Christmas quandaries – presents, pandemic and planetary peril, ideas on giving outside the (gift) box

By Jennifer Little

Reading time: 16 minutes

Tinsel-mania, the lure of the latest toys and gadgets, late December nights jostling with stressed fellow shoppers in crowded malls? Click and collect? Or make your own cakes, candles, or cushions?

Whatever your usual approach or budget, this festive season will no doubt feel different. The collision of Christmas with a global pandemic and heightened awareness of the climate crisis might stir us to question the brash commercialisation of Christmas.

Many of us have presents in mind as we speed towards December 25. But should we cultivate more presence of mind before succumbing to the seasonal compulsion for frenzied shopping? Do we need to rethink the obligatory exchange of gifts that are often clad in plastic packaging that ends up in landfills and oceans, adding further pressure to our stressed

By Jennifer Little

Reading time: 16 minutes

Tinsel-mania, the lure of the latest toys and gadgets, late December nights jostling with stressed fellow shoppers in crowded malls? Click and collect? Or make your own cakes, candles, or cushions?

Whatever your usual approach or budget, this festive season will no doubt feel different. The collision of Christmas with a global pandemic and heightened awareness of the climate crisis might stir us to question the brash commercialisation of Christmas.

Shopping malls brimming with the latest toys and gadgets can be alluring but stressful for Christmas shoppers
Photo: Jennifer Little

Many of us have presents in mind as we speed towards December 25. But should we cultivate more presence of mind before succumbing to the seasonal compulsion for frenzied shopping? Do we need to rethink the obligatory exchange of gifts that are often clad in plastic packaging that ends up in landfills and oceans, adding further pressure to our stressed environment? Can we celebrate the spirit of Christmas – joy, generosity, reconnection with loved ones – without wrecking the planet and ruining our bank balances – not to mention our nerves? Does giving have to be about materialism?

These are complex questions as businesses struggle to survive after weeks in lockdown. We may wish for retail business to thrive – yet we wrestle with ethical dilemmas about purchasing plastic gizmos, cheap clothing, and electronic goods as pre-Christmas advertising ramps up.

How might we navigate this territory when we yearn for familiar festive fun and light relief after a year of pandemic restrictions and anxiety as COVID-19’s more dangerous delta variant spreads in Aotearoa? Should we consider ways to make Christmas more meaningful and less ecologically damaging by making gifts, or donating to a charity instead of buying the latest digital device?

The origins of gift-giving at Christmas

“I’m not doing Christmas this year – all that insane last-minute shopping! This year’s gonna be different!” – haven’t we all heard this or vowed as much ourselves? Yes, we are in the midst of a pandemic, but the power of marketing, tradition, habit, and expectation can be difficult to shrug off.

Philosopher Dr Marco Grix studies the ethics of consumerism and ponders how we can give gifts in a more meaningful way
Photo supplied

Dr Marco Grix is a philosopher at Massey University’s School of Humanities, Media and Creative Communication who specialises in ethics, with a special focus on human flourishing, needs, virtue, consumption, and environmental philosophy. Grix says it’s beneficial to remember the origins of Christmas: “For the pre-Christian pagans (whose lives and livelihoods depended on the seasons far more than ours), it was a celebration of winter solstice – that turn-around when the days would finally stop getting shorter and the journey back to summer started. In the midst of cold and darkness, who wouldn’t want to rejoice?”

Gold, frankincense, and myrrh – the original Christmas gifts given by the Biblical Magi, or the Three Kings, to baby Jesus in Bethlehem in the nativity story – won’t feature on Christmas shopping lists these days, though perfume and gold (jewellery) rate as top gifts in modern, secular times.

Santa Claus – the jolly red elf bearing a sleigh-load of gifts, morphed from St Nicholas of Myrna who cared for the poor and needy
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Harking back a few centuries, gift-giving originally took place on Saint Nicholas Day, also known as the Feast of Saint Nicholas, celebrated on December 5 or 6 in Western European countries and on December 19 in Eastern Europe. Saint Nicholas of Myrna, a Byzantine monk born circa 280 in an area that is now part of modern Turkey, morphed into the character of Santa Claus through his good deeds of helping the needy and poor. According to historical sources, Saint Nicholas became known as the protector of children and was associated with gift-giving.

