ELLENWOOD, Ga. — The true spirit of Christmas embodies peace, joy and good will--the best mankind has to offer--traditionally symbolized by the sharing of gifts.
But over the years, the Christmas season has also come to represent the worst of humanity--tackiness, greed and other unsavory characteristics.
At the root of this evil, critics say, is the ever-burgeoning world of material goods. These critics say Americans have been caught up in a bad case of twisted logic that says if a few gifts make people happy, then many surely will make them happier.
Wrong, says Milo Thornberry, director of Alternatives, a nonprofit organization with a mission to provide "resources for living and celebrating more responsibly and less consumptively." The commercialization of Christmas is its chief target.
"The commercialization of Christmas is very much ingrained in this culture," said Thornberry, a United Methodist minister who founded Alternatives in 1973. "The way it is now, celebration is equated with consumption and entertainment. We're all trapped in quantity expectations, and that's totally contrary to what gift-giving is all about."
Concerns about the commercialization of Christmas have been around for generations. In the early 1900s, a group called the Society for the Prevention of Unwanted and Unneeded Gifts was formed.
But as technology and personal wealth have grown, so, too, has materialism. And there is no greater example than Christmas, a religious holiday that has become the saving grace for many a retail merchant. According to figures Thornberry compiled, Americans are expected to spend $30 billion to celebrate Christmas this year.
"The real explosion has come in the post-World War II period," said Thornberry. "By 1950, the Great Depression was finally over, and all of the accumulated technologies and resources devoted to war suddenly turned toward consumer desires."
Alternatives, affiliated with several religious denominations, is headquartered in a renovated old general store in Ellenwood, a rural community 30 miles southeast of Atlanta. Life is simple here, and the rustic setting is precisely the platform from which Thornberry, 50, and his small staff wish to send a message of restrained celebration.
Thornberry fears that besides masking a significant religious holiday, the buy-buy-buy mentality adversely affects not only the poor, who cannot afford such expensive traditions, but also those who wind up hip-deep in wrapping paper.
"If you are poor, Christmas is not for you," Thornberry said. "Although we are told that Jesus' coming was 'good news to the poor,' the way we celebrate his coming in this society could hardly be so described.
"Even if you are not poor and can buy whatever you want, joy does not automatically follow. We regularly fall prey to advertising's insidious suggestions that buying things brings happiness, and we are disappointed when they don't.
"Then there is the shopping itself. After three months of shopping, people are very weary. By the time Christmas arrives, they're just glad it's over, and the whole meaning has been lost. That's very sad."
Thornberry said Alternatives is no Scrooge and does not discourage giving, but encourages moderation as well as creativity and simplicity in gift-giving. The organization attempts to change opinions by nationwide distribution, usually through churches, of literature that calls attention to the excesses of Christmas celebration.
"We don't take ourselves so seriously that we believe we're going to turn this culture around," Thornberry said. "But we hope to be a little dissident sound in the pre-Christmas hoopla."
To drive home its point, Alternatives holds an annual contest of what it considers the best and worst Christmas gifts. Last year's winner was Christmas Day out of the kitchen for an Ohio mother, who acts as hostess at an annual holiday dinner, but was spared the trouble this time by her family.
Thornberry recalls other favorites, especially the gift of a Pennsylvania grandmother who could not afford to travel to visit her grandchildren. She purchased some children's books, recorded herself reading them and sent the books and tapes for Christmas.
Said Thornberry: "She took a good gift and made it a great gift. And it was utterly simple."
Then come the bad gifts.
Last year's worst-gift winner was fancy socks for a California baby with a severe case of club feet. Another bad one involved an Arizona man who had undergone alcohol rehabilitation for six months and returned to work just in time to pick up his Christmas present from the boss: a case of expensive French champagne.
Said Thornberry: "We see a whole collage of abuses in the name of Christmas giving."
Thornberry advises people to step back and take stock to determine if they have become trapped in traditions that are not quite what they had in mind. If so, he suggests less time in front of the television and fewer hours at the mall for starters.
"Nobody said it's going to be easy," he said. "You have to be willing to run against the current. But each year, there seem to be more people who are saying Madison Avenue is not going to determine how they celebrate Christmas."