As I have said before, I really love Christmas. Unlike so many Americans, however, it isn’t the gifts or food that warm my heart; nor is it the religious origin of the Christmas holiday, the birth of Jesus and the mythology that now surrounds it. Sacrilegious, I know, but over the last couple of centuries the culture of Christmas has evolved to carry a message entirely its own.

In my heart and mind, I have come to appreciate my own definition of “the true meaning of Christmas,” a meaning with which I am certain you are already familiar. I casually refer to this as “the Scrooge lesson,” or the “Dickensian Christmas Spirit.”

I love “A Christmas Carol.” It has such great characters, images, and lessons to appreciate and it never, ever gets old. And what I consistently take away from it are the very themes that a sorrowful Jacob Marley desperately urges his old partner Ebenezer to embrace: the common welfare, charity, mercy, kindness, forbearance, and benevolence. I also receive the lesson in Scrooge choosing to dine with the friends of his nephew Fred—sharing warmth in the company of others to thankfully appreciate the blessings of fine food, drink, and camaraderie.

Perhaps most importantly, and more subtle, is the general theme of A Christmas Carol that, in addition to charity and revelry, Christmas should also be a time of self-reflection, a time to ponder our lives and how we choose to live them. In Scrooge’s own vein, this festive time of year has long inspired me to re-examine many a foregone conclusion about oft-accepted traditions and for once consider the impact of my own decisions on how I choose to celebrate Christmas.

Unfortunately, along with great celebration tends to come extravagance, ostentation, and even waste. Around my 30th year or so, I came to realize that aside from the blatant commercialism and hollowness that the American version of Christmas had become, it carried with it a whole bundle of affluent lavishness that any concerned environmentalist should easily recognize.  Once considered, I could no longer ignore this series of improvident and unnecessary “traditions” which serve little more purpose than to further global problems which I spend the other 11 months of the year decrying.

Below is a short list of some simple-yet-significant Christmas traditions that I was forced to reconsider, noting the harsh realities of our human impact on this world. Placing the perceived and temporary “joy” associated with any of these items on a scale against environmental impact and hypocrisy, I soon found them tipped heavily to the impact side. And so the environment won out, and I cut these traditions from my own personal belief of what my Christmas should require.

I am certain that many of you will be inclined to label me a Scrooge for placing one or more of your favorite holiday traditions on this list. To that I simply say, Christmas is in the heart. How you choose to express it is entirely up to you. But in my own heart, along with the spirit of Christmas, is my well-researched knowledge that our population is growing; our resources are shrinking; American consumption and wastefulness is unparalleled; and our environment suffers the consequences of our ignorance and negligence.

Therefore, I changed how I celebrate, nothing more. Typically, the most defiant of those who have considered this list seem to suffer a pang of cognitive dissonance. So if any of these stick in your craw, then take Scrooge’s lesson for yourself and consider whether your ire stems from the pointed truth of what you already know, but just don’t want to change.

Here is my list of the five most wasteful traditions that “American Christmas” has to offer:

1. Wrapping Paper

Of course, I grew up tearing open my presents on Christmas morning. It was ingrained in me; presents come wrapped. But this one is certainly the most obviously wasteful and unnecessary of all – paper made specifically for the purpose of tearing up and throwing away. I don’t care if it’s recycled or not, wrapping paper is about as offensively wasteful as it gets. Considering the trees and fossil fuels used to make, package, distribute, and reclaim it to eventually be placed in a dump having served no purpose other than keeping us from seeing what lies beneath for a few weeks, I’m amazed it took me 30 years to realize it. Even toilet paper serves a greater purpose than this ridiculous tradition.

Alternatives – Gift bags are a step in the right direction. Paper still, but reusable. You can also cut up paper grocery bags to wrap most items (of course, you have reusable bags now though, don’t you?) and then dress them up with ribbons or bows. For larger items, consider a blanket or large piece of fabric tied around to conceal it. Or simply keep gifts hidden until ready to hand over. Sure the anticipation of “opening” disappears, but is that really worth the destruction of trees for a few seconds of cruel and fleeting subterfuge?

 

2. (Formerly) Live Christmas Trees

I’ve heard all the arguments for this one by the Christmas tree industry: “It’s renewable,” “The trees are farmed for this purpose,” “Artificial trees use fossil fuels to make and end up in landfills.”  Sorry, I’m just not buying. Cutting down trees to stand up inside for a month, before they die and we throw them out is at the pinnacle of wastefulness. Farmed or not, those trees represented oxygen, habitat, and an alternative to concrete and steel. Yes, I have a small, 4’ artificial tree. I’ve gotten 10 years of use out of it and will likely get another 10. I don’t need (nor can fit) a huge tree in my home. I appreciate the tradition and uphold it in my own way, but applying the age old question, “if everybody did it…” live trees simply don’t pass muster.

