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Christmas, revisited

Instead of overspending and overprepping for an often anticlimactic finish, many Canadians are forging alternative holiday traditions

Heather Greenwood Davis and her family on a safari in Namibia over Christmas 2011, the first year they decided to boycott gifts.

It took a bribe to get Doug O’Neill’s nephews to break with tradition the Christmas they hiked 13 kilometres, in pouring rain.

“I was quite blunt,” O’Neill, a Toronto writer, remembers of that day in 2003. “I told them, ‘If you want your Christmas cash you have to go hiking with me for the day. We hiked from Simcoe to Port Dover, at the end of which they got their 50 bucks.”

If you want to spend time with “Uncle Doug” over the holidays, that’s the grit it takes – not passing out in a pile of Ferrero Rocher wrappers. Surprisingly, O’Neill’s nephews and nieces message him on Facebook to this day to get the family outside at Christmas. It’s a foolproof way to combat the gorging, the loafing and the “family combustion” that set in over the holidays, O’Neill says. They now spend every Christmas Eve, Christmas Day or Boxing Day snowshoeing in Ontario’s Wasaga Beach or Collingwood areas, where many of them grew up on farms.

“Outside, there’s a different way of being with each other. When we’re all snowshoeing or hiking single file in the forest, my nieces and nephews tell me stuff that they won’t tell me sitting down face-to-face over coffee,” O’Neill said.

“There’s a connectedness that I’ve not experienced during the typical family gathering. …There’s no talk about Boxing Day shopping and no mention of Christmas gift returns, and the location has nixed any Internet activity.”

Doug O’Neill (in the red hat) and his nieces, nephews and friends, snowshoed at Hardwood Ski, Oro-Medonte, Ont. last Christmas.

O’Neill is one soldier in a small – but highly satisfied – army doing Christmas differently, and he’s onto something. Instead of overspending and overprepping for an often anticlimactic finish, many Canadians are forging alternative holiday traditions.

They head to an empty art gallery to clear their heads on Christmas Eve. They go gift-free and invest time in a family brunch or skate on Christmas Day. Or they ban themselves from Boxing Day shopping to volunteer instead. They aren’t haughty about it, or “anti-Christmas.” It’s not so much an opting-out as an opting-in to something that actually feels good, without the obligation, the stress or the Sisyphean struggle at the mall.

Heather Greenwood Davis and her family first “skipped” Christmas in 2011 when they travelled to Africa: Greenwood Davis wasn’t about to hunt for stocking stuffers in Namibia and so they went gift-free. Her family has instituted a no-gift rule ever since.

“I didn’t like the idea of, ‘Did I spend enough for you?’ or ‘Did you spend too much for me?’ and ‘How are we going to even this out?’ I felt like our priorities were out of whack,” Greenwood Davis, founder of the travel blog Globetrottingmama.com said from Markham, Ont.

Greenwood Davis did worry that her sons Ethan, 14, and Cameron, 12, would feel left out on the first day back at school in January, when kids compare their Christmas-present haul. But she thinks it’s gone over surprisingly well with them.

“My sons just fill in the material things with the experiences. They say, ‘My mom and I went to a farm this year.’ Or, ‘We went bowling,’” she said. “Before, instead of spending a day baking cookies together, I was at the mall fighting people for a sweater for $5 off.”

Heather Greenwood Davis, her sons and their grandmother at Toronto’s Ripley’s Aquarium last holiday season.

Still, when Greenwood Davis wrote about her family’s unconventional Christmas, she got heat from readers who treated it all as a personal affront. “This decision isn’t ‘anti-Christmas,’” she explained on her blog. “It’s pro-us.”

Although my parents never dared to boycott gifts, they introduced one “special” tradition. Every Christmas Eve, my father would drive my brother and me out to a dingy suburban mini-mall for a matinée movie as my mother laboured over dinner. Poles (like us) and other Europeans celebrate Christmas and unwrap gifts on the night of Dec. 24. The matinée a few hours earlier served as a calming technique.

“The presents were already under the tree on the 24th and you just couldn’t handle the pressure waiting. Inevitably fights would erupt,” my Dad texted me when I asked about his motivations. “I actually loved going out and watching kid movies with you on Xmas eve because I always find Christmas to be a very stressful event.”

These years, the kids’ movie is gone but another unique custom persists: our warmest Polish friends host a boozy “open house” on Dec. 25 for anyone who wants to float in for merriment and leftovers.

What people like most about the holidays is time with family and friends, and what they like least are materialism and commercialism, according to a 2013 study from the Pew Research Center, a Washington-based think tank. So why do our values often diverge so greatly from our holiday realities, and why do we make the same mistakes every year?

If you want a Yuletide escape hatch, you need to plan it well, said Carole Slotterback, author of the 2009 book The Psychology of Santa, which traces the history of holiday customs.

“Sit down and talk with your family about what really makes Christmas for them. Then shed the things that aren’t as important to the family,” said Slotterback, a psychology professor at the University of Scranton.

Her own family priorities now include baking cookies for neighbours and tracking Santa on NORAD on Christmas Eve until he hits North America, when it’s time for everyone to go to bed.

For those hoping to opt out of stale traditions and pioneer new ones, planning is one thing, assertiveness another. Toronto psychologist Nicole McCance teaches her clients how to politely say “no” to pushy family members this time of year, and how to keep repeating it. “The first ‘no’ is the hardest,” she said.

McCance sees the same themes giving people grief every Christmas: Family drama, relatives overimbibing at dinner and hosts overinvesting in the perfection myth. The psychologist advocates for “self-care” to combat all this.

“Not too many people slaving over the stove and cleaning the house for Christmas find that too fulfilling,” McCance said. “This is a holiday. It should be a holiday, not pleasing everybody else. Can you take this day to check in with what you want to do, and do it?”

For some people, that means walking away from family and finding peace among strangers. Sarah Jay, an environmentalist and former hairstylist, spent three days last Christmas cutting hair at an abused women’s shelter in Toronto.

“I love the instant gratification of making someone feel really good. It makes me feel good. I need that at Christmas,” said Jay, who watched one woman linger in the mirror after her haircut. “It didn’t even occur to me that in some cases, women were hiding and wanted to change their appearance for safety reasons.”

Jay didn’t volunteer through the holidays to gloat: at the time she didn’t tell anyone what she was up to. She plans on doing it again this year, and advises anyone staring down Christmas alone to shake it up drastically.

“Don’t do the same thing and notice the void. You are free to make it your own,” she said. “Xmas is about shooting an arrow into the heart of what matters.”

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