By the 19th century, Christmas Eve replaced early December as the popular date for gift-giving, reinforced by the 1823 poem, The Night Before Christmas (first published anonymously and later attributed to Clement Clarke Moore), and Charles Dickens’ 1843 novella, A Christmas Carol, in which the miserly Ebenezer Scrooge is transformed into a kinder, more generous man after being visited by his former employer and the spirits of Christmas past, present, and yet to come.

Paul Ringel, a US historian writing in The Atlantic confirms the pre-capitalist, gift-giving trend in his essay ‘Why Children Get Gifts on Christmas: A History’. Gift-giving, he writes, began during the first half of the 1800s, particularly in New York City, as part of “a broader transformation of Christmas from a time of public revelry into a home-and-child-centred holiday.”

The Grinch – Dr Suess’ famous storybook character – discovered the true meaning of Christmas was not about things
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

A more recent critique of Christmas commercialism is the much-loved Dr Suess children’s book, How the Grinch Stole Christmas! published in 1957. Told in rhyming verse, the story follows the grumpy, cave-dwelling Grinch who attempts to sabotage Christmas by stealing gifts from the homes and hearths of the folk of Whoville. His efforts fail, and he ultimately realises that Christmas is not all about presents and money.

Retail realities

The average New Zealander spent $1,012 on festive purchases in 2020, according to a report by consumer research company, Finder.

Even for those who have the option of a big spend up this Christmas, COVID-19 is calling the shots. Kiwibank economist Mary Jo Vergara told Stuff in a recent news report that global supply chain pain means shoppers may face a more limited selection when Christmas shopping this year.

“There’s clearly no lack of demand in the economy. But the ongoing disruptions to global supply chains questions whether there is sufficient supply to meet demand,” Vergara says. “With New Zealand sitting at the edge of the earth, shipping routes are being severed.”

That appears to be feeding through into more limited choice in stores. “Anecdotally, we’ve heard of retailers limiting their stock to just a handful of brands, and holding on to more inventory than usual,” Vergara says.

Greg Harford, Chief Executive of Retail NZ, whose members account for approximately two-thirds of the nation’s retail turnover, says the outlook is grim for many. The seasonal Christmas bonanza is not something retailers can count on this year.

“The biggest challenges for retail at present are simply surviving the current lockdown in Auckland and the Waikato, and managing supply chains so that stock is available ahead of Christmas,” Harford says. “At this stage, there is a real risk that parts of the country will still be in lockdown in the lead-up to Christmas, which could be devastating for the sector.”

Online shopping has boomed over lockdown and is an important part of the retail mix, but it’s not a silver bullet for the sector, he says. Around a third of Retail NZ members say they are not going to survive the next 12 months.

There is significant interest from customers in buying more sustainably and customers are wanting goods with reduced, or at least more sustainable packaging, he notes. “Suppliers are responding to this, but there is a lot more work to be done across the sector on this issue.”

Greening your giving

The world’s leaders congregated in Glasgow for COP26 (the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties, October 31 to November 12) to grapple with the ever more urgent issue of how to deter global warming. Simultaneously, citizens in the West are encouraged to partake in a collective Christmas shopping binge. There is a persistent view that this is integral to maintaining the established economic model as well as aiding the pandemic recovery, despite being detrimental to the ecological system we depend on.

Numerous environmental organisations, globally and nationally, advocate more sustainable and less wasteful ways of living – in transport, energy, food, and clothing – as personal value systems evolve alongside greener policies. And increasingly, businesses are opting for more sustainable materials and methods of production and packaging to meet consumer demands, even The Warehouse.

