Monday, November 26, 2012

Simplifying isn't that simple

[cue music] It's the most ludicrous time of the year....

A friend of mine, in an invitation to his mid-December game party, did a pretty good job of summing up the frenzy that marks the "holiday season" for most Americans:
It is Christmas shopping season.  The shoppers are at the mall in droves, screaming their car horns at the pedestrians to make them hurry and free up a parking space.  The housewives are clobbering each other in fights over this year's incarnation of the Beanie Baby.  People are yelling at each other for wishing them a "Happy Holiday" instead of a "Merry Christmas" (or vice versa).  People are putting up enormous Santa balloons in their yards, bigger than my house, and somehow believing they look cute.  What could possibly be more insane than the way people behave at this time of year?
Of course, there are, as always, those who oppose the relentless commercialism of the holiday. Some of these are religious Christians trying to refocus the holiday on its spiritual meaning; others are environmentalists who want to reduce the waste associated with the holiday; and still others are cash-strapped folks looking for ways to have something left in their wallets when the New Year rolls around. The most recent "InBalance" newsletter from the Center for the New American Dream contained the group's annual exhortation from to "Simplify the Holidays," with a list of 15 ideas for cutting back on the number and cost of gifts, reducing paper waste, and finding more meaningful ways to celebrate. And last week's mail brought a copy of the Green American featuring the headline "Go Green for the Holidays," with articles on:
  • how to throw a Fair Trade house party. This is like a Tupperware party, only with handwoven baskets, jewelry, woolens and other items that are perfect for the holidays because no one actually needs them.
  • how to "green" holiday traditions like the Yule log (get a clean-burning Duraflame or Java-Log instead) and gift wrapping (choose reusable bags, fabric scraps, or newspaper comics).
  • whether a live or a synthetic tree is more eco-friendly. (Spoiler: decorating an outdoor tree or a live, potted tree is better than either.)
  • 6 "really terrible" gift ideas, including PVC plastic toys and anything wrapped in that incredibly annoying clamshell plastic that's all but impossible to get open and, once open, goes straight into the trash.
  • green gifts and traditions, like giving secondhand gifts, giving gifts of homemade food or body-care products, or "giving the gift of time" by extending invitations to friends and family.
In principle, I agree with all of these ideas. But when I think about putting them into practice, I always come up against some kind of roadblock. For example, I'd love to reduce packaging waste by wrapping gifts in fabric or reusable bags—but knowing the way Christmas Day tends to go down at my in-laws' house, I'm sure this theoretically sustainable packaging would just end up being tossed in the trash with all the rest of the wrappings. (We are already bucking the trend by saving the paper from our own presents so that the intact parts can be reused next year—much to the amusement of the rest of the family.)

Buying secondhand gifts is another idea I love in principle, as it's not only cheaper but reduces waste and energy use as well. In practice, though, I can never seem to get more than about 30 percent of our gifts this way. This year, as Thanksgiving approached, I thought we were in pretty good shape gift-wise; our yard-sale, book-sale, and Freecycle finds had yielded at least one secondhand gift for nearly everyone on Brian's side of the family, so I figured we'd just have to fill in with a few new items for my family members. But then reality kicked in. The gift lists submitted to us by the family members we hadn't yet shopped for were highly specific, and none of the items on them could be found secondhand. Moreover, most of the small items we'd already acquired ended up being deemed too small to be given as the sole gift, so we had to buy more stuff even for the folks I thought were already covered. Thus, within the past couple of weeks, both the number of presents and the total spent have nearly doubled.

Part of the problem is the sheer volume of gifts. This bothers me not just because of the expense—in fact, I honestly think it's not even primarily because of the expense—but because the more presents you give or receive, the less attention you can pay to any one of them. I would much rather receive only one present that's the right present, the one present that's just what I wanted (or better yet, just what I never knew I wanted until I saw it), than a dozen presents that are just okay—chosen by a dozen people, or half a dozen, who clearly picked them out because they had to get me something. And I would, all cost considerations aside, much rather give one present and have it be noticed and appreciated than give a dozen and have them be glanced at and tossed aside in the rush to get through the two-hour-long Rite of Opening.

Wouldn't it be nice, I mused to Brian one night, if we could just decide to give only presents that we truly believed the recipient would really, really love? And if we didn't happen to find a present that a given person would really love, we could just not give one, and know that there would be no hard feelings? Wouldn't it be great not have to worry about just finding something for every single person on our list? (You might think the easiest way to cut down on the shopping, and the associated worrying, would be to reduce the size of the list itself—but even if gift-giving were limited to the immediate family, that would still include 20 people: me, my husband, our parents, our siblings, their spouses, and their kids. And some of those people have birthdays in December as well, increasing the total number of presents still more.)

Alas, I fear this idea is no more than a pipe dream. Like reusable wrappings, the practice of giving presents selectively would probably be too foreign to the Christmastime culture of the family. Those who didn't get something would probably notice, and would probably feel hurt. And I guess, when all's said and done, it's better to put up with a bit of pre-holiday stress than to have hurt feelings at Christmastime. I just wish that there were some way to avoid both.

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