'Tis the Season to Give

December 21, 2003

By Michael Jessen

There is much to love about Christmas and more than a little to lament.

It's a quixotic season shrouded in snowy ideals of the perfect gift that often results in careless kitsch just for the sake of giving something. The wonder of celebrating Jesus' birthday is almost forgotten in the rush to open our wallets. Not surprising that Ebenezer Scrooge thought Christmas "A poor excuse for picking a man's pocket every twenty-fifth of December!"

While many indulge in overspending -- straining credit cards to their limits -- others try to take care of the less fortunate. Salvation Army bells ring out for donations to their Christmas kettles. Food banks solicit nourishment for times beyond the Christmas Day meal. And in Nelson, the Halo Hampers program tries to provide gifts and food baskets for the truly needy.

Christmas can be a time of profound joy spent with friends and family, yet these winter weeks also teem with stress and deep depression in some. For many, it is just too much for too long -- too much food, too much drink, too much music, too many parties, and too much money.

A Leger Marketing survey indicates Canadians plan to spend an average of $575 on gifts during the holiday season. The figure is down $20 from a similar Leger poll conducted in 2001.

Estimates of spending varied widely depending on geography. While shoppers in Atlantic Canada will spend an average of $728, Quebecers will only fork out an average of $397. Each British Columbian will spend an estimated $622 on gifts.

Not surprisingly, the more income Canadians have, they more they plan to spend. Those with annual incomes of less than $20,000 said they would spend $375 while those earning $60,000 or more planned to shell out $758.

The Center for a New American Dream (http://www.newdream.org/) said the average American planned to spend $1,042 on holiday gifts in 2001 and that consumer debt was rising twice as fast as wages in the U.S. However, the Center's latest holiday poll (http://www.newdream.org/holiday/poll02.html) showed that more than half of all Americans (54%) feel that spending less money on gifts will actually allow them to focus more on the true meaning of the holidays, and nearly four out of five Americans surveyed (77%) said that they would like to have a more simplified holiday this year.

Canada's Mennonites believe they also have an answer to combat the rampant consumerism in December -- Buy Nothing Christmas (http://www.buynothingchristmas.org/). Their web site offers a way to say "enough" and join a movement dedicated to reviving the original meaning of Christmas giving. Although started by Mennonites, the national initiative is "open to anyone with a thirst for change and a desire for action."

Check out http://www.buynothingchristmas.org/resources/index.html for a selection of resources including posters, song cards, mini information sheets, a banner link like the one above, and a three session Christmas Study Guide.

Forty-three suggestions for alternative Christmas gifts can be found at http://www.buynothingchristmas.org/alternatives/index.html.

If you do not want to give more "stuff" to a friend or relative, make a contribution in their name. Here's a sampling of items for a buy-nothing list that appeared in the December 6th Globe and Mail:

 A pair of hens and a rooster for a family in a developing country: $50, World Vision (http://www.worldvision.ca).

 A tree planted to enhance green space in Canadian cities: $35, Evergreen (http://www.evergreen.ca).

 A table and a chair for a student in Vietnam: $10.25, Ten Thousand Villages (http://www.tenthousandvillages.ca).

 Adopt a polar bear to help save the species: $40, comes with a small stuffed animal, World Wildlife Fund (http://www.wwf.ca).

 A "gift of peace" card: Cost is a donation to Oxfam Canada (http://www.oxfam.ca).

 Clothes, food or toys for a homeless shelter or group home in your neighbourhood.

 A contribution to the organization or charity of your choice. For tips on how to give wisely, visit http://www.ccp.ca/brochures/give_generously.asp).

 Give coupons good for a meaningful experience (a walk in a park or by a river, an evening out) or service (babysitting, a massage, home repairs).

 Make something: a photo album, fudge, a book of quotes, a recipe collection.

 Give away a valued possession.

Ten Thousand Villages is a chain of 36 shops across Canada that sell "fair-trade gifts" made in developing countries, along with "living gift" options, such as the purchase of an avocado tree for a village in Peru ($1.54) or a pig for a family in Nigeria ($38). Store staff say they are expecting a 25-percent increase in living-gift sales this year.

