The Undertow of Materialism

Trust me, I know how it is. You feel like you can just dip your toe into that ocean of consumerism this holiday season and walk away unscathed. Keeping it simple this year, you say? Not that many gifts or toys or decorations, you promise? And then one turns to two which turns to ten and whoosh! You are swept away. Just like that.

And in that rip current of consumerism, there aren’t only dollars floating into oblivion, there is waste.

Think of all the things thrown away during the holidays: wrapping paper, tissue paper, special little note cards, holiday cards you mail, tape, that do-hicky that holds the tape on your wrist (this includes all those other “helpful” plastic gadgets), shopping bags, receipts, fuel, gas, electricity, food, decorations and the list goes on and on. Remember last year seeing all the trash bins overflowing with empty boxes? What about the trash bag your relatives use for just wrapping paper, tissue, and bows that gets yearly heaved into the garbage?

Here are some of my musings on what I am going to try this season to minimize my holiday waste:

  • Encourage my family to make simple gifts sans wrapping, instead of buying gifts.
  • We use this rule at our house for all occasions especially this time of year: if you get a gift, you give a gift. When one toy is received, you donate one that you own. It teaches children about the act of sharing while keeping a reasonable and manageable amount of play items around.
  • I myself am not a fan of the Christmas List, but when pressed to submit one to family, I say books. Seuss, Silverstein, and other traditional holiday classics from all cultures that will be loved year after year.
  • I am making all of my holiday purchases this year via local small businesses. If we do not support our local small business in today’s economy they will not be able to maintain their business, let alone provide for their family this holiday season. If you choose to spend, spend locally. I know many people shop online and although the transportation expense may not be paid by you personally, it is impacting the environment.
  • We are sending holiday cards via email rather than hard copies.
  • For the kids, we will reserve one big gift for purchase that they have very much wanted. Lucky for us our kids love wood Montessori inspired toys and books.
  • Reserve a special time at night to turn on the holiday lights on the inside tree. They don’t need to be on all night. (Trust me, I am Christmas tree junkie and adore the white lights.)
  • No exterior lights.
  • Focus on someone else this season. Many people across the country and in our own neighborhoods have lost their homes and their jobs. Studies have shown that incidences of depression and mental illness spike around the holidays. Add a failing economy and impending cold weather to an already tense time and you have a recipe for social crisis every December. Perhaps this year we can all contact our local homeless and women’s shelters, churches, social services organizations, community leaders and local businesses to see how we can give of ourselves. Our time, our talents, our resources. To give during the holiday season is beyond charity: it is humanity.

Last year I asked my 4-year-old son what he would ask Santa to bring him for Christmas. Secretly I thought he would ramble a little and I could lay in bed for a couple more winks before getting up. He was quiet before he said, “That’s okay. I have enough.” I opened my eyes to his big genuine smile and it brought tears to my eyes. He wasn’t kidding. In this jaded world sometimes it takes the love and wisdom of a child to make us really think about what is important.

As I hugged him, he started talking about the people that live in Lincoln Park near our home. A knot in my throat swelled as he told me (very matter of fact) that they do not have homes or beds. And that they don’t have food. When I asked what he thought we could do to help, he told me that we could get them food and soap. I agreed. We could also buy hot food and grocery gift cards and hand them out over the winter season. His face lit up with an epiphany. “Mom! We could buy them houses!” he shouted.

I have never been more proud than that moment. A child who doesn’t ask anything of Santa. A child who could love someone he doesn’t even know, relate to their suffering, and take it upon himself to make a positive difference. He taught me a lesson that I will never forget for the rest of my days. My cup truly runneth over.

An original 5 Minutes for Going Green post. Read more about Jen’s adventures going green and raising a family as The Eco Chic Organizer.

11 Responses to The Undertow of Materialism
  1. Alline
    November 4, 2008 | 12:22 pm

    Jen, this is absolutely lovely. You are obviously doing something wonderful to have nurtured such a caring, empathetic child. I also applaud your list (although I wouldn’t recommend “Uncle Shelby’s ABZ’s” for kids too young to understand sarcasm…):)

  2. Jessica/Green Mamma
    November 4, 2008 | 2:29 pm

    Thank you for this post. My husband and I are also anxious about an overly materialistic holiday with grandparents. Our solution? We’re buying a used train table and encouraging grandparents to buy “new” trains, etc. I like your idea for suggesting books; another great gift idea for children are “new” art supplies. We’ll probably buy art and learning tools for our dd, but I’ll likely look in consignment and thrift shops for much of our gifts.

