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The circle of life it isn’t, yet here we are come ’round again to stare down the maw of a new holiday season. The scramble is on to wrap up the hottest toy, the latest video game, the newest gadget before the big day. I know what you’re thinking. There’s got to be a better way. Luckily, there is.

But first, this commercial message: the exploitation of the season of peace and joy for retail fun and manufacturer profit is virtually complete. The ads arrive during back-to-school sales. Christmas displays fight Halloween masks for shelf space. And Black Friday riots now start while you’re still pouring gravy. By the time it wraps up, we parents are as frayed as old ribbons from trying to wrestle another over-manic, under-financed holiday season without turning into a weeping heap of bah-humbug.

How did things get so out of whack? There’s not enough ink on the internet to explore that Pandora’s holiday box, but this I can say: Though it may seem like a big tree to trim in a world that constantly plants materialistic expectations in our kids’ heads, we can get off the season’s less-than-merry-go-round and restore the sanity clause to our year-end celebrations.

Here’s some advice on bringing home true holiday spirit while avoiding a starring role the chapter of your child’s autobiography entitled “Worst Christmas Ever:”

  • Have some casual family discussions about the real meaning of the season and getting get back to this better way because it’s just more fun. Make these conversations not about getting less but about having more.
  • Supervise the TV. It’s one of the season’s biggest pressure points. Mute the commercials and distract kids whenever they run.
  • Explain that there are a lot of people less lucky than your family, and that the holidays are a time to help them. (And make sure Santa doesn’t have to work as hard providing all that food, clothing, and shelter!)
  • Manage expectations. Let kids know beforehand how much they’ll find under the decorative seasonal symbol of your family’s choice. Keep it casual. Explain that Santa is simply setting limits because there are so many kids these days. Make a game out of challenging your own to think carefully about what they really want.
  • Emphasize doing and being not getting and having. Focus on spending time together making gifts for others. Fill your a calendar with fun seasonal events. If you have more than one kid, make room for individual activities with each.
  • Give new experiences not new stuff. It can be as simple as eating at a special new-to-you restaurant or as crazy as a surprise local or long-distance trip. Cook special things. Bring home a board game. Have a movie night with all the trimmings. Host a carol-filled backyard bonfire. Fill the season with things you don’t normally do, and it’ll never feel empty.
  • Volunteer. Food shelf, homeless shelter, hospital ward, senior center. It doesn’t matter. Volunteer multiple times and turn this spirit of giving into a repeating theme. Remember that the holidays are a key time to emphasize your family’s belief systems, share time together, and build traditions. Combine these with some community work to cement it all together.
  • Have an exchange with friends and family. Everyone brings something. Make a pile. Take turns taking picks and making trades. Could be a cookie trade, a Yankee swap, a book exchange, or anything else. The point is the fun you’ll have doing it!

Ideas like these can go a long way toward creating the kind of cheer they’ll remember for all the right reasons. Will they completely de-commercialize your season? Probably not—this is one holiday from which few escape totally unscathed—but do enough like them and they’ll they shift the emphasis back to better things. And that’s the kind of gift we all should give.

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The Inkslinger has written about environmental issues for over 20 years and is a freelance writer for some of America's most iconoclastic companies and non-profits. His true loves include nature, music of the Americana/rock and roll variety, interior design, books, old things, good stories, pagan rituals, and his wife of 24 years, with whom he lives in an undisclosed chemical-free rural Vermont location along with his teenage daughter and two infinitely hilarious Australian shepherds!

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