Unplugging the Christmas Machine

December 22, 2000

By Michael Jessen

For a holiday that celebrates the birth of the ultimate, anti-materialistic hippie, Christmas has become burdened with a lot of "stuff".

Jesus urged his disciples to simplify their lives, drop all their possessions, and follow him. But as His birthday nears, statistics abound about the extra garbage (almost 25%) we produce, the increased stress we endure, the credit card abuse we commit, the additional hoard of food and drink we ingest.

Polls repeatedly say we yearn for less commercialization of Christmas, yet we also tell pollsters we expect to spend as much or more than last year during the holidays.

The annual Christmas spending spree is "an environmental nightmare that keeps us running ever faster on the work-and-spend treadmill," says Winnipeg author Mark Burch, author of several books on voluntary simplicity including, "Stepping Lightly: Simplicity for People and the Planet".

"And it's tough to get off when you're deep in debt and moving too fast to consider alternatives," adds Burch.

Yet another Winnipeger -- historian Gerry Bowler -- tells us our bacchanalian Christmas behaviour is rooted in Roman times. In other words, it's in our genes.

According to Bowler, author of the World Encyclopedia of Christmas, the extremes of the season go back to the Roman Saturnalia, which Christmas replaced in 336. We can thank that pagan holiday for outrageous social behaviour, gift giving, and even financial indiscretion.

"The impulse to spend seizes everyone," wrote the fourth-century Syrian-born philosopher Libanius. "He who the whole year through has taken pleasure in saving and piling up his money becomes suddenly extravagant."

During the 1600's, Protestant Reformers outlawed Christmas in England and in parts of the English colonies in America for several years because the feast was marked by "drunkenness, social inversion, gluttony and superstition," not to mention dancing, fortune telling, and gambling. Christmas was rescued in 19th -century England by the rise of the middle class, with help from Charles Dickens and Prince Albert, who popularized the Christmas tree.

If the conspicuous consumerism of Christmas has got you down, why not follow the advice of Bill McKibben, an environmental journalist and author of "Hundred Dollar Holiday: The Case for a More Joyful Christmas". McKibben has long championed a movement that advocates a $100 spending limit per family as a way of "reclaiming the holidays."

"The point is not to stop giving; the point is to give things that matter," says McKibben, who offers time, attention, memories and joy as the things that matter to most people.

When the Center for a New American Dream sponsored a "What I Really Want That Money Can't Buy" essay contest, 14-year-old Erika Conant echoed McKibben's sentiments when she wrote as part of her entry: "What I really want is for all parents to just spend time with their kids. We would have a happier country."

There are ways to be a "greener" shopper. If you're wondering whether the gift you're considering was made in a "sweat shop," tested on animals or harmful to the environment, look up products and companies on the www.responsibleshopper.org/ web site. You can also try the www.ethicalshopper.com web site, which screens products for social consciousness, community awareness, and ethical standards, and offers a wide variety of products. If you want to shop smarter and greener, you'll find truly healthy, earth-friendly alternatives that make a difference at www.greenmarketplace.com.

The Canadian magazine Adbusters argues that consumption is wrecking the environment and compromising the quality of life. Their solution is a get-free, get-out-of-consumption jail card: A Christmas Gift Exemption Voucher that you can find on http://adbusters.org/campaigns/bnd/toolbox/voucher.html.

Have a Merry "little" Christmas.

ONE SMALL STEP - Cut down on wrapping paper with colourful cloth bags sewn by local artisans and sold in local craft stores. Instead of gift exchanges with friends, get together for a potluck supper. Carefully estimate the food required per person for the Christmas feast to avoid wasted leftovers. Choose a tree that can be replanted or mulched.

RESOURCES - Mark Burch's books are available from New Society Publishers at www.newsociety.com. Gerry Bowler's Encyclopedia of Christmas is available at http://www.mcclelland.com/releases/encyclopedia_christmas.html. Bill McKibben's book is available through the www.simpleliving.org/ web site. The Center for a New American Dream web site is www.newdream.org/. 42 ways to trim your holiday waistline can be found at http://cygnus-group.com/ULS/ULSDAY/42ways.html. The Co-op America web site at www.coopamerica.com has a link to the responsible shopper site as well as many suggestions for planning a stress-free holiday including 10 responsible gift wrap ideas. Co-op America also has much information about buying "sweatshop" free, including a link to a sister web site www.sweatshops.org. Toys and apparel are both popular gift items at Christmas and also products produced by child labour in sweatshops. Visit this web site before you buy. Robert Lilienfeld and William Rathje are the authors of "Use Less Stuff" which has a useful chapter on less consumptive holidays. There are many books about having a green Christmas. One of the first was "The First Green Christmas" written by The Evergreen Alliance and published by Halo Books of San Francisco. The article "Simplify the Holidays" is available at http://www.enn.com/features/1999/12/121199/greenholiday_7901.asp.

All columns archived here are copyright © 2000 by Michael Jessen, all rights reserved. If you wish to print an individual column for your own use, please do so. If you wish to publish any of the columns in either print or electronic format, please contact the author at toenail@netidea.com to arrange appropriate payment.