Friday, December 28, 2012

Longing for a Simple Christmas

Another Christmas has come and gone, and I find myself, yet again, relieved that it is over. I am the type of person who tends to get incredibly stressed and anxious when faced with large amounts of consumerism and wastefulness. Unfortunately that is, it seems, exactly what Christmas is about.

Don't get me wrong, I enjoy spending time with family around the holidays. In fact, that is the only part of the holiday that makes it bearable. I don't know when Christmas became so commercialized, but I can never remember a time that it was not. Of course this trend has been increasing with each year, and I'm afraid will continue to do so for many years to come.

Christmas Cards

When I think of Christmas Cards, I can't help from thinking of the waste that goes into producing and delivering them. I think that we sent out approximately 50 cards this year. Each of these required paper (even if recycled) for both the card and envelope. The cards then had to be shipped, likely multiple times, before reaching us, only to be mailed again, this time individually, to our friends and family.

Not only do cards require resources for their manufacture, and fuel for transport, but they can also be expensive. Costs vary greatly, but the postage alone costs $22.50 for mailing 50 cards. In the grand scheme of things that isn't a lot, but I can think of many ways in which that money could be better spent.

Thankfully, Andrea was able to find cards this year which were manufactured and sold by a worthy charity. She purchased the majority of our cards from Made by Survivors, which is a charity that helps victims of human trafficking. The charity employs those it seeks to help, meaning the cards were handmade by those receiving benefits from the charity. Yes, the cards were more expensive than those one might buy at a local discount department store, but the money went to a good cause, and the cards themselves were very beautiful. We received multiple compliments on the cards from recipients who weren't even aware of where they came from.

Aside from the wastefulness of the tradition, the exchange of Christmas cards seems to be one of those activities which are based almost entirely on the idea of reciprocation. This results in the need to keep score, to decide who is deserving of a card next year. There are even products made specifically to make it easier to track who cards were sent to, and who card were received from, to make it easier the following year to decide who gets a card. In reality, however, the Christmas card exchange is probably only truly meaningful to the companies that manufacture the cards.


Much like Christmas cards, I can't look at Christmas decorations without thinking about the wastefulness they represent. This is especially true for Christmas lights, since they use electricity in addition to the resources used to manufacture them and fuel used to transport them. Fortunately technological advances have been Christmas lights more efficient, and solar powered lights minimize the impact from that perspective.

Unlike cards, however, the impact of decorations does not end once the holiday is over. Those decorations have to be stored somewhere. Assuming that the decorations include an artificial tree, which seems to be the norm at least in this area, the amount of storage space required can be fairly significant. This type of thing is one, of the many, reasons that houses are so much bigger now than they were 40 years ago. When we continue to buy more and more stuff, we have to find somewhere to store it all, which means bigger, more expensive, houses.

The majority of my family seems to be fairly moderate in terms of decorating, so this isn't really a big stressor for me when visiting them. I've come to accept that most people are going to have a Christmas tree with lights and a few decorations.

We do not decorate for Christmas, and haven't for several years. We aren't home on Christmas anyway, so even if we enjoyed the decorations, it would seem pointless to decorate our house. If we had kids, I suspect that we might put up live tree and decorate with a few homemade decorations. For now, though, I'm more than happy to continue our tradition of no decorations.


For many people, it seems that gift-giving is the most important part of the holiday. However, while there are certainly exceptions, I suspect that, much like the greeting card companies, it is only retailers who truly benefit from the tradition of exchanging gifts at Christmas.

Again, like greeting cards and decorations, I can't see a pile of Christmas gifts without thinking about the waste. With a few exceptions, most gifts are new, manufactured, items, meaning that resources were used to make them, and fuel to transport them. Of course the waste doesn't stop there, since gifts are expected to be boxed so the contents can't be guessed, and decorated with paper, bows, ribbons, and name tags. The mountain of trash on my grandmother's front porch following our Christmas Eve celebrations is always staggering.

Unlike greeting cards and decorations the cost of purchasing Christmas gifts is not minor. Many people go into serious debt to purchase Christmas gifts. Even though Andrea makes most of the gifts that we give, and our gift giving budget is likely much smaller than most, we spend approximately 4% of our budget on gifts each yeah. We spent more on gifts than we spent on our electric bill or any other single utility. We spend more on gifts than we spend on charitable giving, or the purchase of clothing, or even our annual trip to the Mother Earth News Fair.

