You might say it's a catalogue to end all Christmas catalogues, for if you take Bob Kochtitzky's listings seriously, you will be liberated forever from the annual pursuit of the monogrammed mustache cup, the 14-carat gold paper clip and the electronic hot dog cooker.
You will remember your near and dear instead with a warm scarf knitted by a refugee; a packet of compost from the richest part of your garden (tastefully wrapped in a square of sturdy denim or the brightly colored comic section of an old newsparer); or a receipt attesting to the fact that you have contributed to a worthy cause in your loved one's name.
Five years ago Kochtitzky, a 50-year-old Mississippian with an activist background, published his first Alternative Christmas Catalogue. Fed up with the commercial rat race of Christmas, Kochtitzky put together a 60-page paperback listing of ideas for celebrating Christmas in "more human and socially responible" ways.
With no organization behind it and little more than word-of-mouth promotion, the first catalogue sold 20,000 copies. Convinced he was onto something, Kochtitzky revised and expanded his product through three subsequent editions. The current, fourth edition, no longer limited to Christmas, is called "Alternative Celebrations Catalogue." It runs 250 pages and covers everything from Valentine's Day to funerals-all in the spirit of the "voluntary simplicity" that Kochtitzky espouses as a life style.
Celebrations and rituals of life today "have become inseparably wedded to the purchase of consumer products," he writes in the introduction. "It is as though the only vehicle for expressing our joy, gratitude, love or sorrow is some THING purchased with money . . . we have lost the ability to create our own gifts, to give ourselves as gifts, to live simply for the sake of others.
"We have forgotten the original purpose of birthdays as a joyful affirmation of a person's life; of Christmas as the Christian alternative to the pagan festival of Saturnalia . . . Custom controls us so harshly that we feel guilty when our imaginations prod us to break with the established way."
Two years after his first catalogue came out, Kochtitzky, now incorporated into a frayed-shoestring corporation called Alternatives Inc., started a quarterly newsletter to exchange ideas on alternative styles of celebrations, many of which are incorporated into the catalogue.
These contributions are some of the most valuable parts of the catalogue, in fact, clothing Kochtitzky's principles-which sometimes get a mite preachy-in warm experiences and traditions of family life.
"We don't buy costly ornaments for our Christmas tree," writes one contributor, who explains that the family instead uses carefully saved babies rattles and other small toys from the time their children were tiny. "Now that the children are in their 20s and 30s, the tree is a great reminder of the care and love in our family," she adds.
A year ago, Alternatives Inc., now grown to a staff of three including Kochtitzky, began promoting the organization of local study-action groups to further implement the alternative celebration and voluntary simplicity ideas.
Almost 500 people indicated interest in starting such groups. Larry Gordon, who heads the Washington office of Alternatives, estimates that "about 150 of them are active-actually functioning groups."
Although communications within what Kochtitzky refers to as the "alternative network" are most informal, Gordon knows of a number of groups that have taken the idea and run with it.
In Tucson, Ariz. a group centered around the Messiah Lutheran Church there raised $2,000 to publich its own local version of a Christmas alternatives catalogue.
A suburban Cleveland woman has organized her own newsletter, The Living Giving News. She also has conducted two Saturday workshops on alternative Christmas ideas and an Alternative Christmas Fair.
A group in Minnesota planned an alternative Christmas demonstration-complete with 20 elves-at a shopping center. "The police were there and the media all turned out because they thought there was going to be a confrontation." Gordon recalls. "But they started singing Christmas carols and everybody joined in and it was great fun."
At California State University in Chico, a teacher of public relations turned her class loose on the alternative celebrations idea and they developed it as a public relations campaign.
In this area, the Rev. Margie Adams of the Rockville Presbyterian Church began presenting the alternative celebration idea to the church's adult class back in September.
"At Halloween, we offered atlernative treats," she said. Householders in the class fortified themselves for trick-or-treaters with large buttons that said "I Am Loved," and leaflets explaining that the householder, instead of buying candy, was contributing to the Heifer Project, a Protestant agency that supplies animal breeding stock to underdeveloped areas overseas.
"At Thanksgiving, we highlighted the Nestle boycott," Adams continued, by encouraging church members to "covenants," not to buy, Nestle products, as part of an international protest against the Swiss-based firm's promotion and marketing of infant formula in Third World countries.
Church and other groups have charged that Nestle and some food processors have tried to persuade mothers in the Third World that the formula is superior to breast milk. They also maintain the primitive sanitation and storage facilities, coupled with inexperience of the mothers in following instructions for mixing, have led to widespread disease and malnutrition among infants on the formula.
Rockville Presbyterian's preparations for an alternate Christmas began the first weekend in November with a workshop on making simple and inexpensive gifts-sand-cast candles, macrame, wooden toys, prints from throwaway styrofoam meat containers and sewing and weaving projects.
Church members also have been encouraged to contribute "living gifts," Adams said, such as donations to Church World Service for the purchase of blankets for the relief agency's refugee program.
Another aspect of the alternative Christmas celebration at the church has been a gift box for the church itself, for members to drop in pledges of specific services they will perform for the congregation-two afternoons a week to visit shut-ins; help with the church newsletter every Wednesday night; a block of time each week for the Montgomery Community Ministry, of which the church is a part.
"What I've discovered is that people really want to be involved in these kinds of things-they have good intentions," said Adams, who has been at the church for two years. "But until they write a note to cement it they won't follow through."
"But most important," she continued, "we have built a community of people-maybe 15 or 20-who are asking important questions about priorities and how the Christian life affects them, about the Christian life style."
And that, she emphasized, "is not going to stop with Christmas."