The Problem with Christmas
Stay up to date with the latest headlines via email.
The problem with Christmas is not the batteries. The problem isn't even really the stuff. The problem with Christmas is that no one much likes it anymore.
If you poll Americans this time of year, far more of them regard the approaching holidays with dread than anticipation. It has long since become too busy, too expensive, too centered around acquiring that which we do not need. In fact, it's the perfect crystallization of the American economy -- the American consumer experience squeezed into a manic week, a week that people find themselves hoping will soon end so that on Jan. 2 they can return to the mere routine hecticity of their lives.
From that central truth, a few propositions follow:
- Replacing regular stuff with green stuff isn't getting very close to the root of the problem. If for some reason you need to give someone a motorized spice rack, then a motorized spice rack with a more efficient motor is quite clearly better. But it's also quite clearly beside the point.
- Stuff itself is a problem less because of its environmental toll (though that is quite high) than because it's increasingly meaningless. Think of your friends. Are many of them lacking in stuff? Or is the first question that forms in their minds when a new gift arrives from under the tree: "Where am I going to put this?"
- But this 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.
- Gifts can also be reconfigured to remove some of the hyperindividualism that marks our consumer society. Ask yourself what you'd rather receive: another thing, or a homemade card saying that, say, a cow had been purchased in your name and was now providing milk for a Tanzanian family that hadn't had milk before. (Note: this line of reasoning is probably especially strong for those of us who are Christians, and recall that the occasion we're celebrating is the birth of a man who said to give all that we had to the poor.)
- Since Christmas has long been in the business of baptizing consumption, it's a good place to start eroding consumption's allure. Newfound pleasures from a simpler holiday -- some silence, some companionship -- suddenly start to seem attractive. Maybe that attraction will remain with us even unto February.
That would be good, because our environmental problem, at root, isn't that the stuff we're buying uses too much energy or too much plastic, or that its paint has lead in it, or that it's been shipped too far. Our environmental problem is that we consume way too much because we've agreed to try and meet basic human needs -- status, respect, affection -- with material ends. And no time more so than at Christmas, when Santa rides in on a Norelco razor. It's a kind of joint conspiracy that few of us dare break out of, even though we all understand at some level that it's not working. What if you don't give your kids a "proper Christmas"?
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.
There are, of course, some who will say that a course like the one I'm describing here will damage the economy -- that anyone who proposes a different Yuletide is a "grinch." (This, by the way, is a major literary faux pas. Close reading -- even cursory reading, or even viewing the annual television special, will remind one that it was in fact the grinch himself who believed that Christmas came in a box. He turned out to be wrong, as the Whos of Whoville, those communists, made clear.) You could answer those people by saying, "Well, it won't all happen at once, and the economy will have time to adjust." Or you could answer by saying, "Maybe you're right. And maybe the economy isn't therefore quite as rational and as obvious as we would like to believe, if in fact it depends on a corrupted celebration of Jesus' birth to stagger on for another year."
The second answer appeals to me. We need a kiss to break our enchantment, and a kiss (a coupon for a kiss! Or a dozen!) is a perfectly fine gift to give for Christmas.
Bill McKibben is the author of 10 books, most recently Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future. He is a scholar in residence at Middlebury College in Vermont.