The room is full, a bit cramped, the crowd filling their seats. It’s snowing lightly outside the half-windows behind the stage, just a few flurries coating the sidewalks above this basement. It’s December 2012. The windows weep from the indoor heat. I turn on the microphone and look over the crowd, avoiding eye contact, which’ll just make me more nervous than I already am.
I begin my speech by telling a story about a child on Christmas morning: “Fast forward a few weeks from now, Christmas Day, as little Andy unwraps Optimus Prime. A grin breaks across his features when the large toy lights up and comes to life, flashing and beeping and driving Andy’s parents crazy.
“But in a few moments, Andy discards the toy and begins unwrapping the rest of his presents, extracting each box from under the tree, one by one—some long, some tall, some heavy, some light. Each box reveals a new toy. Each shred of green-and-red wrapping paper a flash of happiness.
“An hour later, though, little Andy is crying hysterically. Based on his fits, this has undoubtedly been the worst Christmas ever. Sure, Andy received many of the things on his list, but he’s far more concerned with what he didn’t receive: that Power Ranger he wanted, that video game system he was secretly hoping for, that new computer all his friends are getting. The toys in front of him simply remind him of what he doesn’t have.
“This sounds childish, I know, but don’t we do the same thing? Don’t we often look at the things around us and wish we had more? Don’t we covet that new car, those new clothes, that new iPhone?”
Several people in the crowd nod with identification.
“What if Andy was happy with the toys in front of him? And what if we were, too?” I ask rhetorically.
After a brief pause, Ryan jumps in: “We are clearly in the throes of the holiday shopping season,” he says, speaking through his handheld microphone.
“Take a look around. Malls are packed with herds of consumers. Storefronts are decorated in green and red. The jingly commercials are running nonstop. The holiday season has officially peeked its gigantic, mass-mediated noggin around the corner. It’s here, and if we rely solely on billboards and store signage, then we might believe we must participate.
“Retailers prepare months in advance for this—preparation that’s meant to stimulate your insatiable desire to consume: Doorbuster sales. New products. Gigantic two-page ads. TV, radio, print, billboards. Sale, sale, sale! Early bird specials. One day only! Get the best deal. Act now! While supplies last.
“Joshua and I want, however, to shed some light on this shopping—ahem, holiday—season. Each year around this time, we all feel that warm-‘n’-fuzzy Christmastime nostalgia associated with the onset of winter. We break out the scarves, the gloves, and the winter coats. We go ice skating, sledding, and eat hearty meals with our extended families. We take days off from work, spend time with our loved ones, and give thanks for the gift of life.
“The problem is we’ve been conditioned to associate this joyous time of year—the mittens, the decorations, the family activities—with purchasing material items. We’ve trained ourselves to believe buying stuff is an inextricable part of Christmas. We all know, however, the holidays needn’t require gifts to be meaningful; rather, this time of year is meaningful because of its true meaning—not the wrapped boxes we place under the tree. I’m not saying there’s anything inherently wrong or bad about gift-giving during this time of year. However, when purchasing gifts becomes the focal point of the season, we lose focus on what’s truly important.
“Instead of concentrating on holiday shopping,” Ryan continues, “I’d like to encourage you to take five steps toward a more meaningful Christmas together:
“Step one. Avoid holiday doorbuster sales. Whether it’s Black Friday or any of the subsequent big shopping weekends, it’s best to stay inside. It’s important to understand that consumption is an unquenchable thirst. Retailers, advertisers, and manufacturers know this too well, and these sales are designed to take advantage of our insatiable desire to consume. Instead, support your local businesses: support the people in your community who are making a difference.
“Step two. Gift your time. If you could receive only one Christmas present this year, what would it be? The answer for me is simple: time. The best present is presence. You see, the people I care about mean much more to me than a new pair of shoes or a shiny new gadget or even a certified pre-owned luxury car with a huge bow on top. And yet, many of us attempt to give material items to make up for the time we don’t spend with the people we love. I know—I did it for years. But possessions can’t make up for lost time. The next time someone asks you what you want for Christmas, consider responding, ‘Your presence is the best present you can give me.’
“Step three. Gift experiences, not stuff. Here’s an idea: what if you decided to gift only experiences this year? How much more memorable would your holidays be? Your experiences build and strengthen the bond between you and the people you care about. Some experiences worth gifting might include tickets to a concert or play, a home-cooked meal, breakfast in bed, a foot rub, a vacation together, watching a wintertime sunset sink into the horizon. Don’t you think you’ll find more value in these experiences than in material gifts? Don’t you think your loved ones will find more value, too?
“Step four. Ask for better Christmas gifts. I’d be remiss if I didn’t discuss the gift of giving: the gift of contribution. The age-old apothegm is true: ’tis better to give than to receive. A few months ago, I gave my birthday to Charity Water, and we raised more than five thousand dollars from friends and family to gift clean water to more than two hundred and fifty people who didn’t previously have access to it. Perhaps you can do the same this Christmas: instead of gifts, you can ask people to donate to your favorite charity in your name. Won’t that feel better than a new necktie, a pair of shoes, or a piece of jewelry?
“Step five. We call this step ‘Soup-Kitchen Christmas.’ You can do what we’re doing this year  and donate your time to a local soup kitchen, homeless shelter, food bank, or any place that needs volunteers. This year, Joshua and I will be in Vancouver during Christmas, where we and a local group of our readers will donate part of our Christmas Day to a soup kitchen who’ll be able to really use our help during the holidays. You see, sometimes we have to contribute to help other people, but sometimes we need to contribute to help ourselves. When we step into our discomfort zones and contribute beyond ourselves, we grow: we experience the world in a different way, and we gain new perspectives from which to be thankful.”
Ryan pauses for a moment to let it all sink in. Two-thirds of the crowd is nodding with vigor, the other third looks skeptical. Ryan blinks hard from the stage lights and continues, “If this all sounds a little preachy, I’m sorry; I’m not here to preach to you. I’m not saying you must do—or that you should do—anything. I know many of you are just like me: you’re unhappy with the status quo, unhappy with what you’re supposed to do with your life—just unhappy with the way things are. And so was I. But then I chose to circumvent the status quo. And so can you.”
“Meaningful Holiday” is an excerpt from Everything That Remains.