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An Interview with Jean Coppock Staeheli, the Author of Unplug the Christmas Machine (and my Mother)

By Martha Staeheli, Director, School Mental Health Initiative, New England Mental Health Technology Transfer Center

In the early 1980s, my mother, who comes from a long line of Quakers, became an expert on having a more joyful Christmas. Though she has long since retired from offering advice on the Christmas Machine, I thought it would be fun to ask her how the ideas of joy and connection might apply in our challenging, modern era, whether you celebrate Christmas or not.

Why did you write this book?

I was teaching a class in 1979 at a Catholic college on Simple Living, and at the last session, someone said, “Yeah yeah. This is great, but what about Christmas? Everything goes out the window at Christmas, and nothing can be done about it.” My writing partner and I asked, “Is that really true, that nothing can be done about it?” We started talking to children, psychologists, parents, and churches to explore that question: How can we make Christmas simpler, more joyful, and filled with love?

What is the book’s central message?

Christmas is an excellent opportunity to think about your values and use the elements of Christmas to help you express those values. Instead of thinking of this time as a burden, there are many parts of the season you can tailor to your own needs and your family’s. If your main goal or value is showing kids a good time and having fun, strengthening your relationships, supporting local or folk artisans, or showing off your baking skills, you can do all of that during this time. The book is about reframing this time as something you don’t have to dread; this is an opportunity. The book walks you through that.

What did you learn was important to children?

By interviewing many children of all ages, the most important thing we learned was what was most important to children. If you want to find out what’s important to children during the Christmas season, ask them what they remember about last Christmas. Most children couldn’t tell us what they got as a gift unless it was special to them, but almost always, they talked about their memories—doing things together, laughing and having fun, having special events. What’s vital to children is having relaxed parents, paying attention to them, and focusing on them.

How has what you found in 1979 held up over the last forty years? Is the book still relevant?

Many things have changed, and many things have gotten better, particularly for people outside the dominant American culture. In 1979, simple living and the Simple Living Movement were relatively unknown, but that non-consumerism movement has grown because of the internet. Now, people are familiar with the idea of being mindful consumers or minimalism, which wasn’t the case in 1979. When Jo (Robinson) and I went on the Phil Donohue talk show in 1981, he began the episode by saying, “The American economy is fueled by war and Christmas.”

There are still billions of dollars in the Christmas industry and our larger economy, and overconsumption and debt are still problems. Wanting more is still a problem. If you talk to a group of parents at a school about overconsumption (in shopping, media, technology, etc.), parents agree this is a real problem in their families. None of that was true in 1979, so we developed a process to help you figure out what your values are. That’s still valid and useful today, maybe even more so. We encouraged families to find other ways to celebrate without spending more money than they have.

How is your message relevant to families that don’t celebrate Christmas?

Our second most crucial point in the book is that Christmas is a season and not a day. The excitement about seeing a season unfold is fundamental to this idea of connection. People who are Muslim or Jewish or who don’t celebrate Christmas can still see the season has opportunities for magic, doing things out of the ordinary, and having fun. Most cultures mark the transition into their “winter.”

This message offers a different way (beyond the Christmas holiday) to look at this winter season, when it’s dark and cold, when people are stuck at home or lonely and isolated, or for those who might be struggling with depression or profound challenges or grief. The season is an opportunity for celebration; Christmas might be part of that or not. And that message is the same for teachers and schools, too.

What advice would you give to parents and families struggling now—financially, medically, emotionally—and people who aren’t necessarily joyful about this season?

I think it depends on the child’s age, but as soon as children are old enough to communicate, you can give your child a day on the calendar to say what you/your family are doing that day. The day after that might be Eat as Much Candy as you want Day, and the day after that might be Sleep Anywhere in the House, and then the next day might be Turn out all the Lights and use Candles and play Games Day. It doesn’t matter what you’re choosing as the theme, but giving children a say and a choice will help them feel loved and heard, and it will inject fun and anticipation into this time. They will get to do things they don’t necessarily usually get to do, and it doesn’t have to cost a dime. It could be something simple, like “We’re going to walk around the neighborhood and pretend that we are snow bunnies,” or “find everything that starts with an s.” Using calendars with kids helps create this excitement—your kids will look forward to something, and you will, too. Gifts are important and terrific if you celebrate Christmas, but it’s only one of many days during the Winter Break. You can celebrate every day or do something special every day, and it can be simple and inexpensive.

What’s your favorite part of the Christmas season?

I love the music and the lights. The atmosphere is essential to me. And now that I’m a grandparent, my grandkids’ reactions and happiness are important. In the book, we asked what people found most important during the season. Most people said the same things: the food, the music, the fireplace, seeing people you love, spending time resting, or watching favorite movies. The feelings we associate with this time are critical to pay attention to.

How do we start making things easier for ourselves?

What’s important is asking yourself what your values are, what you do during this time and what you would like to do. Now, create a plan for this season.

If you are overwhelmed about gifts, cutting down on gifts might be the easiest thing, and your family can decide ahead of time and do it together. When you were a kid, we operated on the idea that you get one gift you want, one that’s a surprise, and one that you need.

If scheduling a lot works for you during this time, do that. But if it doesn’t work and you or your family is exhausted, what about cutting down? Schedule fewer activities, skip the cookie exchange and stop what you’re doing by 50%. Almost always, people cut way down on what they’re doing and scheduling and expecting. We’re overwhelmed! Especially now, so do less.

For More Information:

By Jo Robinson and Jean Coppock Staeheli

Published by William Morrow. Originally published in 1979, and revised in 1991.

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