The Common Good
December 2007

A Simple Christmas

by Amy Ard | December 2007

Learning something new by buying nothing new.

In the past, the bulk of my Christmas shopping has usually been done between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. on Christmas Eve. There’s something about waking up on the day before Christmas in a sheer panic that propels me straight into the open arms of every electronics, sporting goods, and department store within a 10-mile radius. While my family spends the morning sipping coffee, making red velvet cake, and cutting intricate little gift tags, I’ve spent the day with folks I’ve come to recognize as my extended family—a dysfunctional, wild-eyed bunch with a procrastination problem.

This year, however, will be different. Last January my husband and I embarked on an adventure inspired by newspaper coverage of the Buy-Nothing-New Year covenant groups forming across the country. Together with a few friends from work, we agreed to spend an entire year living more simply by not buying anything new, with exceptions made for consumables (food, toilet paper, etc.), replacement parts such as water filters, and intangible services such as a night at the theater. We’ve found the best thrift stores, traded items with friends, and managed to give birth to our first child without ever stepping foot in a Babies “R” Us.

I’ve never been particularly good at sticking to spiritual disciplines, but I’ve come to recognize this year of living simply as a kind of living prayer. When I toss the catalogs that inevitably appear in my mailbox into the recycle bin, I feel spiritually liberated. I’ve come to cherish the feeling of having enough, of not needing or wanting more stuff.

But my spiritual journey met a serious roadblock when it came time to think about what other people might expect from me at Christmas. Just because I had stopped buying new things didn’t mean that the rest of my friends and family would be thrilled to receive thrift-store hand-me-downs. In the back of my mind, December loomed large.

IN MARCH I really started to worry. If I was going to take up a craft, like knitting, I needed to learn pretty fast in order to make everyone a sweater in time. But I’ve never been a very artsy person. So in September, two hours into a 10-hour road trip, I told my husband we needed to get serious about the Christmas gift situation. Without the safety net of department stores and their aisles of over-packaged goods, I was at a total loss for how to manage.

We spent the next few hours making our way through the list of people close to us. We talked about the things they like to do in their spare time: My brother loves going to see plays in Atlanta; Michael’s sister is an avid underwater photographer. These conversations led us to talk about the kind of people they are. For example, I love my brother’s comedic timing and his ability to create characters that entertain us all. As Christa’s photographs reflect, she is passionate about animals and protecting their environment. I was shocked at how easy it was to think of gifts for everyone—theater tickets, yoga classes, antique photographs, gift certificates to a local farmers’ market—gifts that actually fit their interests and personalities, without requiring a trip to any big-box store.

My gifts this year won’t be extravagant. For the first time in many years, however, they will be purchased used (or traded, made, or cooked) before Dec. 24. I hope that each one will reflect the time I’ve spent thinking about each person and the qualities in them that are so inspiring. On Christmas Eve I’ll wake up, sip some coffee with my baby on my knee, and say a little prayer for my extended “family” out panicking at the malls. Later that evening, as I stand and sing “silent night, holy night,” I’ll be free from the distraction of gifts still to wrap—and the words “all is calm” will take on a whole new meaning.

Amy Ard, a former Sojourners organizer, lives in Atlanta, Georgia, with her 5-month-old daughter and husband.

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