Dreaming of a Consumption-Free Christmas

Why I’m Rethinking Gift-Giving This Year

Household waste, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reports, increases by 25% during the holiday season.© Thinkstock

There may yet be a positive outcome to the long recession blues. The quick swipe of credit cards is being replaced—at least in some homes—with careful consideration; the phrase "I need product x" with the question, "Do I need product x?" As it turns out, there are few things beyond water, sustenance, shelter, clothes, medicine and social interaction that we do need. Certainly not the latest flat screen TV, and definitely not, for our kids, the latest video game. For some of us, cutting back has come as something of a relief this holiday season, because it gives us a chance to back out of the rampant shopping mode that brings little but stress on the part of the givers, and glassy-eyed disinterest on the part of the receivers.

There are seven children—first cousins—under the age of eight in my family. Last Christmas was the first time we were all able to gather together for Christmas morning, and I looked forward to the mayhem of gift unwrapping. But the scene I had imagined—full of excitement and squeals of delight—was nothing like the reality. Instead, the kids ripped through their presents dutifully, mechanically, hardly pausing over one present before tossing it aside and tearing into the next. It was likely months after Christmas had ended when they could enjoy and play with each toy in turn. Other gifts and toys, of course, are immediately broken, lost or remain somewhere unopened on a closet shelf, awaiting the next "re-gifting" party. Most of us have all the decorative knick-knacks, coffee mugs and coffee table books we"ll ever need; in fact, most of us would like to purge a lot of this excess stuff from our lives.

The whole process, it seems to me, could use a little downsizing and refocusing. When I think about gathering with my family for Christmas, the moments I like the least revolve around presents. The gift exchange moments are always accompanied by a lull in conversation, a forced sitting-in-a-circle arrangement and awkward displays of gratitude for the sweater, or dish towels, you didn’t really want or need. I feel almost physically uncomfortable with the requisite waste that goes along with it, the mountains of very pretty holiday paper ripped up, crumpled into balls and immediately stuffed into a giant garbage bag. I spend time trying to salvage usable paper and tissue paper. Household waste, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reports, increases by 25% during the holiday season, and collectively adds an extra 1 million tons of garbage to U.S. landfills. Between the mountains of uneaten cookies and leftovers, the packaging and paper waste, the throwaway dishes and napkins and decorations, those figures sound just about right.

Hard as it can be to hold back, for reasons of environmental good conscience, overall sanity and financial stability, I’m keeping gifts, even for the kids (OK kid, in my case) to a reasonable level. A few things that will be cherished, and a few silly stocking stuffers for fun. I will swear off all toys for other people’s children (having recognized finally that it is impossible to ever know the toy preferences or existing toys of other people’s children) in favor of good books and clothes. I will give toys to toy drives for children who have nothing to open on Christmas. And I"ll dive for that wrapping paper a little faster this year, saving what I can.

BRITA BELLI is editor of E.