We Dutch people are known for our honesty, our directness, and for not always being diplomatic or politically correct.
In other words, we don’t beat around the bush.
Of course there are lovely exceptions to this crude generalisation—however, I’m afraid I am not one of them. I may have left my country 18 years ago, but in some ways I am still very Dutch. Not sorry.
So I am going to give it to you straight:
Christmas is the most wasteful and unsustainable event on the planet, every single year.
There, I’ve said it, and I’ve probably made you somewhat uncomfortable, if not upset or downright angry. Let me elaborate:
In the United States alone, one trillion dollars was spent on Christmas last year. Just try to wrap your mind around that number: 1,000,000,000,000 USD—in just one country. (The Gross Domestic Product for the U.S. in 2017 is approximately 18.5 trillion dollars.)
The Christmas celebration, the birth of Christ, has become the biggest money-making and money-guzzling celebration ever. Christmas has become synonymous with abundance, including lavishly decorated Christmas trees, piles of expensive gifts, tons of fancy Christmas cards, and heaping mounds of rich foods and sweets.
Yes, abundance—in the most wasteful way possible.
Let’s see what we (that is, the fortunate ones who have money to spend on Christmas) get for all of that money:
>> Christmas cards. Because everybody sends them, we too feel obliged to send them. We place them in a highly visible spot, so everyone can see how many we have received—the seasonal version of getting a Facebook “like.” Is there any warm feeling behind our Christmas cards? Not really. It’s just a tradition. After Christmas, we tuck them in a box, never to look at them again. Might as well throw them out, unless we plan to recycle them into new cards for next year.
>> Christmas trees. Ouch. 30 million trees are sold, and that’s just in the U.S. Even though they are grown as a “crop” that’s meant to be harvested for the season, it’s wasteful to cut a tree that has taken, on average, eight years to grow to our preferred height, use it for a couple of weeks to adorn our homes and make them smell of pine, and then throw it out, burn it, or (hopefully) have it picked up to be mulched. Artificial trees are only less wasteful if we keep the same one for at least two decades, which hardly anybody does. They can be pretty toxic too, by the way.
>> Christmas decorations and lights. There was a time when the same box of hand-blown glass decorations would be pulled out of storage each year to adorn our Christmas tree, time and again. Nowadays, brainwashed by commerce, we think we need to have a different theme for our tree each year. Do we, really? And what do we do with all those decorations after Christmas? Right: trash or storage because next year will demand a new theme.
In regard to the Christmas lights: six billion kilowatt-hours of energy are consumed just by the season’s twinkles—and again, just in the U.S.
>> Christmas food. Well, at least we get the calories that sustain our bodies, and all the mouth-watering and comforting smells in the house for a few days, so it’s not completely wasted. But man, do we eat more than we need over the holidays. It could easily be a registered mental disease: after-Christmas overweight depression. And there’s always too much food. Not all leftovers will be eaten before the new year. Tons of food will go to waste.
>> Christmas presents. Probably the worst one. Apart from sustainably produced gifts for children who still believe in Santa, Christmas presents are just an exchange of money in the form of goods or gift certificates. We give a present, we get a present—because that’s what we’ve always done for Christmas. But it’s stressful to figure out what to buy each person, and then to do the shopping.
We get presents that we don’t need or don’t like. Or, they’re gifts that are mass-produced to be sold at Christmas and they break in no time, being cheap and of inferior quality. Or we get a gift certificate so we can buy our own gifts after Christmas. Wow, what a meaningful present!
Then Christmas is over. What are we left with after all those dollars are spent?
>> If we’re lucky, a few presents that are kind of useful to us.
>> Unless we’ve been really disciplined, we probably have a bloated stomach and a few extra pounds on our bodies.
>> Possibly a hangover from too much alcohol.
>> A big mess in the kitchen.
>> Pine needles everywhere.
>> A huge pile of trash from all the food, gift-wrappings, now-useless decorations, the Christmas tree, and its burnt strings of lights.
>> Maybe even a negative bank balance because we felt the need to impress or reciprocate, or just because we couldn’t resist all the tempting displays and “Christmas bargains.”
>> Warm feelings about having spent a few hours or a couple of days of quality time with our families and loved ones, sharing food, laughter, good conversation, and maybe some games or a funny movie. (But we could have had this without spending a dime, couldn’t we?)
>> Maybe all we’re left with after Christmas is a sense of relief that it’s over, that we made it through the stress of all the preparations, that we didn’t kill our obnoxious relatives, and that we have 11 months of peace before it starts all over again. Phew!
In the meantime, less fortunate people didn’t get a chance to celebrate Christmas in such an abundant way, if at all. Poor people, the homeless, those without family, and those in hospitals, hospices, and prisons may not have spent the holidays in good company surrounded by twinkling decorations, delicious food, Christmas cards, and presents. The abundance of one trillion dollars did not include them.
Is our modern way of celebrating Christmas really worth all that money?
Before we start Christmas planning and shopping, we should take a moment to contemplate other ways to spend all that money, time, and effort. We can sit down with our family (or, if they live far away, set up a call) to brainstorm alternative ways to celebrate the holidays this year.
>> More sustainable ways include planting a live Christmas tree or building our own tree. Google “alternative Christmas tree” to get some inspiration.
>> Less wasteful ways include re-using decorations, recycling last year’s Christmas cards, taking leftovers to a shelter, not buying disposable cups, plates and napkins, and not overdoing it with the gifts. We can also get creative and make our own Christmas cards, decorations, Christmas tree, and even presents.
>> Instead of just sitting around the tree and dinner table eating all day, a healthier option is to take the whole family for a refreshing walk.
>> More meaningful ways to spend time together during the holidays—instead of the presents, decorations, and heaps of food—can include playing music and games, completing a puzzle, or cleaning out the attic of our parent’s home.
>> Be more charitable: instead of just writing a cheque, take food and useful gifts to a homeless shelter, hospital, or prison.
>> There are ways to be cheaper—like simply doing a bit less of everything: fewer decorations, a smaller tree, fewer presents, and less food.
I am quite sure that lots of wonderful things could be done with our money, time, and energy if we let go of the “traditional” (read “commercial”) Christmas, pushed upon us by corporations worldwide who are just after our money. Let’s reclaim our right to design our own Christmas celebration.
I bet you’re wondering how this ranting environmentalist spends her Christmas, and I think you have a right to know.
Our Christmas trees are decorated with ornaments handmade by young and old from the whole community, in a fun day of shared creativity, using beach trash that we first collected ourselves.
Our Christmas dinners are surprisingly delicious (and partly vegan!) pot-luck, and BYOB events (most of us will have spent not more than an hour or so in the kitchen to prepare our dinner-contribution). Later on, there’s usually a bit of live guitar music, singing, and dancing. We might make a bonfire on the beach.
Our Christmas outfits are mostly thrift store or yard sale clothes. We might spot someone wearing a new-to-them dress that we remember wearing last year, thanks to a summer yard sale.
No presents are bought or exchanged. No trees are cut. No piles of trash are generated. No money is wasted. No stress is experienced.
Do we have a merry Christmas? For sure we do, even though it will never be white!
Before I present you (in my next blog) with a list of suggestions for alternative ways to celebrate Christmas, I’d love to hear how you plan to spend your Christmas this year!
Author: Leontien Reedijk
Images: Author’s Own; cursedthing/Flickr
Editor: Catherine Monkman
Copy Editor: Lieselle Davidson
Social Editor: Nicole Cameron