If you think it's time to abandon the shopping mall for some alternative type of gift, you might want to keep the following in mind: a recent U.S. study showed that 33 percent of gift recipients admitted to throwing Christmas presents straight into the trash. Thirty-five percent said they had at least on unused gift sitting in a closet, according to the survey conducted by Opinion Research Corp. and cited on Adbusters' anti-consumption web site http://www.adbusters.org.

Adbusters Media Foundation founder Kalle Lasn says overconsumption leads to environmental problems caused by everything from increased driving during the holidays to the energy used to make products. He says it causes psychological stress and has political consequences because only a fifth of the world's population consumes about 86 percent of its material goods.

"I think our Christmas to some degree has been hijacked from us and turned into this consumption binge, and I really regret that," Lasn, who is also editor-in-chief of the foundation's magazine Adbusters, said in a recent interview with Canadian Press.

"I would suggest to the Canadian people that if they think a little more deeply about what this consumption binge at Christmas time really means, then maybe instead of increasing their consumption this year or keeping it level, maybe we can all cut back a little bit and help the environment, help our own mental health and, above all, make a little step forward in this war against terrorism."

We are in danger of developing an anti-Christmas attitude. Billy Bob Thornton's latest movie Bad Santa is just one example of the black humour that is infusing this soulful season.

If you feel the need to make the season more meaningful, you may want to stick to your principles and consider the giftless bandwagon. Christmas is too important to just shop till you stop.

RESOURCES - Gift giving reaches its peak during the Christmas season; unfortunately so does the amount of waste we create. The Union of Concerned Scientists (http://www.ucsusa.org) says Americans create 25% more garbage between Thanksgiving and New Years Eve than during the rest of the year.

Here are a few tips from the UCS Action Centre (http://www.ucsaction.org) to help you have a greener holiday:

Life span: Look for gifts that are long-lasting and durable, or that can be passed onto someone else when your recipient has finished using it. For the person who already has everything, consider giving a personalized gift (see suggestions below).

Materials: Try to purchase products made from organic or recycled materials, in minimal, recyclable packaging. If you're buying electronic or household items, look for the most energy-efficient models. You can ask store clerks for this information or research products online.

BYOB: Bring your own tote bag to carry gifts, avoiding the waste of paper and plastic bags.

Plan ahead: Consolidate your shopping trips to save gas. Shop locally, or skip driving altogether by shopping online.

Creative gift wrapping: If each American household wrapped three gifts in reused materials, enough paper would be saved to cover 45,000 football fields.* Reuse old wrapping paper, gift bags or boxes, and Sunday comics, or make cloth bags in which to present your gifts.

Cards: Purchase cards made from recycled paper, or cut the picture side off of old cards and send them as postcards. Better yet, skip paper altogether and wish a happy holiday to loved ones via the Internet ("e-cards"), telephone, or in person.

Stumped for gift ideas? Here are just a few specific suggestions:

Food: Make cookies, breads, or jams and present them in reusable tins and jars, or give a pre-made, frozen gourmet dinner right in the baking dish.

Gift certificates: Offer to do yard work, shovel snow, babysit, walk the dog, or cook dinner.

Donations: Make a donation in someone's name to a charity he or she would appreciate. (The Union of Concerned Scientists offers gift memberships as do many organizations.)

For related information, see these pages: Real Goods www.realgoods.com

E-Cards www.ecards.com

Gaiam www.gaiam.com

Citizens Environmental Research Institute www.ceriworld.org/holiday_gifts.htm

University of Colorado at Boulder www.colorado.edu/recycling/reduce_reuse/greening_holidays.html

California Department of Conservation www.greengiftguide.com

42 Ways to Trim Your Holiday Wasteline www.use-less-stuff.com/ULSDAY/42ways.html

Michael Jessen is a consultant on sustainability issues in Nelson, BC. He can be reached by telephone at 250-229-5632 or by e-mail at zerowaste@netidea.com. His business Zero Waste Services has an award-winning web site at http://www.zerowaste.ca.

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.