rhythms of the earth. Perhaps the two of you can meet halfway. You can identify the elements you enjoy - song, anticipated fun events, light - and he can contribute some creative thought about how to express his environmental/simplicity beliefs. Read up a bit on customs from around the world. How about cutting evergreen boughs to scent the house, and decorating a tree outdoors with birdseed ornaments and popcorn strings? Participating in a migration count (raptors in Marin, Monarch butterflies, etc). Going for a Christmas dawn walk in Tilden - the same walk every year. Cooking special project-foods, like shaped sugar cookies. There are so many sweet, simple, wonderful activities to celebrate this time of year. Rachel
Christmas is one of those holidays that really have become extremely commercial, and I think more and more people are feeling the need to ''pull back''. If I were you, I'd write down the feelings that you really like with Christmas (ie, family, helping others, celebration, etc) and try to do things that focus on that instead of the shopping, gifts, guilty feelings etc.

Quick aside, a few years ago, my DH and I were both out of work and I told everyone I knew that we would not be able to give gifts at all. And, instead of feeling ashamed, we found it to be the best holiday ever. I made cookies, we visited people, and others felt the ''relief'' of not going shopping for us. I am 8 months preggo now and don't want my baby to think of Christmas as a ''gimme gimme'' gift receiving line. Here are some ideas I had for us to do:

1) regarding the tree: either to buy a potted one and decorate with homemade cookie ornaments/craft paper designs, or do a tree watching event, like the really nice tree by Pier 39 etc. I like potted trees because we have a nice backyard and my husband loves to garden. It's a win-win for us to replant the tree. 2) singing songs at church at the nearby nursing homes. ALthough I can't sing well, I have a nice smiley face which can bring cheer to people.

3) participating in some homeless shelter event (giving food, or giving coats-- there are lots of these organizations around). I often think, there but for the grace of God, go I.

4) writing a letter to special people saying how much we love them. That would be our gift to them, along with some quality time. Does anyone really NEED another Old Navy sweater?

5) participating in a holiday giving tree. We have this at church and at our office, where you get an ornament that has the age/gift that a child needs and you give them a wrapped gift. It could be fun to decorate and make the present special to someone you will never see. A true secret santa.

I really want our child to be less materialistic. I'm going to set a rule that when he receives a toy, he must donate one too, so he doesn't have too many of them. Our nephews have so many, it's literally overwhelming.

As for what you love, go to the Oakland Zoo's light show, or drive around the neighborhood to look at lighted homes. Spend time with your babies cooking and baking, cuddle up and watch some Christmas videos. If you start now when your child is young you can avoid a lot of the mess. See if you can get friends/family involved by having them give less toys and maybe do other things. This is a toughie as my FIL is all about going bankrupt during Christmas. He thinks the more the better, but he's slowly changing too.

Now that I'm expecting it gives even more meaning to Christmas for me. I'm Catholic and think about Mary, being so pregnant, having to travel so far and then being scared, giving birth in the manger. It makes me realize what a special time this is, and how it's all about slowing down and valuing each other, giving back to the community, helping out.

It can be done-- but you have to work at it. But, honestly I haven't been to a single mall at all. I bought a few books/things online for family. we have a ton of babies this year (most a little over a year old) and we are going to record books on tape for them, with the book as our gift. We figure since we don't get to see everyone as often, they can play the tape (or CD) and flip through the book. I'm giving memory books to my in-laws and my parents which is really a present for them to my baby.

Good luck! I am sure you will be able to gather the true Christmas spirit. Janki


My husband is Mexican Catholic and loves Christmas and the input of God wherever he can (crucifix goes up, religious candles get put out, etc). I grew up casual Catholic and my version is of fun, decorations, baking, family, etc. & would be ok with no God figurines in our house.

This year our son is 18 months old and we also knew that we would not be able to have a live tree inside the house & will not be able to put gifts out until Santa comes.

We bought a live tree in a pot, put it on the little deck outside and we can see it through the french door window. We put outside lights on it with simple red beads for color. We will drag it in through the door on Christmas eve, put the presents around and he can wake up in the morning. After that, we will put it back outside with the idea that we will plant it somewhere in the yard this spring.

As far as the rituals, we are playing christmas music & dancing every day. We went to the mall and saw Santa. We drive around to see the lights. The others, for us, will wait. I limit sugar so baking is not good. Too young to string popcorn. Too young to help wrap presents. Christmas Eve Mass is definitely not going to happen this year. Also, celebrating Hannukah with close friends will mean more to him as he gets older. Also plan to light the Kwanza candles and explain what it is about. We also are really going to stress that receiving a few presents still equals good Christmas.

