Once again, the joys of the holiday season approach, but so do the downsides: excessive materialism; overspending, often on junk; spiritual themes lost in the rush for more, more, more; expense as the measure of worth and love; obscenely large piles of presents, when a billion people in the world live on $1 day. When the holidays are over, we often experience the annual materialism hangover, when the floor is covered with wadded wrapping paper and ripped-open boxes and we say to ourselves, "How come every year we vow to remember the things that really matter and every year the holidays end up being about money and possessions?"

Practically everyone agrees there is too much materialism associated with the holidays. The question is--what to do about it?

Some respond to this excess materialism by urging boycotts. Shun the malls! Don't pick up the phone! Don't buy anything! Others scold us for wanting presents and parties. The thoughtful writer Bill McKibben devoted an entire book, "Hundred-Dollar Holiday," urging people to stop exchanging Christmas gifts and to simplify the holiday. McKibben, a Christian, contends his family never spends more than $100 total on all aspects of Christmas. No wadded wrapping paper on the floor of the McKibben house.

But appeals to complete self-denial are just wasted energy; we might as well be exhorted to stop breathing in order to conserve oxygen. There is no chance people will renounce holiday materialism in its entirety. Human beings like going to parties and getting presents; for children, gifts make the holiday season magical. We don't need to renounce the material--just get it back into perspective.

The challenge is to find balance, to have some materialism but not too much, to have gifts and parties but celebrate the spiritual as well, to remember the less fortunate.

How to achieve such balance? Suppose there were a simple way to split it down the middle. Let's call it the Half and Half Holiday.

Here's the basic principle of the Half and Half Holiday: Spend as much on presents and parties as you like, but for every dollar spent in that category, give away one dollar to charity, church, or the poor.

For a wealthy person, adopting the Half and Half principle might not cut into the holiday extravaganza effect--the wealthy can simply spend more--but would be a powerful reminder of the obligation to give to others. For the typical person who can't spend more money during the holiday season, adopting the Half and Half Holiday principle inevitably would reduce the size of the gift pile. But while the joy of giving presents to family and friends wouldn't be eliminated completely, the good feeling of giving to others in need would be added.

One beauty of the Half and Half Holiday idea is that it recognizes the fact that people will always desire presents and parties. You can spend as much on the holidays as you can or want to, as long as you give away an equivalent amount. Had a good year? Great! Go ahead and celebrate, just add altruism to the celebration.

Another beauty of the Half and Half Holiday idea is that it provides a structure to help resist runaway materialism. Many families annually vow not to go overboard on holiday excess, but often a spending arms-race develops, in which each person feels pressured to outdo the next, and the plan falters. If a family could agree to participate in the Half and Half Holiday, the pressure instead would be to resist too much materialism, while time would be freed up for the spiritual aspects of the holidays.

The most important beauty of the Half and Half Holiday idea is that, by causing us to make significant gifts to others less fortunate, it would enable us truly to enjoy the material aspects of the holidays rather than feel stupefied by them.

In the years since holiday overkill has become the norm, how many have sat looking at piles of hundreds or thousands of dollars worth of presents and privately felt guilty about such indulgence, wishing they'd spent a little less on gifts while giving a little more away? The Half and Half Holiday would vanquish holiday guilt. We could feel completely happy about everything we receive, knowing that we had given to the less fortunate in the process. Wouldn't you be willing to cut back a bit on presents and shopping if in return the spiritual meaning of the holidays was re-emphasized while the satisfaction of helping others was added to your bounty?

That's all the Half and Half Holiday idea promises. Why not try it?

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