How are you doing with your list? Christmas is in full commercial swing and the stores are filled with frenzied consumers, faces frowning in concentration as they try to find the perfect gift for each person on their list.

Whether we celebrate Christmas, Hanukah, Kwanza or Solstice, this is supposed to be a time of joy and light, of family and friends, of gathering and rejoicing. If we are lucky enough to be able to do so, that is.

So why is it so stressful? What are we doing wrong?     

I have arrived at the point in my life where my children are adults, my work life has become far less frenetic, and I am able to make conscious choices about how I want to spend my energy during the holidays.

I remember dragging my young children into stores as I shopped for gifts for family near and far, throwing in a few items for the kids, which I buried under coats, and then distracting the kids at the checkout line. It was an exhausting time of life, dictated by to-do lists and calendar deadlines. I grew to dread and resent the holidays. Until I realized that I had control over the holidays; that I did not have to buy into the frenzy.

George Monbiot wrote an article, “The Gift of Death,” which was published in the Guardian back in 2012, but just recently came to my attention. Monbiot writes about the frivolity of our holiday purchasing, citing in particular the gifts we buy for those who have everything and need nothing. Gifts designed to elicit a chuckle, to create a reaction that lasts “no longer than a nicotine hit,” and then, as he so cleverly writes, on the 12th day of Christmas ends up in the landfill.

I have been guilty of this very thing in years past, wanting to do the right thing, to satisfy the obligation I felt to buy something for everyone, and yes, to make people smile. But to what end? And for whom? As it turns out, it was as much for me, for the reaction I would get when a gift was opened and based on my unenlightened understanding of what the holidays are about.

What I did not realize or even consider until I read Monbiot’s article was the harm this production, consumption and discarding of gift items is causing our planet.

Monbiot points out that the fossil fuels used in “manufacturing and consumption are responsible for more than half our carbon dioxide production.” (All of his statistics are cited and backed up with footnotes if you are interested in digging deeper into this.) We are cutting down forests and poisoning rivers and killing animals to satisfy our pathological need for consumption.

Our lives are not enriched by the things we buy. All of this consumption ultimately leaves us feeling empty. We fill our homes with useless items and perpetrate harm to our sorely threatened planet.

Even useful items we buy are designed according to the planned obsolescence model (cheaply made, breaks easily, must be replaced) or the perceived obsolescence model (goes out of style and must be updated or replaced). All in the name of profit for manufacturers and distributers. But not for consumers and certainly not for the earth.

When I was in my 20s, an older European family friend introduced me to a woman who had recently moved to New York from Russia, hoping that I might, as a peer, provide some guidance and ease the culture shock she was experiencing.

Over dinner one night, she told me about going to a store earlier that week in search of shampoo. She found the long, brightly lit aisle with shelves upon shelves of shampoo bottles, colorfully designed labels offering the best-looking hair money could by and enticing buyers to “Choose me! Choose me!”

“I left the store without buying anything,” she said. “It was too overwhelming.”

She was accustomed to limited choices. Shampoo was shampoo. Period. I felt embarrassed by our over-the-top abundance. It took an outsider to show me what I had not yet seen myself. I still think about her when I am shopping in Fred Meyer or Bartell’s or any of our large supermarkets.

These days the wasteful packaging, primarily plastic, wrapped yet again in plastic, and sealed with plastic seals — just to make sure — dismays me as much as the exhaustive choices.

Just last week I was in a store looking for stocking stuffers for my grown children. Other than some organic chocolate, I walked away from everything I looked at – primarily because of the waste involved in producing the items, thanks to Monbiot’s article, and knowing how much of the packaging would end up in the landfill.

It’s nice to give – and receive – gifts. It shows thoughtfulness and caring and love. But even more so if the gifts have been bought with the future of our planet in mind. Monbiot ends his article asking his readers to “bake them a cake, write them a poem, give them a kiss, tell them a joke, but for god’s sake stop trashing the planet to tell someone you care. All it shows is that you don’t.”

I really can’t say it any better than that.

Take the pressure off. Spend time with your family. Do an activity together. Be in nature. Make presents if you have the time. And know that you are giving our planet a big gift and ensuring that future generations will be around to enjoy it.

 

Irene Panke Hopkins is a freelance essayist and writer. Find more at irenehopkins.com.