Less Stuff, Live More, Find JOY. It’s the tagline of Iowa Interfaith Power & Light’s program, The Good Life Redefined. It becomes all the more meaningful at the holidays when we are buried in stuff and yearning for JOY.

I tried out an idea on my family years ago to try to cultivate more joy at the holidays with less focus on stuff, and it has had a positive impact. I decided to try limiting our expenditures to $100 for the holidays. Ok, not exactly $100, but we cut way back, and we got a lot more out of our time together.

This is the idea of the Hundred Dollar Holiday, a book by Bill McKibben, climate educator and activist who first brought climate change to the general public with his book The End of Nature. Initially the idea grew out of concern for how unbridled consumerism is destroying our environment and the resulting change to our climate harms the most vulnerable among us. But it grew into something more – the search for joy.

McKibben is also a Methodist Sunday School teacher and was feeling cheated of the joy of the season, “We were Christians, and we felt that the story of the birth of this small baby who would become our Savior, a story that should be full of giddy joy, could hardly break through to our hearts amid all the rush and fuss of the season. And many of our friends, Christian or not, felt that too much of the chance for family togetherness was being robbed by the pressures of Christmas busyness and the tensions of gift-giving.”

Hundred Dollar Holiday proposes that we spend no more than $100 on Christmas. Many have found limiting the amount of money they spend at Christmas is a spur to their creativity, and an anchor against the siren call of the market that says it’s only Christmas if it comes from a store. The actual amount is arbitrary, but the idea is to limit your spending, don’t go into debt; focus on relationships instead.

McKibben traces the history of the store-bought Christmas and how out of tune it is with our current lives, when we really desire time with our families, community involvement, and contact with the natural world. The book offers thoughtful new forms of celebration that return us to a simpler and more enjoyable holiday.

I first read Bill’s book when my children were ages 5, 12, and 14. It changed the way I viewed the holidays and has made them more meaningful and joyful. If I made the switch with two teenage girls – you can do it too!

The limit really did spur creativity – if we wanted to limit our spending, how would we celebrate, how would we show our love to one another at Christmas?

We spent more time on the story of Christmas for starters. I have a small collection of beautiful Christmas picture books that I read to the girls every year. We had a nativity set and the girls would place Mary and Joseph and the donkey at the far end of the house, and through Advent would gradually move the figures to the little barn. On Christmas morning they would wake to discover Jesus in the manger and angels on the roof of the stable. Then the journey of the magi began in the same manner with the girls moving the 3 kings and the camel each day until waking on January 6, Epiphany, to find them in stable. Even the teenagers remember this fondly.

And our gifting practices changed.

We decided to give gifts of experience, such as tickets to a performance – one year it was the touring Chinese circus.

We made things for each other – bracelets, candy, pillowcases, rice-filled bags to heat in the microwave to warm our toes in bed, small paintings, knitted scarves. This year I’ve been asked to help build an indoor cat tree from tree branches!

We also exchanged gifts of service using homemade coupons. I offered mending or sewing services or lessons, my daughters offered technology assistance, baking, or musical concerts of their own.

Download our coupon book from The Good Life Redefined program for your holiday service exchanges.

Another new practice was helping the girls find a cause to donate to, and giving them the money to donate on behalf of the family. One daughter chose the Snow Leopard Foundation, another Heifer International, another Sari Bari, helping women in India get off the street through employment with a company that recycles saris.

With our free time we’d go outdoors. Tromping through the snowy woods, sledding, snowshoeing, or skating on the outdoor rink. You can tell by the lead photo that we still love to skate together today! Some of our favorite memories are of building snow sculptures together in the yard. Like the huge elephant the year my eldest daughter was in India.

These practices helped us spend more quality time with one another, offered us an opportunity to appreciate each other’s talents, and added meaning to the holiday.

10 Ideas to Get You Started

Think back – what did you like about the way you celebrated last year, what added to your sense of joy and peace, and what would you like to change?

Do it gradually. It’s hard to go from a very elaborate holiday one year to a very simple one the next.  $100 may be too stringent. Remember how much you spent last year? Consider reducing the amount this year. Or draw names to reduce the number of people you buy for.

Prepare your family ahead of time for the changes you’d like to make by telling them why you want to make the change and why it will make the holidays more enjoyable. It doesn’t mean you love them less, in fact simplifying the holidays will allow you to show each other more love.

Watch this 2-minute video, Happiness, together with your family to get the point across.

Ask your family for ideas for creating more meaning with less stuff. That way they will have more ownership in the change.

Food gifts are always good, nothing to store away later. And nothing says love louder than a homemade food gift.

What about Santa Closet? That’s when my mother finds things in her house of family significance that she is willing to part with and pass on to the next generation. She brought a huge smile to my cousin’s face when she gave her a necklace her deceased mother had given to my mother long ago.

Make it last. Plan to extend the celebration beyond eating and gift giving. What else can you do together to celebrate? How about an annual post Christmas dinner walk? Caroling to the neighbors – yes on Christmas day! A game of charades by the tree? Reading a special Christmas story? Even adults like Christmas picture books if they are good ones. Try The Year of the Perfect Christmas Tree, illustrated by Barbara Cooney. It’s an Appalachian story about a family that provides the perfect Christmas tree for the village church in the years of WWI. Tell your own family stories!

What about the animals? Put your real tree in the yard after Christmas and hang it with homemade bird feeders like pinecones rolled in peanut butter and birdseed, and orange slices for the cardinals.

Pay it Forward. How can you give back to your community? Meals on Wheels at Christmas? Community meals? What special interest do members of your family have? Veterans? Animal shelter? Serving others in need – in person – is a great way to gain perspective.

The best steps are the ones that bring you JOY. This is about improving our quality of life, and actually improving the quality of life of those suffering from climate change around the world as we make choices that are easier on the planet. It’s a win-win.

What we want at the holidays is to be connected – with our families and friends, with our community, with the natural world, and to God, as you know God. We want to feel the blessed silence and peace that the season should offer.

As we experience greater meaning through these connections, we will feel less need to buy too many things.

So let’s make the choices that connect us with what matters. A great bonus is that it’s easier on the planet as well.

Sarah Paulos, Program and Outreach Coordinator for Iowa IPL.

Oh yes, and consider bringing The Good Life Redefined to your community. Contact Sarah at programs@iowaipl.org