That time of year

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It is that time of year again, the time of year when personal finance bloggers trot out the articles about how extraordinarily unwise it is to buy loads of expensive presents on a credit card, and then regret your interest payments in February. When the newspapers run stories about how hard it is for people to put on the lavish family spread this year because of rising prices and shrinking wages. When the simple living bloggers lament the piles of plastic stuff churned out by developing country factories, to have pride of place for a week in December before being chucked in the bin.

I could write that sort of stuff. I won’t write that though, not because I’m above it, just that I had a slightly different idea.

Since I’m expanding my family next year, this year I’m trying to think about what sort of traditions I would like to maintain. If I continue to live abroad over the next few years, I’ll have a lot of freedom to do this for myself (with input from DW, of course). Being so far from family means I’m not necessarily tied to what my family used to do any longer. This is not to say that I didn’t like family Christmas back home, I’m just pointing out that I have perhaps more freedom to make an intentional choice about what holiday traditions I can start in my family without upsetting parents or in-laws.

Since I’m an atheist, I don’t feel any particular attachment to the religious narrative of Christmas. As in some religious stories, there are nice aspects to the tale – particularly relevant at the moment might be the part about finding a way to provide shelter to those in unfortunate circumstances. Even beyond the Jesus stuff though, I don’t feel particularly inclined to go through a charade about Father Christmas (Santa Claus, Père Noël etc.) each year. I don’t really see why telling stories about a man in a red suit coming around to give you presents is a better story than one about spending time with your family and giving gifts of appreciation to each other.

I even find the trappings are a bit hard to swallow. As someone who now needs to be able to pack up all his crap just in case his work visa expires at an inopportune moment, holding a large box of decorations to break out just once a year, which would probably be binned at the next move of residence, just seems wasteful. Here I’m mindful of the cycle of resource -> production -> consumption -> decomposition: while I don’t really have many qualms over the production or consumption of Christmas trivialities, they consume resources unnecessarily and in many cases don’t decompose easily.

Despite all that, I think Christmas is lovely and I’m not so contrarian as to want to abandon it completely or celebrate it in July or whatever the countercultural fashion is. I see no need to excuse myself from culturally-ingrained celebrations due to my lack of faith. I would just like to try to celebrate in a low key way, with minimal gifts and a nice meal together.

As for other traditions, I’d like to start a once-a-year family charity dinner. I’ve always preferred to keep my charitable donations to one-off occurrences rather than monthly donations. I figure that this keeps me thinking about it periodically, and I do change my preferred charity from time to time. For a long time it was Amnesty International, but currently I’m supporting Population Services International. Anyway, I know this may be new-father idealistic, but I would like to try to start a tradition of once a year having a family occasion where all members come together and discuss charity and make a donation. I would like this to embody several good values – such as the obvious one, generosity, but it also brings up a discussion around budgeting (what can you afford to give) and critical thinking, in that everyone should be able to justify choosing one charity over another. As soon as children start receiving pocket money they would be encouraged to contribute not only to the discussion but also financially.

I think that the best traditions are those that encourage thinking about good values and habits – for many traditions, it’s fairly easy to see how this works. For patriotic holidays, it can be a bit more difficult, particularly for those like me who can’t abide by nationalism in most of its forms.* Have any readers started their own family traditions? What’s a quirky tradition your family keeps in order to encourage good values and habits?

*“Patriotism is the belief your country is superior to all other countries because you were born in it.” – George Bernard Shaw

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