The Common Good
January-February 1998

The Twelve Months of Christmas

by Bob Hulteen | January-February 1998

Did you survive the holidays?

Did you survive the holidays? What a sad commentary on our society that we take a sacred season—well, it’s secular too—and reduce the goal to "getting through it." A season which, at its best, emphasizes the Word incarnate has come to represent a world in chaos. The December Christian holiday is out of control.

Some folks, of course, like it that way. Frenzied people buy in a hectic way; I’ve purchased last-minute gifts that I—the "King of Stinge"—would never consider purchasing in an "ordinary time." Most of the current celebration is not as much about peace on earth as pace of purchase.

Now, most of us know it doesn’t need to be this way. But we need help to stop ourselves. Don’t worry, friends, we are not alone; people who reflect on this year-round are willing to offer us insight and suggestions.

Alternatives for Simple Living was founded by Bob Kochtitsky in the spring of 1973 in Jackson, Mississippi, as a protest to the commercialization of Christmas. Its mission is to "equip people of faith to challenge consumerism, live justly, and celebrate responsibly," according to current director, Gerald Iverson.

The first fruit of Alternatives was the Alternative Christmas Catalogue, released in October of its first year. Alternatives appealed initially to United Methodists, soon spreading to other mainline Protestants. A thrust into Catholic parishes followed. And, more recently, evangelicals seem to be discovering Alternatives, realizing that "putting Christ back into Christmas" means more than going back to 1950s America.

Twenty-five years after its founding, Alternatives is probably best known for its Whose Birthday Is It, Anyway?, now in its 10th year, a booklet with versions geared for 25 different groups or denominations. Whose Birthday now has an annual print run of 150,000.

Other quality resources produced by Alternatives include:

Stories and Songs of Simple Living

(a book and a cassette), offerings by 10 popular storytellers and folk singers from various ethnic backgrounds; Sing Justice! Do Justice!, the five winning entries and several honorable mentions from an international contest co-sponsored by Alternatives and The Hymn Society in the United States and Canada; The Simpler Living Alternatives Calendar for Any Year, a reusable calendar with helpful resources for each day; The Alternative Wedding Book, a collection of articles and checklists for planning a simplified wedding; and the Leader’s Guide to the Unplug the Christmas Machine Workshop, a manual for group facilitation about appropriate holiday spirituality.

Of special interest for those planning for holiday celebrations are Simplify and Celebrate: Embracing the Soul of Christmas and Let’s Talk About Christmas Day. The former is a collection of suggestions about how to plan ahead in order to live out the values of Christmas throughout the season. The latter is an invaluable four-page worksheet that can help in this process. Let’s Talk, in addition to suggesting further resources, helps any family or celebrating group to discuss and plan issues around holiday travel, decorations, gifts, activities, and entertainment.

THE 25TH ANNIVERSARY celebration for Alternatives is an opportunity for the staff to look toward the future more than the past. Their five-year organizational plan includes the continued publication of resources and books, development of a SLO (read "slow") Network (an organized group of volunteer motivational speakers, workshop leaders, and event organizers), and the launching of an "alternative support" group, for the many people who feel quite alone. This could take the form of study circles or groups for corresponding, either by regular mail or e-mail.

On March 21, 1998, Alternatives members will celebrate the offical "birthday" of the organization in Sioux City, Iowa, its relatively new homebase. Members will hold block parties and suppers throughout the country for all those interested in helping with the celebration. By the end of the year, Alternatives will draw on the experiences of the year to develop a resource about "how to celebrate every day."

Alternatives is ahead of a curve. Many people are seeking deeper experiences through changes in their lifestyles. Increasingly, people are expressing a sense that America’s consumerism is insatiable but unfulfilling.

Simplicity is indeed a hot secular topic, agrees Iverson, but he believes that Christians offer a unique perspective. "Secular books stress simplicity for reasons of personal happiness, which is fine; Christians value the connectedness to the world, out of a sense of discipleship. If we are more responsible, it will have a positive effect on the world, ourselves, and our relationship to God."

Discipleship is a central tenet for the folks at Alternatives. "Discipleship, or a life of integrity, is a lifestyle issue," Iverson adds. "Others’ poverty, if not caused by our extravagance, is complicated by our extravagance."

As followers of Jesus, it’s nice to know we have Alternatives.

Alternatives for Simple Living, P.O. Box 2857, Sioux City, IA 51106-0857; 1-800-821-6153.

Simplify and Celebrate: Embracing the Soul of Christmas is available from Amazon.com

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