Planning an Alternative Christmas Workshop

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Planning an Alternative Christmas Workshop

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Planning an Alternative Christmas Workshop


Many churches organize Alternative Christmas events in the fall to encourage alternative giving and to help members simplify their celebration. There are three basic plans.

A. Sell crafts and clothing from Third World artisans. This encourages the second pillar of voluntary simplicity: Learn from the world community. Your family and friends get beautiful gifts at reasonable prices. Third World artisans get a fair price for their work because more gets to them through these volunteer fairs and shops than through similar commercial shops.

For more information on organizing an Alternative Gift Fair contact the following:

  1. SERRV International: Fair Trade for the Developing World, PO Box 365, 500 Main St., New Windsor MD 21776-0365 (800/723-3712)
  2. Ten Thousand Villages (formerly Self Help Crafts of the World), 704 Main St., PO Box 500, Akron PA 17501-0500 (800-592-7238; 717/859-2622-fax)
  3. Friends of the Third World, 611 W Wayne St., Fort Wayne, IN 46802 (219-422-6821)
  4. To go beyond an annual fair and establish a Third World Craft Shop, get the resource "Getting Crafty for Justice" from SERRV.
  5. For more information about shopping by mail for Third World crafts, contact: CCF World Bazaar, PO Box 26511, Richmond, VA 23261 (800-366-5896); Pueblo to People, 2105 Silber Rd., Ste. 101, Houston TX 77055 (713/956-1172); Oxfam America Trading, PO Box 821, Lewiston ME 04240 (800/639-2141).

B. Sell nothing. Instead, encourage people to give funds to worthwhile organizations in someone else's name rather than a purchased gift. The gift is doubled - for the recipient of the funds and the recipient of the honor. Usually a gift card goes to the honoree telling something about the recipient organization.

If you want help raising money for groups, contact Alternative Gift Markets, Inc., PO Box 2267, 9656 Palomar Trail, Lucerne Valley CA 92356-2267 (800/842-2243). AGM charges a fee. SimpleLivingWorks.org also has resources to promote such efforts.

C. Hold a workshop on alternative Christmas celebrations. Such a workshop goes beyond gifts, to the entire purpose and organization of celebrating Christmas. "How to Organize an Alternative Christmas Community Festival" (pp. 41-51) emphasizes alternative celebrating rather than crafts.

Use the CLASSIC for simplifying Christmas - "Unplug the Christmas Machine: A Complete Guide to Putting Love and Joy Back into the Season" ($10) and "Leader's Guide to 'Unplug the Christmas Machine' Workshop" (text and audio in Archives). A shorter worksheet is Alternatives' "Let's Talk About Christmas," pp. 29-32.

The above three concepts can be combined in various ways.



The necessary ingredients for a successful alternative Christmas workshop are present in nearly every congregation:

There is no mystique about putting a workshop together. Careful planning and attention to detail are the only requirements for organizers. Although you can plan a workshop without any additional materials, you may find the Alternatives' materials suggested below useful. They have been created out of the experiences of many individuals and congregations.



In deciding who will help organize the workshop, find out who else is interested and consider who is best suited to help coordinate the kind of Christmas workshop you are going to have:

Once you decide who will help organize the workshop, plan a meeting as soon as possible. (The optimum time for having a Christmas workshop is sometime between September 15 and November 15.) During your first meeting, read over "Planning an Alternative Christmas Workshop." Make any changes you need in this proposed workshop to suit your situation. Give assignments. Agree when to meet again.



When you publicize the workshop, as well as during the workshop itself, be sure to make the objectives clear. Spend some time when your planning group first meets to discuss objectives. Consider the proposed objectives below.


The overall objective is to introduce new ways to celebrate Christmas to people who are looking for alternatives to commercialized Christmas, as well as those who may not have thought much about the way they celebrate Christmas. Specifically, this workshop seeks to:

Take the time in your planning group to state your group's objectives. To help with this task, the planning group should preview the video "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." If you plan to use the booklet, "Whose Birthday Is It, Anyway?" each member should read through that resource also. Setting your objectives will give you the necessary focus for deciding exactly what participants will do in the workshop.

NOTE: The workshop model proposed below assumes that one of the objectives of the workshop is to enable participants to make effective use of the "Whose Birthday Is It, Anyway?" Christmas booklets in their households. If you are not planning to use the booklets in your congregation, simply drop Group C from the workshop plan.

The materials needed for Groups A and B are available from Alternatives. See "Materials needed" below.



