I have a theory about why the holidays have become so commercialized in the United States, and it is not materialism. It is the need to celebrate together as one community during the season of rekindling and rebirth.
Gift-giving serves to bind us together — not just to the individuals with whom we exchange gifts, but to all the people who follow the same practice with their own family and friends. So what if some of them observe other holidays — or observe the holidays differently or not at all? They are still swept up in a ritual of giving. Ergo, they must be like us at heart.
So, let us grant that there is value to the gift-giving ritual, while also admitting that it has gotten entirely out of hand — first, because it threatens to overwhelm the meaning of the holidays; second, because it leads to prodigious and unsupportable waste.
I am not just talking about waste in the literal sense (25 percent more trash from Thanksgiving to New Year's Day). I mean the waste of buying so much stuff that isn't needed, wasn't wanted and may not even be liked.
It is just this kind of heedless consumption that eats up forests, squanders water supplies, ravages habitat and destroys the climate. By the way, "eat up," "squander," "ravage" and "destroy" are all dictionary meanings of the word "consume." They are, by definition, what our "consumer culture" does. And there is no time of year when the culture does it with such a vengeance as the holiday season.
The question is: what would holiday giving look like if it were not consumptive, but life-supporting? If it betokened love and respect? If — dare we dream — it helped to make the world a better place?
I think our gifts would include more handmade items and home-baked goods, possessions of our own that friends have admired and family heirlooms for the younger generation. The gifts we buy would address real needs and would speak to the best in the people they were meant for. Gadgets and gift cards would not be on the list. Choices would be made with mindfulness and "intention" — what in my own, Jewish, tradition, in the context of prayer, is called "kavanah." We would focus not just on what would please, but on what the giving was for.
Among those of us who are comfortable, money would be spent differently. Instead of lavishing it, for the sake of momentary thrills, on people who already have enough, we would bestow it on people who don't. We would turn our generosity outward where it could do good. We would use it for repair of the world.
Is it possible to move a little closer to this ideal without causing disappointment and offense? There may be ways.
Try telling your nearest and dearest that your greatest wish this year is for... the recipe for that fabulous chocolate cake... a copy of the old picture of Great Aunt Sadie... the music playlist from Halloween... guidance on what computer to buy... you get the idea.
To the extended family, float the idea of capping the amount spent per gift.
At work, suggest Secret Santa.
Among friends that like movies, propose an exchange of DVDs. If they're music lovers, make it CDs; if readers, books.
Limit the number of gifts for the kids to one apiece, but make each one extraordinary.
Or how about this: suggest to the grown-ups in your life that instead of wasting time shopping for one other, you spend those couple of precious hours enjoying each other's company. Now, who could refuse you that?
Sheryl Eisenberg, a long-time advisor to NRDC, posts a new This Green Life every month. Sheryl makes her home in Tribeca (NYC), wherealong with her children, Sophie and Gabby, and husband, Petershe tries to put her environmental principles into practice. No fooling. Read more about Sheryl.
Holiday wishes. According to a 2005 poll by the Center for a New American Dream, over 75 percent of Americans "wish that the December holidays were less materialistic" and 87 percent "believe the holidays should be more about family and caring for others" than exchanging gifts.
Talk about waste. Online holiday shopping has the virtue of reducing car trips to the mall. But if each gift is packed in a box two sizes too big and travels cross-country to get to you, it may be just as wasteful in the end.
Pagan origins? Christmas and Hannukah fall near the winter solstice, which is probably no coincidence. The practice of marking the turning point in the year when the days begin to lengthen (around December 21st in the Northern Hemisphere) is ancient. At the 5,000-year-old Irish passage tomb known as Newgrange (pictured above), a shaft of sunlight penetrates deep within the mound at the winter solstice sunrise.
--------------------------------- Sheryl Eisenberg is a web developer and writer. With her firm, Mixit Productions (http://www.mixitproductions.com), she brought NRDC online in 1996, designed NRDC's first websites, and continues to develop special web features for NRDC. She created and, for several years, wrote the Union of Concerned Scientists' green living column, Greentips, and has designed and contributed content to many nonprofit sites.