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Perhaps it’s time for a more contemplative holiday season.
Perhaps it’s time for a more contemplative holiday season.AFP/Getty Images/file 2013

In conservative circles, Bill McKibben is a foaming-mouthed radical, a climate-change Cassandra who believes being arrested is a reasonable — even necessary — first step in saving the planet. But McKibben’s most subversive ideas are not in his book “Oil and Honey,” a diatribe against carbon emissions and the people who love them, but in a slim volume published 16 years ago.

That book is “Hundred Dollar Holiday,” and it makes no mention of greenhouse gases, the Keystone XL pipeline, or Colony Collapse Disorder. Rather, it is a gentle plea for Americans to back away from the mall. At its core is a message even a Glenn Beck conservative could love: That the holidays no longer work for most of us but instead have become something to dread or mock.

For McKibben — who lives in Vermont but was born and raised in Lexington and was educated at Harvard — the solution is to scale back radically on spending and to recover joy in simple traditions. But this isn’t because decadence and excess is wrong at Christmas, only that it’s wrong for our time. Christmas works only as an island, when it’s different from the rest of the year.


In the 19th century, when many of our ideas about the holidays were first taking hold — thanks to Thomas Nast, Clement C. Moore, and Macy’s (which, McKibben notes, was open until midnight on Christmas Eve as early as 1867) — a Christmas centered around plenty was a welcome respite from a year taut with scarcity. It was commercial, yes, but the focus on gift-giving was preferable to the previous incarnation, which relied too heavily on drunken bawdiness instead of material cheer (which is one reason the celebration of Christmas was illegal in Boston for 22 years in the 1600s).

Now, however, even Americans of modest means are awash in things that were unimaginable luxuries just a century ago — not just thousand-dollar smartphones, but kiwifruit, two for a dollar. Those of us who don’t already have everything we need can find it at the thrift store, for cheap. But, incredibly, the Christmas juggernaut plows on, mercilessly. Walmart, evil genius, is extending Black Friday to five days, even though, for most of us, that emotional motor is long spent.


Not only has Christmas not changed fundamentally in more than a century, but we refuse to let it evolve, believing its power derives from tradition, that nostalgia is a reliable geyser of joy. And it can be — if Nat King Cole and Bing Crosby are temporary visitors, not slackers who move in and refuse to depart for two months. (Lest you think Boston’s two holiday stations are caroling too early, at least they didn’t start in mid-October like a station in New Jersey did.)

In George Orwell’s “Animal Farm,” the stoic, doomed horse Boxer said, “The solution, as I see it, is to work harder.” Similarly, when faced with the looming chore that is Christmas — 38 shopping days, but who’s counting? — many of us perform a desperate Hail Merry, succumbing, Boxer-like, to the promise of greater reward for intensified effort. The solution, as we see it, is more Christmas and a bigger window of time in which to enjoy it. A hundred-day holiday. But, in fact, McKibben is right; Boxer was wrong. The solution — for our time, for most of us — is less.

Of course, McKibben’s stance falls nicely in line with his overall philosophy of consuming — and producing — less of everything; one of his books even encourages people to consider having just one child. Shameless breeders like myself, people who are inclined to worry just as much about the future of capitalism as the ozone, can’t slash our holiday spending to nothing without wondering what it does to the economy any more than we can partake of the Affordable Care Act without worrying about who’s picking up the tab for our colonoscopies. But in the spirit of bipartisan cooperation that is promised — if not actually exhibited — in the wake of the midterm elections, conservatives can share ground with McKibben in his call to a holiday season that is more contemplative, less expensive. At least until the Keystone XL vote.


Jennifer Graham writes regularly for the Globe. Follow her on Twitter @grahamtoday.