When we were small, we didn’t know we were “poor.” The holidays overflowed with anticipation and heightened sensations. As a kid, we decorated about three weeks before Christmas. I helped my father repair unlit light strands of colored lights. Shortly before Christmas, my parents helped us cut out dozens of sugar cookies that we iced and decorated the next night. The week before Christmas, our gifts appeared, usually wrapped in old Sunday funnies. Forbidden from touching the gifts, we’d circle the pile, trying to guess what we got. Finally we’d flop on the floor to re-read the comics.
We often received handcrafted gifts and had only two gifts, usually one toy and something useful. My grandparents too gave with restraint, probably because there were seven of us crammed into a trailer home. We were merry and remained oblivious to the extent that our parents lived out the R’s of being sustainable: “Reduce. Reuse. Recycle” — I might add repair and repurpose.
As teenagers, we realized the restraint in our holidays and envied others. Grandma called “keeping up with the Joneses.” It is the oil that greases consumerism. Advertisers would like to drum over our inner voice, the one that asks, what can we afford? Is this a need or a want? How much more stuff do we want to haul to the curb? What have we learned about the impact of trash, petroleum by-products, carbon from fossil fuels, and the need obscured behind our neighbors’ walls? What is more needful than a collective affirmation to help each other celebrate fully and sustainably?
Resisting consumerism (and its BFF waste) requires some support and creativity. Where to start? What action should we take now that we know about our neighbors’ needs and the environment’s sickness? I turn to friends and peers who are living sustainably. This year, I polled LWVMC members and interviewed Rachel Hassler, who consults on clutter-free living. They offered up more ideas for lighter celebrations.
Reduce how much we spend. C’mon, you don’t like the debt nor trying to declutter from useless knick-knacks or “as-seen-on-TV,” crap-for-Christmas. Less is more.
Though in COVID times, we don’t need a new party outfit, previous holidays were packed with parties that begged us to buy some throw-away fashion. Why pick on fashion during the holidays? Because we have to put on clothes, but the industry results in bloat as much as useless calories and cheap stuff. According to the BBC, the textile industry creates 92 million tons of garbage that ends up in landfills. Most clothing, even natural fiber, has some element of non-natural elements. Thus it cannot be recycled. Only about 13% is repurposed. Synthetic fabrics and decorations on clothing contain petroleum by-products, which are non-renewable. The textile industry is responsible for 10% of carbon emissions by 10% and 20% of waste water worldwide. That glittery, clearance rack outfit that we won’t wear again is akin to the cheap dollar toys that break after an hour’s play. Why not thrift an ugly Christmas sweater and lounge in it annually? Call it tradition.
Gifting can be beautiful and frugal. In Rachel Hassler’s family they give and receive about four gifts: “Something you want. Something you need. Something to wear. Something to read.”
Buying local, giving gift cards, or purchasing handcrafted high quality items from purveyors worthy of support helps small businesses. Karen Gunther suggestions gifting online magazine subscriptions. Many people suggested gifting experiences. Who wouldn’t prefer a chance to share a culinary chef class or paint-n-sip with friends or a loved one? Gifting guitar lessons, rock-climbing or a post-COVID massage can help with mental health. All of these can reduce waste from shipping and wrapping.
Speaking of wrapping, we can reuse gift paper, craft paper, ribbons, fabric and baskets. The local thrift store often has donated fabric, nice baskets and cute handbags that make great “wrapping” paper. Consider repurposing fabric from beloved, outgrown clothing or old scarves. There is even paper tape to reduce the use of plastic.
Repurposing, reusing, even regifting quality items with a personal touch can turn something ordinary into a treasure. Our Christmas “tree” is one such treasure that came out of an intention to be more sustainable.
Because I didn’t like that live trees cannot be reused, I made the mistake of buying a fake one, all metal branches bedecked with millions of “leaves” of sliced plastic. We used it for over ten years until the branches wagged and thinned. By then, I felt a bit less guilty about live trees, which can be mulched, but I still wanted to be more sustainable. I strapped upside-down tomato cages into a 7-foot cone and wrapped them with chicken wire. We strung it in LED lights. Every year we “spruce it up” with live garland. We fill it out with our family collection of ornaments. Afterwards I toss the garland as a groundcover in my garden.
Hassler’s family has a potted Norfolk Pine that stays in the home year round. They decorate it simply for Christmas, storing their ornaments in two small boxes.
After gifting, when the house feels cramped, recycle by donation. Beware that quality products do best in thrift stores. Cheap clothing and broken toys or chotchkies often end up being incinerated or dumped.
Set aside the obligation for the “ideal holiday season,” suggests Hassler. Give yourself permission to send e-Christmas cards. Don’t bake all the goodies. Pick one or two sweets each year and Include kids in the kitchen. They’ll pick up kitchen science and get a heaping serving of your gift of time.
The word holidays come from holy days. What is more holy than love? Keeping holidays simple and “centered around love,” as Hassler says, sustains more: the pocketbook, the needy neighbor, the earth.
“First, we have to decide what’s important to us, and what isn’t,” notes Hassler. Then “use our faith traditions and personal values to inform how we observe the season.”
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