Alternatives – An artificial tree, of course. Made from recycled materials, even better. Using it for as many years as possible reduces its total impact. Or go without a tree altogether (my parents did just this year), and instead decorate house plants or other tree-like objects. Or take a page from Jim Henson’s “Emmet Otter’s Jug Band Christmas” and get a “Christmas branch.” Then you too will hear Pa Otter saying, “Because I didn’t cut it down, that tree will still be alive in 100 years!”

 

3. Ornamental Christmas Lights

Plain and simple, ornamental Christmas lights consume energy. The greater your display, the more energy they consume. Specifically, I am referring to outdoor Christmas lights. Are they wasteful? Considering that most families are actually IN their homes during the Christmas season, and not standing in their driveway appreciating the lights every night, then yes, I believe they are. When many people put up lights to attempt to outdo all of the neighbors, this vicious cycle’s cost is compounded exponentially.

Many claim, “They’re for the kids,” an excuse that is sure to create another generation of outdoor-light-requiring families. Ending the tradition now is the best way to keep it from exacerbating in future generations. Remember, Christmas is in the heart, and your kids will take their cues from you. Would you rather teach them to require tiny lights on the house or to be environmentally conscious and live by those principles?

Alternatives – If you’ve got the extra dough to spend on illuminating your house so that others will be awed by it, consider instead donating that money (and the cost of new outdoor lights) to an energy-assistance program for needy families in your area. Not only will you reduce your carbon footprint, but you’ll have a great opportunity to demonstrate to your children the “true meaning” of Christmas. Children are immensely sympathetic and understanding. If you frame it as a donation to a family that can’t afford to have their regular lights on, much less Christmas lights, they’ll support it.

 

4. Shopping for the sake of shopping

Gift-giving is great. It offers a chance to give to someone who needs or will appreciate something. When you have the inspiration to buy a specific gift for someone, for a specific reason, by all means do it. But all too often, our motive for shopping is that of obligation. I frequently hear, “What am I going to get so-and-so for Christmas?” The truth is, unless they’re impoverished, they probably don’t need a present at all. And if they are impoverished, you’ll likely know exactly what to get them and why.

My concern here isn’t to keep people from buying gifts, or even from shopping. But considering the resources expended on getting from store to store, as well as in the manufacture, distribution, and marketing of all sorts of conspicuously consumed crap bought at the last-minute just to fulfill a perceived obligation (don’t forget the cursed wrapping paper!), the environmental impact is entirely not worth the hassle, much less the money.

Alternatives – If you can’t find a meaningful material gift, but still feel the need, consider making a gift of your time instead. Offer to go to dinner, to come visit, to share an experience together, or to help them with something at home. If schedule or distance won’t permit that, consider donating to a cause that they would support or find worthy. I dare any family member to complain about a donation in their name rather than a gift. If they do, methinks they aren’t so deserving as they seem to expect.

 

5. Christmas Cards

I know this is a tough one, as Christmas is the right time to ping family and old friends and cue them in on what life has held for you in the last year. And it is truly in the Christmas spirit to wish loved ones peace, love, and happiness in the festive season. Nonetheless, mailed Christmas cards cost trees and fuel. Innocuous though they may seem, there is simply no denying this.

Paper to make, plastic and cardboard to package or chemicals to print, fuel to transport and deliver. Sure, some are made from recycled material, but that process still consumes energy. In this electronic age, do we really need to continue a tradition that has already proven to be so costly?

Alternatives – A paradigm shift to be sure, but I don’t have a single friend or relative who does not receive email. Imagine the paper and fuel we would save if all of us sent our Season’s Greetings via email rather than snail mail to those who could receive it. Even if we still mailed to “The Greatest Generation,” but upgraded all the rest, the savings would be enormous! Then there’s always the more dedicated method of an actual phone call, a personal conversation to convey those well-wishes with more than a few scribbled sentences on a mass-produced card.

Well, there you have it. My top five Christmas grievances. No doubt, in many of your minds, I have just outed myself as the ultimate fun-hater, a gnarly faced Ebenezer who won’t let people enjoy their favorite holiday as they always have. All I can say is, it’s the truth, and there’s no harm in mentioning it. What you choose to do with these notions is still up to you.

Knowing that in our growing world, our resources will not forever allow today’s abuse, and perpetuated traditions will be hard-broken down the road, I chose to change my Christmas to match my values. Knowing what you know, in your heart of hearts, are you willing to change yours?

Please, consider the impact of your Christmas.

Merry Christmas to all and a Happy New Year.

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