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Trying on some new traditions for the holidays

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It’s December 21! Only four more days ’til Christmas so what else is there to think about but merriment, music, family, and food! And when we talk food, it’s a veritable food-a-palooza!! I bet Americans consume more calories between Thanksgiving and New Year’s than at all our other holidays combined!

I had lunch with a dear friend the week after Turkey Day. She reported on her holiday dinner. A large clan gathered at her home, generously contributing to the family feast. The table was filled with irresistible hors d’oeuvres, the traditional turkey, a juicy ham, mounds of stuffing (no pun intended), homemade mashed potatoes smothered in butter and gravy, numerous side dishes, and to top it off, a host of high-carb, mouth-watering desserts! Once done with her story she added, “There was too much food — so much food it almost made me ill!”

I could relate. I remember feeling this same discomfort when I returned from my time in Zambia where I witnessed many living with next to nothing. I still wanted to offer her comfort. Instead I kept quiet since all I could think to say was, “Lighten up. This is the season for excess!”

It starts early. Big-box stores begin stocking shelves with all things red and green just in time for Halloween. The season’s glut keeps increasing right up to the grand finale party binge, New Year’s Eve. Then we’re exulted for having helped boost the nation’s economy by “increasing the opportunity to beat last year’s record for consumer spending.” For some reason, even that doesn’t remove the sensation that something about this isn’t quite right. Maybe deep inside, we want to know when “enough is enough.” My grandmother used to say, “anything more than need is greed.” Now, some might say that’s a little extreme, but it stuck with me and became my ad hoc guide to know when to set some limits (or call it quits, altogether).

Not long after debriefing session, I found myself revisiting the same conundrum again. This time, it was my turn to vent about an “outrageous fee” for a service that I suddenly realized wasn’t really very important. My friend summed it up with, “I think that’s what they call a ‘first-world problem’.” It was true! My problem suddenly seemed so small.

The message was reinforced again just a few days later when I picked up the December issue of a periodical called “For a Better World: Ideas and Action for a Just Economy”. The theme was “Women and Food”. It examined women in other countries and their roles in growing, harvesting, processing, and preparing the world’s food supply. It described the effects of “food insufficiency”, a sanitized phrase for malnutrition and starvation— conditions that plague women and children because of gross economic disparities.

One article focused on the plight of female farmers in Kenya. Under Kenya’s constitution women having equal rights to land and property, but enforcement of those rights is almost non-existent. In Kenya, a woman can’t make plans for the future when she lives under the constant threat of losing her rightful ownership to her land, her main source for food, income and shelter. Across Africa, male abandonment, disability, and death are common. With scant provisions to protect and support fatherless households, women risk eviction from their land, leaving them extremely vulnerable to intractable poverty.

Further north, the people of Yemen are in the throes of famine, a more severe form of “food insufficiency”. Due to war, an estimated 20 million people, almost two- thirds of the population, are in immediate danger of starvation. Journalists have tried to get international attention but so far, the world has largely turned their eyes away. Imagine if this were happening in the U.S. Maybe our discomfort over excessive self-indulgence would turn from a momentary sensation to a call to change something.

The magazine emphasized that women have always played a central role in the “care and feeding” of their families. Just think about it. Most American households’ meals are prepared by females. Many holiday memories include our grandmothers mentoring younger generations of females in the kitchen. Traditional roles serve as the “relational glue” that help secure family identities. When women must assume the mantle of primary wage earners, their importance in holding the family together becomes even clearer. These commonalities we share can link us as a broader “human family” with ties that heighten our mutual understanding, appreciation, and compassion.

This year, I’ve been reflecting on how my life intersects with other people’s lives around the world. This Christmas, I’m looking for ways to reduce my over-indulgences that appear on so many fronts.

I want to inject some reflection time into my family tradition. Maybe, I’ll ask that before we grab our forks and dive into the bounty set before us, let’s light a candle to acknowledge where our food comes from, and think about the people who labored for it? Whose hands prepared it? And ask, do they have enough to eat today? What does that really mean, “enough”? Do we have more than enough? If the answer is yes, then what can we each commit to do about it this year?

Maybe this seems too serious for the occasion. I can hear it, “Let’s not go there. Not today!” It’s too uncomfortable and way too complicated? But wait! What if our reflections lead change, adopting some new traditions, and adjusting some of our habits that help create a shift for the better — in me, my family, community, culture, country? I know. I’m thinking big here. But I think the world is waiting anxiously for us to do just that!

I guess I’m ready for Christmas to be about something other than the ritual “loosening of the notch” on my belt buckle or bolstering the GNP. Instead of obsessing on dropping those extra pounds, my new New Year’s Resolution will be creating more “Comfort and Joy” for people near and far — caring more and taking less.

May our traditions bring us closer. Warm wishes for a meaningful holiday season, dear friends and neighbors!

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