For adults it seems that the best outcome would can hope for is an even exchange. This is what happens most often at one of our Christmas celebrations, where the adults draw names and usually end up just exchanging gift cards. While the sentiment is certainly appreciated, I sometimes wonder why I don't just add $50 to my free spending money in the budget instead of buying a $50 gift card for one person, knowing that someone else will be giving me a $50 gift card. This method, though, has a higher rate of success than exchanging non-monetary gifts. This year, for example, I made sure to include several items on my Christmas list that would be easy to buy at a department or hardware store. Almost everything I received was from the list, but I ended up getting 4 different versions of the same item. We've tracked down the receipts for them, and will be returning 3 of them during the next few weeks. Last year I received 3 versions of an item, and the year before was the same, except neither of those were exactly the item I wanted. Again, I appreciate the sentiment, but it would have been far less effort, both for me and the gift givers, and less wasteful, for me to have just bought the item I needed.

It might seem that there are no downsides to receiving gifts for kids, and I suspect that most kids would agree with that. However, the parents of those kids might not be so agreeable. Like decorations, those gifts have to be stored somewhere, which again, requires a larger house, or at the very least results in a more cluttered home. Another issue is that kids often receive gifts that a parent might not approve of. There are many types of toys that some parents might disapprove of, from those that celebrate violence, to those that promote unhealthy images, to those they oppose based on religious beliefs. I'm sure that most parents try to prevent these issues by being up front with loved ones prior to the holiday, but what happens when this doesn't work? The parent is stuck having to either take the item away from their kid, and being perceived as the bad guy, or allowing them to keep it, even if it goes against their beliefs or parenting methods.


Holiday celebrations are likely the least commercialized part of the holiday. Of course there are some commercialized celebrations, such as the popular "Ugly Sweater" parties that result in people buying items they will never wear again, but most are simply a gathering of family and friends, which require little more than a place and time, and a bit of food.

The food can be overdone at some gatherings, especially holiday candy, which is a favorite of my family. However, when compared to the rest of the holiday, the food and candy are minor concerns. Where I really see a problem with Christmas celebrations is with their quantity. In a two day span, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, Andrea and I take part in five different Christmas celebrations, each of which involve a gift exchange. I'd like to think that we are an exception, but I know that isn't the case. As more of my cousins get married, the scheduling of our family functions become more and more difficult as they need to find a way to incorporate the traditions of their in-laws into their holiday schedule.

Our holiday schedule this year was fairly relaxed, because I took two day off from work. I am lucky to be able to do this, because I know that for many people that isn't an option. Even with me taking time off from work, the holiday was hectic. We got up early on the morning of Christmas Eve and drove two and a half hours to my parents house. We arrived four hours before the start of the first event, but during that time my Dad and I delivered gifts, I helped my Mom make the food she was taking to the events, and Andrea sorted through the gifts we had been storing there and finished wrapping a couple of items for my Mom. Our next 32 hours were packed with various family functions. Since 7 hours of that time was spent sleeping, the average worked out to approximately 5 hours for each of the events, including travel time. As you can imagine, it was a very tiring couple of days.

My Simple Christmas Dream

After having read all of the reasons why I see Christmas a wasteful, over-commercialized, and stressful, you might wonder what my idea Christmas celebration would be. I've been giving that a lot of thought this year, and have managed to come up with a celebration that could represent what I think the holiday should be about.

In my Simple Christmas, Andrea and I stay home and celebrate alone. We sit by the fireplace, sipping hot chocolate and watching the snow fall outside. Our gift exchange consists of a couple of small gifts, which are either homemade, or of negligible cost, but with high sentimental value. After exchanging gifts we go outside to give Luke and Jack each a new toy, and spend some time out there playing with them in the snow. After coming back inside, I call my parents to wish them a Merry Christmas, and then Andrea and I spent the evening sitting by the fire, listening to Christmas music, and enjoying the simple pleasure of each other's company.

I do not expect to ever have a Christmas like this, however. We have too many family obligations to have the luxury of such a simple celebration. As attractive as removing ourselves from the commercialized traditions of Christmas cads, gift exchanges, and family gatherings might be, it would be a selfish act on our part. The fact is, there are a lot of people who enjoy seeing us at those celebrations, who enjoy being able to purchase gifts for us, and who enjoy receiving the gifts we give. While a simple Christmas might better fit my values, I'm willing to continue our currents traditions for the sake of my family and loved ones who expect it.


  1. I am happy I am included in your dream Christmas. I would like to point out that I doubt we will ever have a "real" tree, as I am highly allergic to pine trees. :) And I think Kitty would like a toy as well if the boys are getting one each.

    1. Maybe the tree will have to be an outside tree :-)

      As for Kitty, of course she should get a toy. She can open hers when we do our gift exchange. I doubt she'd enjoy playing in the snow with Jack and Luke.