The Spirit of the Holidays

It’s that time of year again, when New York City department stores boast lavish themed window displays, tots line up across the country to sit on the laps of hundreds of mall Santas, co-workers mingle nervously at stiff office parties, and people jockey for position in shopping centers and deck their abodes in festive extravagance. At the same time, the Big Apple is clogged with a transit strike, tots are lining up with their families to receive relief assistance in the ravaged Gulf Coast, people everywhere wrestle with the skyrocketing costs of healthcare and housing, as well as the burden of the Iraq War, increasing traffic gridlock saps minutes and hours from everyone’s days, and soaring energy costs (and concerns of over-consumption) take some of the luster out of all those colored lights and pretty packages.

Although the thrust behind the American winter holiday season is primarily a Judeo-Christian affair, its impacts so pervade our culture that hardly anyone is immune to its effects. While battling traffic this past Saturday to pick up a few gifts, as well as household essentials, I ended up in a strip mall parking lot full to capacity. Not only was every legitimate spot taken, but there were also cars and giant SUVs wedged between aisles, along walls and perpendicular to each other. As I walked past one store, three police units were escorting a woman out in handcuffs, who was shouting: “But I didn’t fight with security! All I did was
” Several employees of a big-box retailer had set up a station outside, with a handmade sign reading “Line begins here.” A boom box was pumping out hip-hop music, as the store was trying to entice customers looking for a deal to wait from Saturday afternoon until midnight, when special prices would be available.

It seems that every year brings more consumerism. Lining up in front of stores to get a hot deal has become an event in and of itself these days. A friend told me that on this year’s Black Friday, so-named because the retail orgy that typically occurs on the day after Thanksgiving helps stores move from “in the red” to “in the black,” her relatives spent all night camped out in front of some megastore, dressed as a wizard and a gnome. They hoped to get a $400 laptop, but walked away disappointed with only a digital camera.

Given leadership at the highest levels—President Bush has told Americans on numerous occasions that they can pitch in to society by buying more stuff—it’s not surprising that kids are learning to become voracious consumers. As Starre Vartan wrote in E‘s 2005 book Green Living, “Advertising companies spend billions to buy kids’ brand loyalty, inundating the average American child with more than 20,000 commercials a year—about 55 per day. All this because, according to The Kids Market: Myths and Realities, by James McNeil, children’s spending (independent from parents) has doubled every 10 years for the past three decades, and tripled in the 1990s.” It’s not surprising, then, that Time magazine reported that nearly half of parents say kids now ask for brand names by age five, something that was largely unheard of among previous generations.

I was shocked to learn recently that the teenage children of friends of mine, who live in an affluent suburb, fully expect their parents to buy them expensive gifts—which they can then give to their friends. The kids slap their own names on the “from” labels, and then often ask their parents to drive them around town so they can play little merry gift givers. In a poll conducted by the consumerism-confronting Center for a New American Dream, researchers found that although two-thirds of parents claim their children care about the environment, more than 70 percent of parents say their children don’t think buying too much stuff will degrade the natural world. Hmm. All those video games, CDs, clothes, cell phone accessories, iPods, sports equipment, knick knacks and geehaws—not to mention gifts for fluffy and poochie—really must be made in a magical elf laboratory, then?

Fed up with the current Western view of the holidays, editor Rocco de Giacomo of the Canadian e-zine Latchkey.net recently wrote, “We are all tired of it: the crowds, the traffic, and the line-ups. We no longer choose to wander aimlessly down the crowded aisles of department stores, picking out gifts with as much thought as pocket calculators; devices that know only one thing: that they should buy something for somebody, because that’s what they are supposed to do at this time of year.”

According to the Center for a New American Dream, since the U.S. consumes more energy, water, paper, steel and meat per capita than any other country, at least four additional planets would be needed to provide the American lifestyle to every person on Earth. At no time of year is this equation more apparent than during the holidays. However, there are many alternatives people can consider to make everyone’s joyous season a little less stressful, a little lighter on the Earth and our wallets, and a little more fun. Although it may be tempting to send anti-environmentalist oil and car company CEOs, the Competitive Enterprise Insitutue and Dick Cheney some coal this year, think twice: Do we really want people burning any more coal?

Some tips for a greener holiday season:

"Look for gifts that are made from organic, all-natural or recycled materials. Great examples include clothing fashioned from hemp, organic cotton and recycled fabric, fragrant candles molded from soy, delightful all-natural personal-care products, funky clocks designed from old bike parts, baskets woven from phone wires and bowls made from old records.
" Support Fair Trade and shop at cooperatives. The principles of Fair Trade ensure that producers can support themselves, so they aren"t forced to exploit the environment to survive. Fairly traded goods are available in a wide spectrum from gourmet coffee to stationery to home furnishings. Cooperatives support local artisans and help preserve regional culture.
" For kids, buy toys that are naturally powered and made from non-toxic materials, art supplies that are made from all-natural ingredients and games that offer fun environmental learning.
" Give eco-conscious books, magazines and music. Such gifts can be entertaining, educational and inspiring as well as eco-friendly.
" Give the gift of life…with plants! In colder climates choose an indoor plant that can be planted or placed outside for the summer or bulbs that will bloom in winter and can be re-planted outside in the spring. They will add a splash of color and help keep indoor air fresh throughout the winter. Be sure to choose one that is native and appropriate for the climate. Organic fertilizer will make a great companion to the gift.
" Forego traditional material goods all together and make a donation in the recipient"s name to an environmental or social-change organization. There are many opportunities such as sponsoring a whale, planting a tree or helping families in third world countries send their children to school. You can both feel good that the gift is benefiting a greater cause.
" Similarly, thanks to a new program, you can give an Earth Share-branded CharityGift card, which can be personalized and sent via U.S. mail or e-mail. Earth Share is a nationwide network of hundreds of environmental and conservation groups, and recipients get to choose how the donation will be distrib

uted.
" Once you find the perfect eco-friendly gift, cover it in recycled wrapping paper or make your own by decorating used paper bags, tissue paper or images from magazines and posters.
" Take your environmentally conscious wrapping one step further and skip the paper completely. Instead, place your gift in a decorative fabric bag, which can then be passed on from one holiday to the next.
" Instead of accenting your wrapping job with ribbon, put the final touch on by attaching a sprig of holly, a pinecone or any other decorative plant you can find in your yard.
" Make your own holiday cards out of used paper or select from the many beautiful designs offered by responsible companies on recycled or "tree-free" paper.
" Instead of conventional incandescent holiday lights, opt for LED (light-emitting diode) models, which use a fraction of the electricity.
" Instead of, or in addition to, gift giving, plan a shared holiday craft-making experience, game or sports night or jaunt into nature, such as hikes, snowshoeing or cross-country skiing.
" Finally, don’t forget you can always give a gift subscription to E Magazine (https://www.kable.com/pub/enmg/multigift.asp?src=), or donate to us securely at https://secure.groundspring.org/dn/index.php?aid=70 (we’re nonprofit).

Have a Happy and Safe Holiday Season!

Brian C. Howard is E‘s managing Editor.

CONTACT: Center for a New American Dream(877)68-DREAMwww.simplifytheholidays.org.