I'm interested to see the responses and hopefully we all learn new things to do for this time of year. May everyone have a peaceful New Year! DiAnn


Our Christmas isn't 'alternative', per se, but it is one that evolved over the years of our marriage.

Like your husband, my partner did not like Christmas. He associated it with very sad, tough times with his family. He was hard to please: he wanted a lot, but insisted upon being the Grinch the whole time. It was not right. Just when we were starting to get on track with our own family traditions, his family of origin suffered another intense set back, right at Christmas again. He needed to grieve this time of year, for sure, and I let him. For a couple of years. HOWEVER, we came to a point where I told him I was doing all I could do and he was, well, being nasty and ruining my holidays as well. That was not right. He needed to consider that our Christmas was now around our own children, and we needed to work on that. I asked him if he had anything he actually liked about the season. He (carefully and respectfully) said he loved it when I made a couple of big special meals. So I told him we could do that, and I would do so as his major gift, no whining.

We also have also carefully chosen what traditions we want. We watch gift buying with the 'something you want, something you need, something to wear, something to read' adage that I believe I learned on this list. I also want a tree, so my husband is asked/told he is responsible for the ever-stressful moment of getting the tree on the car, in the stand and in a corner of the living room. This, plus the 'allowance' for my need to spend the all that money to send out cards, is his gift to me. Our family tradition is also to go on a long walk on Christmas Eve, where we reflect on how fortunate we are and where we have been in the past year. So I think your answer is figure out a way to make the holiday that is something special to both of you. It took us a long time to get where we are now...and we still have our bad moments and learn something new every holiday season. I just know it ain't right for someone to all the work and have the other person just grouch. We had enough years of that. We now see that, although it is a just a month in the year, we are making major memories for the kids right now; we know this is true because we have them ourselves! I think this in itself points out how we must make the holiday season a series of treasured moments for our family. May not always be the season to be jolly, but it is one to be reverent for the year's blessings. If I can teach

my children that, I feel like I have given them a tremendous gift. Good luck to you and yours and Happy Holidays. CJP


We've been using a live juniper tree that is about 5 feet tall as our Christmas tree for the past four years. It lives in a 4 gallon clay pot and spends 11 months of the year outside. Junipers are very hardy and drought resistant. Spending December indoors hasn't seem to hurt it. It's moved with us 3 times. If you want to keep a live tree in a pot, think bonsai on a larger scale. Syndallas
As a Jew, I don't even celebrate X-mas, but I do like certain aspects of it, especially the tree. As an environmentalist and nature lover I would recommend a living tree that you could then re-plant after. (But be careful if you want to re-plant it out in nature to find a place where that would be legal and even beneficial.) Other traditions I think are fun are singing carols, baking together, and making gifts to give (there are a lot of ideas you can find on the web for nice, easy gifts the whole family can make.) Other traditions in keeping with the season could be: giving to those less fortunate (Toys for Tots, food bank), volunteering, and giving blood. And ask your husband to help think of ways to extend the ''Holiday Spirit'' throughout the year, so he feels less hypocritical. Good luck! --a jew promoting the x-mas spirit!
Regarding the tree issue: How about a live tree? We have a small live tree that lives outside in a pot most of the year and comes in for a couple of weeks at X-mas time. It probably isn't the best two weeks of its life, but at least it seems to survive the ordeal. BTW, my husband and I have the same issues, but in reverse. I'm looking forward to any good advice... -the grinch
It sounds like you already have an idea of what you want, you just need to frame it in a positive way for your family. So, I'm not sure if this will help you, but here's what my family did to avoid the Christmas crazy-ness. My parents established an “alternative” new years celebration that has endured, and my husband and I are likely going to pass on to our (soon to be) family. Basically, we would set up a new years table/area, which we decorated with all sorts of lights, ornaments, tissue paper, you name it. Gifts (small, mostly hand-made) would go under & on the table, and we’d open gifts on new years eve. We also had a fun tradition of lighting 12 candles for each month of the year, sharing stories from the last year, and “blowing the old year out”. Sometimes we’d even light a new year, but not always. Lots of other little family traditions evolved around all this, but that’s the general idea. Many years we'd also invite over close family friends to share the evening with us. Good luck establishing your own tradition! - happy camper witout X-mas
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