This workshop is designed to introduce the idea of alternative Christmas celebrations to a general constituency. Here are some other considerations in deciding who will be invited to participate.

There are many different possibilities. You just need to decide who you want to participate, then plan accordingly.



Word of mouth may be the most effective tool for publicizing the workshop among those you know. However, there may be many more in your community who are also interested. Make sure that the workshop date is announced well in advance of the event. A month ahead isn't too soon - calendars fill up fast!



Materials needed:

  1. Name tags, other registration materials
  2. Video player
  3. "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" video (p. 60)
  4. The following other pieces from Alternatives: "Guidelines for Alternative Giving" (including Christmas Budget Worksheet/Cost Analysis Form), "What About Santa?" and "St. Nicholas Puppet Play," "Let's Talk About Christmas," pp. 29-32, 33, 61, 65
  5. At least two copies of "To Celebrate: Reshaping Holidays and Rites of Passage" (for Groups A and B); and perhaps the story of Jason's birthday (p. 48 in "To Celebrate," p. 217 in "Treasury of Celebrations")
  6. Newsprint and markers for Group B

Additional Materials Needed for Group C:

  1. A copy of the current "Whose Birthday Is It, Anyway?" Christmas booklet for each participant (p. 61)
  2. Bibles for each of the participants;
  3. Advent wreath materials: four purple candles; one larger white or red candle; large flat shallow bowl (at least 9 inches in diameter); sand or coarse salt; evergreen branches.

This entire workshop is very flexible. The model below is for 2 1/2 hours. Here are possible schedules for 60, 90 and 120 minutes versions for Sunday morning or afternoon, or for any evening. The chart suggests the number of minutes given for each component.


  1. Registration and Introduction
  2. Video & Discussion
  3. Discussion Groups
  4. Summing Up
component lengths for alternate Session Lengths
  Session Length
Component # 60 90 120
1 5 5 10
2 20 30 35
3 30 40 45
4 5 15 30


9-9:30: Registration and Introduction

Arrange a table for registration. Have name tags on hand if needed.

After people have gathered, introduce the workshop and the objectives. If there are too many people for each one to be introduced, invite a few to share something about why they came. These comments are important for the workshop leaders because they reveal the participants' questions and expectations.

9:30-10:15: Viewing Video "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" (18 minutes)

If you expect more than 25 people to attend the workshop, you will need a large screen television to show the video. Or plug into the church's sound system. The power of this award-winning video is in its music. Don't limit its effectiveness by inferior sound equipment!

Reserve time at the conclusion of the showing for discussion. Since the rest of the workshop is about the issues raised in the video, a fifteen-minute discussion should be sufficient. Because the video tends to have an emotional impact on people, you will want to devote the first part of the discussion to feelings, and then move on to other issues. After the lights have been turned back on, you may want to say something like, "Think about the video for a moment." After a pause, ask, "Which segment pops into your mind first?" Allow different people to respond. Then ask, "Why did this segment make a special impression on you?"

Then you might ask questions like: "How are our Christmas celebrations influenced by advertising and commercialism?" and "What kinds of alternatives does the video propose?" (You can find additional questions in the discussion tips that accompany the video.)

10:15-11: Working in Groups

GROUP A: More Meaningful Approaches to Christmas Giving

GROUP B: What Are We Going to Do About Santa Claus?

GROUP C: Changing the Focus of Christmas in the Household

Explain that each participant must select one of the three groups. Many of the participants are likely to want to participate in more than one. If you can extend the total workshop time by 45 minutes, the groups can be repeated so that each participant can attend two of the three.

If the total number of participants is fewer than 12, you can present each group or topic in a series to the whole group.

GROUP A: More Meaningful Approaches to Christmas Giving

Begin the session with a discussion of "Guidelines for Alternative Giving," inviting suggestions of guidelines for gift giving at Christmas. What suggestions for alternative giving are offered in this resource? Ask the participants if they can think of any others. Invite participants to illustrate the guidelines with examples of gifts they have given or received. (See chapter 3 of "To Celebrate" for other examples.)

Then ask participants to consider the most important guideline, "To remember whose birthday it is!" Ask what they think is an appropriate "birthday gift" for Jesus. Ask the participants to suggest items for a "gift list" - time, skills and money - for the members of their parishes, congregations or households to consider.