  3. [email protected]
    November 4, 2008 | 3:39 pm

    What a lovely experience for you to have! Clearly you are sending the right message to your child.

    While I agree with you about the importance of shopping locally in order to support small businesses, I’m curious about your conclusion regarding the environmental impact. Why would buying something locally and packing it and shipping it somewhere yourself have less of an environmental impact than buying something from say, Amazon, and having them pack it and ship it? You lost me on that one.

  4. Susan (5 Minutes for Mom)
    November 7, 2008 | 8:06 pm

    Wow, you have one amazing little boy!!!

    I agree that Christmas consumerism is rather crazy… and personally, I try to tone it down a little around here and focus on the real meaning of Christmas.

    As for a ‘Green Christmas’ I score points for not sending out Christmas cards… LOL… but mainly because I’m too busy and disorganized. (And, on the serious side, I completely think that all those cards are a waste of trees.)

    But, while I do agree with you about the positive impact of us all reducing wasteful purchases, I think it is still good to remember that consumers shopping does drive the economy. And if everyone all of a sudden stopped shopping, we’d actually be in trouble. Think of all the jobs that would be lost.

    (And hey, I own online stores… so I can’t tell people not to shop online. LOL)

    It is complicated… and I’m definitely not trying to disagree with you. All your suggestions are fantastic. It’s just that our economy is such a fragile beast and we all live off of the balance of consumerism.

    But of course, we all should move towards a ‘Green Future’ where we don’t all survive on an economy driven by waste. And as we slowly get there, hopefully we’ll all adjust along the way and keep our economy alive (and hopefully better than it is today.)

  5. Checking In With Our Sisters
    November 7, 2008 | 9:00 pm

    […] has started an interesting discussion about the wasteful consumerism that occurs at Christmas. Click over and tell us what you think about the The Undertow of […]

  6. Condo Blues
    November 7, 2008 | 10:18 pm

    Actually I am a fan of the Christmas list because it helps me choose gifts that are meaninful to the person I am giving them to and will be well loved and used. I perfer to look at it as a list of suggestions however, I have a few people on my gift list (older folks too!) who look at the Christmas list as a List of Yearly Demands. I don’t like that type of list at all.

  7. Lori Ann
    November 7, 2008 | 10:43 pm

    So sweet! I agree that you’re clearly sending the right message to your son. I like all your ideas and am checking several of the links for ideas to implement!

  8. Jen
    November 7, 2008 | 10:49 pm

    Alline- you are so right! I know Uncle Shelby sometimes gets a little grown up!!

    Jessica- you have a great idea with the table & the art supplies. I love it!

    Mary- you might have misunderstood me. We don’t buy locally and ship it somewhere. I think that is what you were talking about. We make gifts or buy locally.

    Thanks Susan- while I see your point about consumerism, let’s face it… we all have to buy things at one point or another. It isn’t realistic to think that people will stop shopping- ever. I think we can still boost the economy by shopping smarter, living within our means and by helping our local businesses. There should be a logical harmony when spending. My opinion is that it doesn’t do society any good when people buy what they can’t afford. The current state of the economy is a good example of that culture.

    Many many thanks for all your comments. Always good to get feedback!!

  9. Meg
    November 12, 2008 | 8:16 am

    Really great article!

    Even if Jen were to be shipping pressies off to other locations, it still has a more positive impact for her to buy local.

    Local businesses are accountable to their local communities unlike such corporate giants such as Amazon who generally consider themselves primarily accountable to their shareholders.

    By supporting local businesses, we keep more money circulating in our local communities.

    Supporting local producers/artisans/crafters is supporting Fair Trade in your own wider community. You allow the person creating the goods to earn a fair price for their hard work by cutting out the middlemen who siphon off a large percentage of the final purchase price for packaging, transport and advertising.

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