The Reason for the Season

small-gifts.jpgAll those beautiful autumn leaves have fallen, and are swirling around and collecting in windrows on the porch.  The last geese are passing high overhead, with that uniquely mournful sound of the year’s end, and in their place the black crows of winter congregate in the bare trees.  The Season of what should be quiet reflection is upon us.

But it’s getting harder all the time to find a moment of quiet.  Every year the pace seems to accelerate, begging the question: how to enjoy the Christmas Hanukkah Solstice Kwaanza Festivus Holiday season without it being overtaken by the stressful, ethically distasteful necessity of buying stuff for people that they don’t really need and maybe don’t even want? 

cart-full-of-gifts.jpgHere’s an idea, or actually ten of them from Grist’s list of “stuff-free gift ideas“.

1. Purchase carbon offsets
2. Write IOU’s
3. Stop your loved ones’ junk mail
4. Adopt a creature or an acre of rainforest
5. Sign up for community-supported agriculture (CSA)
6. Teach a skill
7. Make plans
8. Give a membership or donate to a cause
9. Get crafty
10. Ply with eco-booze

Here are a few more, partially overlapping ideas from the Natural Resources Defense Council.  No doubt you can think of many other creative ideas along these lines that will actually give cheer rather than guilt and dread — that’s the point.  In that vein, may I recommend the always thoughtful and moving Bill McKibben, with an essay on “What’s wrong with Christmas“.  An excerpt:

“[T]his pleasure gap allows for a concentrated opportunity to begin rethinking our economic life. If stuff isn’t valuable anymore, what is? Time, clearly. A gift of time — a coupon for a back rub, or a trip to the museum, or a dinner prepared someday in the future — is a gift whose exchange rate is figured in a stronger currency (if you’re an economics major, think euros vs. dollars). Or gifts can come embedded with time already spent: a jar of homemade jam, a stack of firewood in the back yard.”

green_menorah.bmpThe same thing goes for Hanukkah, as articulated in this essay by Rabbis Arthur Waskow and Jeff Sultar.  An excerpt: “if we . . . act together, a seemingly small group of people can overcome a seemingly intractable crisis. We can, as in days of old, turn this time of darkness into one of light.”  You can read more about the Green Menorah Covenant here.

st_francis.jpgBill McKibben again:

“But the second you do break out of it — the second your family becomes one of those that exchanges used books at Christmas, or decides to follow St. Francis’ Yule tradition of wandering the park and throwing seed so that the birds too could celebrate, or makes it an annual custom to serve turkey dinner at the homeless shelter — then you start sharing in the deep human secret that consumer society is set up to obscure: the things that please us most are almost always counterintuitive. We need to be out in the cold air, we need to think about others, we need to serve.”

mistletoe.bmpSpeaking of cold air, one of my fondest memories of Christmas during my adult life was of one year, in graduate school in coastal North Carolina, when I spontaneously decided to go around climbing live oaks (not too dangerous — they’re a but stunted in the sandy soil there) to cut berried sprigs of the mistletoe that infests them abundantly in that area, and make them into gifts for friends.  Liz and I then picked some holly, arranged them all together with some ribbon, and went door to door delivering them to friends with Holiday greetings.  Probably with some inexpensive red wine too, I don’t remember.  We were graduate students so, of course, we had no money.  The gift was warmth and merriment — it cost us almost nothing, and its physical manifestation was green (literally) and compostable at the end of the Season.

May there be peace on earth, and good will toward all.  And don’t forget the misteltoe!

About Emmett Duffy

I am a Natural Patriot and an ecologist with expertise in biodiversity and its importance to human society. My day job is Professor of Marine Science at the College of William and Mary in Virginia.
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5 Responses to The Reason for the Season

  1. Mr. R says:

    I’m sorry, but if someone bought me carbon offsets for Christmas I would think they were total tools. Who does that? I mean first, not only are they figments of the public’s imagination (i.e., there’s no master carbon counter who figures out the global supply of carbon and just how much can be fixed into trees or biomass without overlapping someone else’s offsetting; also, the LA Times and NY Times have thoroughly debunked the companies selling them as essentially just giving money to projects like tree planing that were going to happen anyway), they’re also tacky.

    It’s like saying “Oh hey, I thought I’d give you a present that makes it OK to do things like drive your car, refrigerate food, and respire.” Gee thanks! Or “You know, when I thought about what you really wanted, I thought it would be to give money to a corporation that doesn’t really do anything but try and make you feel better.” There are so many better alternaives–buy your wife diamonds. The carbon in them never decomposes into CO2, so it’s like a forever-carbon-offset!

    In short, if I got carbon offsets for Christmas, I would say “Awww, you shouldn’t have”, and mean it.

  2. Emmett Duffy says:

    OK, Mr. R, I’ll be sure to cross that off my list for your present this year.

    Obviously, any gift has to be selected with the recipient’s appreciation in mind. If they favor hummers and Ann Coulter books, this list will probably not prove very useful.

    BTW, if you’re interested in a little more nuance, the link to carbon offsets mentioned in the post takes you to a 45-page report that discusses which companies and practices are bogus and which actually do good. It’s worth reading for those willing to go beyond the partisan talking points.

    Merry Christmas!

  3. Sarah says:

    Diamonds may not ever decompose into anything environmentally harmful, but buying them is a far cry from anything resembling a progressive and harmless act. Especially if one has any interest in maintaining basic quality of life for the human beings in diamond-producing regions around the world.

  4. Mr. R says:

    Actually, most conservative now favor Michael Savage books, even the non-political stuff or relative classics (e.g., “Liberalism is a Mental Disorder”) over Coulter–it’s a veritable Renaissance of Savage literature.

    Merry Christmas to you, too. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to get back to following headlines about the UN Secretary-General flying thousands of miles just to go to a concert in the US, and then it’s back to Europe, Japan, etc… all in the span of a few days. Perhaps someone should buy him a few acres of forest for offsets…

  5. Al Gates says:

    The best idea: Don’t buy anything.