Move to a discussion of Christmas spending. You may begin by asking, "Do you know how much you spent on Christmas last year?" Ask participants to look at the "Christmas Cost Analysis" in "Guidelines for Alternative Giving." Invite them to look over the categories and estimate on paper how much they spent last Christmas. (Remind them that if there are other members of their household, they should wait to actually fill out the form until they can do it with them.) Do not encourage sharing this information. After participants have made the estimates, ask what they think about taking an amount equal to 25% of their total for a "birthday gift" this Christmas. Make it clear that 25% is an arbitrary figure and that its purpose is to keep Christmas spending priorities in perspective. Also, make sure that participants realize that they should not increase their Christmas spending by 25%, but should earmark this portion of their budgets for a "birthday gift."

Also give Gifts of Ourselves instead of purchased "stuff"- coupons (pledges of time or skill) or something baked, composed, crafted, etc.

Conclude this segment by discussing how to change gift giving practices with family and friends. Talk about the importance of discussing this topic without a self-righteous attitude. Introduce "Let's Talk about Christmas" worksheet.

GROUP B: What Are We Going to Do About Santa Claus?

Begin by reminding participants that this is a subject on which people of good will can and do disagree and that you are not promoting one right solution.

Ask participants to recall what "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" had to say about Santa Claus. Continue with a discussion of the pros and cons of observing the Santa Claus traditions. You may want to put the pros and cons up on a chalkboard or on newsprint so that everyone can see them.

After you have identified some pros and cons, you may want to call attention to portions of the discussion guide "What About Santa." Do they agree or disagree with what these sections have to say? Are there others to be added?

Move on to talk about what can be done. Review the section "For Further Consideration" and discuss the four suggestions offered. Ask if anyone can think of other suggestions.

You might have a group reading of the "St. Nicholas Puppet Play." You might also have someone read Leo Tolstoy's classic story "Where Love Is" (in Alternatives' "A Christmas Reader"), or read a special version of it for children entitled, "The Shoemaker's Dream." If you do not have access to either of these, they are available from Alternatives.

GROUP C: Changing the Focus of Christmas in the Household

Begin by inviting participants to describe the things they do at home to get ready for Christmas. Ask which of those activities aid in their preparations to observe Christmas as the birth of Christ.

Let someone demonstrate the making of an Advent wreath according to the instructions in the "Whose Birthday...?" booklet. While the wreath is being made, talk about the importance of symbols in keeping our perspective. Talk about some of the symbols of Christmas on television and their influence on us.

After the wreath is made, describe the resources in the Christmas booklet, especially "Reflections." Tell group members that you will break into smaller groups to see how these resources can be used in their households.

Divide into subgroups of about three persons each. Each subgroup should be assigned a different household setting to consider. (For example: single person household, single parent with children, two parents with children, etc.) Also, assign them one of the weeks of Advent, Christmas or Epiphany. Instruct them to read that week's Bible passages, the reflection, and possibly the calendar. Each subgroup should then discuss how the resources could be used in the household setting they were assigned. The subgroups should have about 15-20 minutes to do their work.

Call the group back together and take 10-15 minutes to hear brief reports. Conclude with encouragement for participants to have weekly services and activities in their households during the Christmas season.

11-11:30: Summing Up

When participants have returned from their groups, ask each one to take a piece of paper and write this question at the top: "This Christmas, what would I like to STOP doing?" Give them three or four minutes to jot down their responses.

Then ask them to write down this question: "This Christmas, what would I like to START doing?" Give them a few minutes to write down their responses.

Finally, ask them to write down this question: "This Christmas, what would I like to CONTINUE doing?" Give them a few minutes to write their responses.

Now invite people to share their responses. Suggest that people share only what they feel comfortable sharing.

During the final five minutes of the workshop, ask participants to jot down an evaluation of the workshop. Ask, "Was the workshop helpful? What was the most helpful segment of the workshop? The least helpful? How could the workshop be improved?" Collect the evaluations and adjourn at the appointed time.

After about a week or so, coordinators should get together for a debriefing session. Go over the evaluations at that time.

More helpful resources for free at SimpleLivingWorks.org >> Archives for your workshops and study circles:

  1. "Treasury of Celebrations," p. 64
  2. "Simplify & Celebrate: Embracing the Soul of Christmas," p. 40
  3. Discussion/Activity Guides (p. 61), such as "What Makes a Perfect Christmas?: Evaluate Your Expectations and Set Priorities"; "The Gift of Giving"; "What About Santa?"; "Christmas Traditions That Work for You"; "Looking Behind the Cost of Christmas"; "What Is a Gift?"

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