To give Bill McKibben his due, let's admit the obvious. Christmas is too commercial. Depressingly so, in fact. A good number of us don't go to church on Christmas Day, and an even greater number of us are too lazy, too cheap or too estranged from our family members to buy, much less make, thoughtful presents for them. A lot of us just throw checks at each other to assuage our consciences. We're hopelessly hard-hearted, really, and McKibben is right to point it out, even though we, as a culture, know this too well already. But before we go giving McKibben too much credit, let's look a little closer at his self-trumpeting example.
If you know anything about McKibben's publisher, that paradigmatic corporate behemoth Simon & Schuster, you know that "Hundred Dollar Holiday" is the kind of leaflet -- at 96 pages, it can't rightly be called a book -- that their sales force positively cooed over. It's money for nothing, fluff in a brown paper bag. It's worldly wisdom whittled down to the size and scope of a Zagat's for Wilmington, Del. It's a cash grab Christmas "book" that, irony of all ironies, subtlety of all subtleties, tells you not to spend so much money on Christmas. Is this marketing cynicism at its worst and cleverest, or is this boardroom cupidity rising to new heights?
If McKibben really means what he says in "Hundred Dollar Holiday" -- that the real grinches of our culture are not well-meaning, cushy ascetics like him, but "those relentless commercial forces who have spent more than a century trying to convince us that Christmas does come from a store" -- then what is he doing publishing at Simon & Schuster, which, in the publishing world, at least, is surely one of the best examples of commercial force around? What's more, Simon & Schuster stays afloat largely by how much it sells at Christmas time. It subsists on the profits it makes on insipid Christmas gift books that nobody needs, books like "Hundred Dollar Holiday." Yet McKibben remains willfully blind to this whopping contradiction. So much so that he even makes a euphemistic sales pitch for his non-book in the very pages of the thing itself: "So you may want to loan people your copy of this book as a way of trying to enlist them in your plans for a merrier Christmas."
Later, in a more direct attempt to justify himself, McKibben tries to preemptively answer his critics -- notable among them has become Margaret Talbot, who took him to task in the New Republic a few months ago for his shallow moralizing. Talbot reminded us that by advising consumers not to spend so much on Christmas, McKibben is tinkering with economic realities he either doesn't understand or fails to address. It sounds good to preach about the warm and fuzzy meaning of Christmas, but, as Talbot argues, spending less in December would leave a great many people out in the cold: "I would like to know ... what McKibben has to say about the jobs that would be lost -- starting with minimum wage retail positions -- if all of the privileged Americans at whom his exhortations are directed quit throwing their money around at Christmas." McKibben's response? "Change in Christmas traditions will come slowly enough that most retailers will be able to adapt." Is this McKibben the armchair economist speaking, or McKibben the happy-go-lucky social reformer? It's hard to know which is worse. The fact is, shops would founder if they lost their December income, and the economy would likewise falter, creating greater hardship for everyone, especially the poorest of the poor.
In "Hundred Dollar Holiday," McKibben is selling us a ruse of rectitude, not the real thing. Consider his ultimate justification for not spending money at Christmas: "Perhaps you're simply squirreling [your unspent Christmas money] away in the bank -- which is precisely what economists are always telling us we need to do in order to boost productivity and reverse our lagging savings rate." Ah, so perhaps that $100 isn't being saved for a holier Christmas Day at the homeless shelter (as McKibben suggested it might be earlier in the book), but for a happier rainy day back at the family ranch. Maybe McKibben's book should have been called "Putting the 'No' Back in Noel: How to Stiff Your Relatives at Christmas and Convince Them You're a Better Person for it." Do yourself and the economy a big favor this Christmas. Take a leaf from McKibben's jeremiad, and don't buy his book.