“The holidays” always agitate a certain tension in me. It’s not so much stress or depression, the usual suspects this time of year. It’s more that that the holidays pull at me internally, pitting the globally-warmed conservationist I’ve become against my inner child. One night I can’t sleep because the rising level of CO2 in our oceans is decimating oyster hatcheries; the next night, I’m up worrying about denying my kids the carefree delight of holiday excess. Inner Child loves the vision of a hearth piled with sparkly gifts, magical in their veil of infinite potential. Inner Environmentalist knows that the wrapping paper will go straight to the trash, that most toys are less entertaining than the boxes they come in, and that production lines in China are pouring untreated wastewater into the rivers and lakes that serve local communities, too far from American buyers’ eyes to raise any eyebrows.
Is it just coincidence that The Grinch is green?
My kids feel the same tension– Becky, at 10, more so than her younger sister. They abhor destruction of animal habitat – but they really love their collection of stuffed animals. They sneer at our dependence on fossil fuel – but boy do they want the Nintendo 3DS. They may wax poetic about days of yore when all this excess didn’t exist – but since it’s here, it’s hard not to want it.
I didn’t expect the kids to tell me that they want to pass on gifts this year. My inner child would actually find it somewhat disturbing if they did. But I also don’t want them to feel beholden to the spell that the retail world tries to cast. I don’t want to tell them where to land, but I invite them to explore the spectrum between indulgence and abstinence, to sit with the pros and cons. No matter how shiny and enticing the catalogs are, no matter how bright the smiles of the children modeling with toys and clothes, no matter how resounding the marketing message that money can buy you love, we know better. Excess yields diminishing returns. The euphoria of new stuff is fleeting, by design; if it weren’t, it wouldn’t work out so well for the retailers, who want you back next year. And all of this has a global cost much higher than the Black Friday price tags suggest.
Everyone finds their own equilibrium in this tension. For us, it is a place in the middle. After the candles were lit on the first night of Chanukah, the girls sat on the floor in the living room with their eyes covered. Five minutes later, they opened them to find model horses all around, unloaded from Trader Joe’s bags. Thanks to Craig’s List, I had scored a collection of them to present as a Chanukah gift. The fur on their noses is worn, and their saddles are cracked – but for $20, and zero incremental effluent into waterways, the kids enjoyed what felt to them like a bonanza. For the next few hours, they gleefully welcomed Colonel Mustard, Annie Hall, Vanilla and the rest of their brethren into our home. (Assigning names seems to be the most fun part anyway.) No wrapping paper wound up in the garbage that night, but there was carefree excess in the air. And if they collect cobwebs after their first week… well, no one really feels too put out.
This approach doesn’t always go smoothly. On night three, I gave each of the girls an envelope. Inside was a homemade certificate good for one year of horseback riding lessons- an indulgence that will stretch our budget but which I was honestly excited to give them. I grew up riding horses, and I have long wanted them to share the experience. Both of them read their slip of paper, looked at me uncertainly, and then dug into the envelope, looking for their “gift”. Finding only the paper, Becky recovered gracefully, realizing that this was something she should celebrate – but Leah turned and ran to her room, sobbing. My first reaction was righteous indignation; how could she turn up her nose just because I didn’t include a toy surprise? What kind of spoiled little brats had I raised here? But I know that she was only reacting honestly; at five, she is easily fascinated by shiny objects. It’s my job as her mom to teach her what matters. It is a lifelong course of learning. I’m still learning it myself, every day.
So, gifts don’t have to be new, they don’t have to be wrapped, and they don’t have to be things. It seems simple enough. But part of passing on a tradition is considering which parts to preserve and which parts to rethink. As our kids grow up to face challenges that are truly global in proportion, maybe these small invitations to adapt will have cultured an openness to possibility that becomes material to their survival. It sounds like a leap – but as a wise woman once told me, all things are linked. I believe it.