Sarah Pritchett – Sector Projects Manager, WasteMINZ*, says Christmas is a great time to reassess our values and spending habits. “One of the reasons we have so much waste is that we buy so much stuff,” she says. “Not only do we have over-packaged goods, and goods that arrive in non-recyclable packaging, we buy stuff that is not made to last or be repaired and that has no way of being recycled at the end of its life.”

Waste reduction advocates say we should seek alternatives for Christmas gift-giving that don’t create so much harmful waste
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

She says one way to support local businesses at Christmas time is buying experiences. “Café vouchers, zoo passes, bungee jumping or white-water rafting vouchers, massage or facial vouchers. There is pretty much an experience out there for everyone.”

“Or you could buy something that is made in New Zealand from local shops or online through platforms. Or buy a voucher for a New Zealand-made clothing store. If you’re buying something electronic for someone, see if you can find out how repairable it is before you buy it and include the repair instructions in with the gift. Or buy good quality second-hand goods.”

While we are all responsible for making more sustainable choices, Pritchett says consumers need to “start buying consciously, not just buying stuff we don’t need that will just end up in landfill.”

“We [in New Zealand] are already behind much of the world in terms of both our waste generation and legislation to reduce this. It is urgent that we address this issue immediately. The most important thing is reducing our consumption.”

Consumed by consumption?

Grix grew up in East Germany and recalls the mass influx of consumer goods after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. After moving to New Zealand, he discovered philosophy and through studying the subject, he has questioned the drivers of western consumerism and its impacts, and whether it has any bearing on the quest for a good life.

He thinks we approach our Christmas practices “with too much habit and too little conscious thought – which is quite natural. When we grow up, we imitate the doings of those around us (e.g., parents and grandparents) for years, slowly and unintentionally making their behaviour patterns our own.

“What’s more, other elements of our community’s culture continuously impress upon us their idea of how to ‘Christmas properly’ too, of which mercantile expressions like TV commercials, online advertising, and instore marketing are impossible to avoid and ignore. Unfortunately, the latter are usually driven by profit motives, thus having little to do with the original meaning of Christmas.”

He reckons the gifts we remember most fondly (and would never throw away) are “things that may involve quite limited expenditure: a collection of recordings with personal messages from your close friends or childhood teachers; a handwritten letter with life stories from grandma and grandpa; a quilt made from the clothes you wore as a toddler. They all carry far greater meaning than anything readily available at a store.”

Even better, they avoid virtually all of our most pressing contemporary problems associated with consumerism. “Meaningful feasts and gifts need not at all plunge us into personal credit card debt that takes months to pay off,” he says. “They don’t have a history of being made by underage, poorly paid workers in hazardous sweatshops and then being shipped halfway around the globe. And they, along with the excessive packaging of most store-bought items, don’t quickly end up in landfills or natural environments like the ocean where they often take hundreds of years to break down.”

As blogger Mary Gallagher says in her column on alternative Christmas gift-giving, the aim is not to add more clutter to homes, but to be creative and think about making or finding things that are useful, practical, thoughtful, and inspiring.

Ideas for alternative Christmas gifts:

  • Homemade edibles
  • Handcraft – make your own (artwork, home décor, photo in a frame)
  • Subscription for a magazine
  • Gift voucher for an experience (beauty treatment, movie, concert) or travel
  • Handmade voucher to give your time or service
  • Donation to a charity on behalf of a loved one
  • Second-hand or antique item
  • Locally made, sustainable products and services
  • Buy a native tree

Likewise, a Christmas feast does not become more significant only because it’s bigger and more lavish, adds Grix. “If we want to give our desire for generosity a better outlet, why not make sizable donations to those who’d benefit from it the most? Hundreds of millions of people worldwide who live in abject poverty can only dream of anything remotely like our Christmas. To them, our giving would mean far more than most of us could even imagine.”

 

(*WasteMINZ is the largest representative body of the waste, resource recovery and contaminated land management sectors in New Zealand. Formed in 1989, it has over 1,500 members – from small operators through to councils and large companies).

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