"How do we consume in a way that does justice to the lives that we take?"
- Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants, 2013
This passage of Braiding Sweetgrass spoke to me today, as the sugarplum fairy dust of the holiday settles. This year was the first in many that I opened my heart and mind to the joy of holidays and really embraced the traditions and events. I have a tree. I even bought a string of lights. And I have to admit it brings me immense joy to see my colorful tree lit up in these long winter nights.
So averse to Christmas I had become, I literally played a Grinch character on a program for children overseas teaching them about American holidays. My main Grinchy points:
The holiday is destructive, through and through -
- to the environment.
- to relationships.
- to the human psyche.
7 out-of-the-gift-box ways you can be a more conscious consumer and a more thoughtful gift-giver
For the children, I focused on the tangible, measurable impacts on the environment:
lights: unnecessary & excessive energy consumption
decorations: unnecessary & excessive plastic/oil consumption
gift wrap: unnecessary & excessive paper/tree consumption
To Kimmerer's point, how do we participate in holiday traditions as conscious consumers?
In a section of Braiding Sweetgrass titled "Maple Nation: A Citizenship Guide," Kimmerer explains
our roles as consumers, or heterotrophs:
"It would be so satisfying to provide for the wellbeing of others -- like being a mother again. Like being needed. Shade, medicine, berries, roots; there would be no end to it. As a plant I could make the fire, hold the nest, heal the wound, fill the brimming pot.
But this generosity is beyond my realm, as I am a mere heterotroph, a feeder on the carbon transmuted by others. In order to live, I must consume. That's the way the world works, the exchange of a life for a life, the endless cycling between my body and the body of the world."
Thank you, Madame Kimmerer, for your insight. I have felt this, and appreciate your words to communicate the feeling. The guilt I feel for consuming extends to even the smallest broccoli flowers I get from local farmers. What life could that beautiful little broccoli flower have lived if I hadn't cut it short for the sake of my own sustenance...? These thoughts truly rest in my mind some quiet days.
So when it comes to celebrating the holiday, I weighed the gratification I and others get from all the celebrations with the effect it has on the world. It didn't add up for me.
Not only speaking to the whirlwind of consumers as shoppers, and all the components involved (shipping costs, commuting to and from shopping centers, bags/packaging at the point of purchase, etc), but to the whole picture. Christmas effects the economy of the entire world, with America leading the way as consumers. Of everything.
The last year I played Grinch, I was so fortunate to spend the holiday in my hometown with family after a long, challenging trip to Asia. The pandemic had already begun in China where I had just traveled from, and I was recovering from a lengthy respiratory illness. So this was the perfect Christmas to spend in quiet meditation and reflection, producing more than I consumed.
From this place of quiet, I was inspired from the depths of my heart for my dear baby niece. Everyone always jokes about how babies prefer to play with the packaging more than the brand new toy you bought them inside it. I ran with that idea, using up scraps of old gift wrap paper and other craft materials around my mom's house.
So many sleepless hours, redirecting worry about friends overseas into an up-cycled creation for a baby girl. This rekindled that joy of Christmas in me, the "reason for the season."
I have since found a peaceful balance of celebrating holidays while giving back to the community and reducing my footprint on Earth by being a conscious consumer.
There is, of course, always the nuclear NO-GIFT option. As a year-long habitual gifter, this option does not bring me joy. However, it is an option that I fully embrace and respect in those around me. Over time, I've found ways to embrace yogic, Buddhist and Pagan philosophies along with my Christian upbringing, finding a common thread of giving and offering in a way that feels authentic to myself for the holiday.
Here are a few out-of-the-gift-box ways you can be a more conscious consumer and a more thoughtful gift-giver:
Re-Gift: Yeah, you heard me right. RE-GIFT. Re-duce, Re-use, Re-cycle, Re-gift. What else are you going to do with a gift your'e not going to use? Think of it like a white elephant gift swap.
Re-Use Gift Wrap: Like it's 1930's. Even if you or your guests can't resist the urge to rip it (that's meee!), there's always pieces large enough to be reused on another smaller gift in the future. Smooth out the used paper, remove or fold over excess tape, fold or roll it up. Bonus if you save the bows! (Shoutout to Peggy, my late great-grandmother, and her famous catch phrase). Obviously re-use gift bags. Pro Tip: Use any scrap you can as gift wrap, even newspaper and paper bags. As a child, my favorite gift wrapping for my father was the comic section of the newspaper. Save that oft-overlooked tissue paper too!
Intentional Wrapping: Some folks dread the task of wrapping gifts. Maybe the arts-n-crafts gift wrapping isn't for you. That's a-ok. Even if you don't wrap a gift, take a moment to sit with some positive intentions, reflect on the time & effort you put into preparing this gift, and place your hands on the item to bring your full intentions to the gift. Pro Tip: While I channel my inner Bob Ross and make artwork out of gifts, I fully understand I won't receive many gifts like this. I am so very grateful for every gift I receive, whether it's wrapped in glitter and bows, a heap of paper and tape, or bare as can be. I am grateful.
Necessary Gifts Only: There are such stigma about socks being a lame gift that no one ever gifts me socks anymore. The reality is that socks are a life staple that everyone needs, therefore, they are a perfect gift. Other necessary types of gifts might include: food and beverages, toiletries, clothing (especially socks & undergarments) and bedding. Pro Tip: You can level up these basic life items for a really special gift. Nearly everyone bathes with soap. Rather than get "the regular" from a super-store, why not find a local soap maker and get a few bars as a gift?
Cook with LOVE: Even if you are a beautiful disaster in the kitchen, let this special time of year be the one time you slow down and perfect a dish that you're proud to share. As much as we all love fine dining and the convenience of UberEats, there's nothing like a home-cooked meal. Communal meals are one of the most deeply rooted traditions of nearly any celebration anywhere in the world. There's nothing like the feeling of feeding your tribe from your own hands. So, throw down in the kitchen and join in!
Share an Online Service: We are all consumers of online content, too. Freedom from advertisements is a fantastic gift to share. Family plans on Netflix, YouTube, AmazonPrime and other services make it easy to share, and it's a gift that gives for as many months as you'd like to share. Pro Tip: You can share playlists and watchlists for family for some extra fun playtime with the gift!
Support Your Community: The next time you get the urge to binge shop, redirect your efforts to something that helps your local community. If you're like me, you may find yourself perpetually wanting to DO and GIVE, especially around the holidays. While my loved ones surely appreciate all of my efforts, there are people who could use that time and energy. Pro Tip: If the idea of formal volunteer work is too much, think smaller. Is there a neighbor who could use a hand? Or even a friend of family member? Are you willing to host a gathering? There is no greater gift than your time.