During the holidays I had to take careful stock of some of the conflicts that exist between how we celebrate this time of year and more ethical questions such as how excessive purchases come at a toll of mounting damage to the environment and exploitation of human life. We are living in an era where merely opening our browsers invokes algorithms that materialise on our screens an entire panoply of items that we likely have bought in the past or will need in the future. Well, sort of. It’s not magic, but between dating applications, grocery apps which tell us what to restock in our kitchens, apps to remind us when to refill our dental floss, and trading algorithms, we are living in a world where material culture seems to be the end game of all human and virtual interactions, even when it seems that technology decreases our need for material (e.g. paper, envelops, trips to the post office).
I have a manifesto on my portal which is principally anti-materialist. It outlines some of my thoughts about how we can stop adding to the mounting ecological disaster while setting up an ethical approach to human interactions. I suggest what humans can do “to alleviate economic inequality and environmental ruin” given that we seem to overindulge in the holidays without much reflection. Aside from being in complete agreement with the character of Sheldon (from television’s Big Bang Theory) about the inutility of gifts, still there is still enormous pressure to exchange Christmas gifts, especially when children are involved.
In fact, I have just dealt with this head-on where, for the first time in her life, one of my children was conscious of the commodity fetishism found throughout the structures of the holiday period. Even with my “presence, not presents” attitude towards the holidays, my four-year-old wanted material items. I have discussed this subject for many years having thought long and hard about how to indulge my children with happiness and love at this time of year, wondering if beginning that tradition of gift-giving was beneficial, much less necessary. Of course, to a four-year-old, everything seems necessary. So I set out to discuss with my daughter various items that might be rethought.
First on my daughter’s list: a Christmas tree. I asked her why she wanted one. The answer: she wanted to decorate it. So, I posed options: a small Christmas tree, a recyclable Christmas tree, or no Christmas tree in the house and instead we adopt a tree in the park nearby. As I researched and thought about everything, I learned that the first two options were hardly ecological: many smaller trees do not survive to adulthood and the shipping to and fro of so-called ecological trees only swapped out the green points of not killing a tree for the wasted fuel needed to pick up and return these trees. Also, the park nearby contains dozens of trees, but none with branches adapted to decoration. And, did we want to risk that decorations are blown away, only to pollute the park? I discovered that being ethical and ecological was more than I had bargained for.
So, the option we turned to was a wooden stick tree which we could decorate and re-use every year. It turned out to be a most minimalist and beautiful option, which upon assembly necessitated our decorating it. So we set about making crafts where we created dozens of paper and cookie decorations, plus a few items from our home that we added to the tree.
Then came the issue of the “presents”. I discovered speaking with a friend that she and her partner had decided to give their children one gift each. I had already been setting up my daughter with the knowledge that we were not going to do gifts and yet felt guilty enough to have a back up gift in case the guilt was too much for me to bear. Still, even with that as a possible solution to remedy her expectations, I was left in the same predicament in which I began: there was nothing I could buy my two-year-old. He has everything a child at that age wants and he is, after all, two: a yogurt lid is all he desires these days. So in order to give my daughter a gift, I would then be forced to match her present with a gift for my son, which would mean that I would be buying something just to buy it. All this struck me as incredibly circular and there I was stuck within the very same logic Sheldon had brilliantly explained, underscoring all the more why I have opted out of gifts my entire adult life.
As Christmas approached, I realised that the guilt that I was experiencing was mine, and mine alone. Simply put, I feared my daughter would be disappointed in not having the gifts that she had heard about from other children. Hanukkah and Christmas came and went and my children and I had the best gift-less time together. How this translates today as my daughter is back at school and might be disappointed to learn that she is the only child without Christmas presents is another story. I am hoping that we might be creating a holiday tradition for our family whereby participating in cooking, creating crafts, watching movies, playing games, singing, and dancing become the bonds of this holiday, replacing the focus on materialism. And herein lies my holiday lesson: that what I thought my children would miss, we already had—each other.