To Show I Care

To Show I Care

I read recently that each year in the United States, four million tons of paper go from from logs to landfills just so we all can have holiday wrapping paper and shopping bags. Here I am trying to have a paperless office and feeling guilty about not using the back sides of all my already-used paper for notes when I read about an amount of paper that, if stacked four feet wide by four feet high would stretch 100 miles! All for the bags we use to carry gifts home from the malls and the pretty paper we surround each gift with. Mostly at Christmas. Yikes!

Celebrating Christmas as we Americans do must be the most wasteful activity we engage in. It’s not only the tree decorations and the paper; the gifts themselves can be really crazy. Would you believe that Americans went holiday shopping last year and actually bought stuff like:

Bacon-scented lip balm, wallets printed with bacon images, the “must-have” book 99 Ways to Open a Beer Bottle without a Bottle Opener, Hello Kitty green nail polish, “emergency makeup,” candles that smell like very old books, “A Christmas Story” written on fudge, mid-century style pet beds, hand-crafted beer totes, cardboard cutouts of your sister, pinhole cameras, molds in the shape of a gun for cooking eggs, 3D welcome mats in the shape of a dog, underwear for your head, underwear for your hands, Sudoku gift wrap, Sudoku toilet paper, toilet coffee mugs, combination toilet paper holders / phone chargers, plastic roaches, plastic cucumber wine corks, pencil holders in the teeth of small blue plastic men sitting on small white plastic toilets, egg cartons that tell you how many eggs there are in the carton, giant stuffed pigs, unreal scorpions in ice cubes, stainless steel holders for teeth no longer in your mouth, shower gel dispensers in the shape of your nose, chia-seed busts of the President, frankincense & myrrh shaving creme, dolls advertised as shavable (with your frankincense & myrrh shaving crème, no doubt), and nothing-at-all in a see-thru cube for the person who has everything.

Cute, but such a waste of hard-earned money.

You know how much money it would take to end world hunger for a year? I looked it up: $30 billion. In a recent year, we spent $200 billion on Christmas gifts, five times the cost of feeding the world. Plus we killed a lot of trees.

Now it must be said that solving world hunger and saving the world’s forests cannot be accomplished by figuring out finances. It must be obvious to you who are reading this that there would be political and other problems to resolve before we could get 30 billion dollars out of 300-plus million American pockets into the hands of people who could, and would, end hunger. Insurmountable problems, someone might say. So why not just spend my money the way I want to? I mean, I’m just one person. What effect can one person have by not buying gifts, not carrying them home in pretty bags and not wrapping them up in even prettier paper? Christmas is fun.

Right?

Sorry, but I just can’t do it. I would say it’s because I have some morals, but I have to recognize it may be more than that, or possibly different than that. I was raised by a mother who was a child during the “Great Depression.” If any of my grandchildren think the recession they are now enduring is bad, they should do some research into the decade that began in 1929. That decade is now used as an example in poly sci classes of how far a world economy can decline. I was born in 1943 in the shadow of that depression and then was even more directly affected by the rationing required of all American citizens during and after World War II. “Don’t waste your money,” was the No. 1 rule. The saying was so pervasive that you might hear a child ask his father, “How much money did you waste today?” when the only expenditures that day were for milk, bread and peanut butter.

When I was about nine, one of my mother’s standard lectures was about the difference between need and want. If you didn’t need it, it was want, and want without need was waste. There were “basic needs,” she would say, for food and water, for shelter {what a cute word for a house, I thought), and for clothing. She might also include three other needs: sanitation (I imagined men in white jumpsuits with hoses), education (I need to go to school?) and healthcare (that meant the doctor). “And there’s one more,” she would say, touching my cheek. “To be loved.”

So, all else—all else, including Christmas—might be wanted but wasn’t necessary. Those gifts under the Christmas tree, even the tree itself, could be dispensed with without my suffering the loss of anything I really needed. And in case we ever had another great depression like the one I knew was always in the back of my mother’s mind, I knew my family didn’t waste money and we’d be just fine.

By the time I was in my late 20s, some of my revolutionary friends had begun to eschew Christmas, by then Xmas, as just one more way to get people to buy-buy-buy. Fighting consumerism became part of what one did in the Sixties, at least if you didn’t have kids who would be unhappy with any notion that wouldn’t get them lots of presents under a tree. My kids did get bicycles, basketballs, pop beads, hot wheels, Legos, spirographs, art supplies–but they got these things whenever I could afford them, throughout the year.

Of late, I give money to family in place of gifts at Christmas. This is not necessarily appreciated. One relative—I won’t mention who—is offended when I don’t wrap up some doodad in part of a dead tree and give it instead of cash. Arguing a point I find offensive, this person says, “It’s a gift. Just a gift.” I try to say I don’t like rampant consumerism. And besides, I don’t know what is needed. And that by sending cash I can know that whatever is needed will be gotten, even if it’s just the rent. Especially if it’s the rent. The reply is righteous, “It’s not about needing. It’s about giving a gift, showing you care.” As though the only way I can show I care is to waste money, trash the environment and contribute to a child going hungry.

I also don’t want to receive some thingamajig wrapped in another part of that dead tree. Even though I try to say this politely, what I hear back is a derisive snort.

I want to tell this person that you don’t have to spend money to love, and you don’t need to have money spent on you to be loved. I want to tell this person that another and even greater depression might kill the world economy instead of just bringing it to its knees, and what good will a carved picture frame, a scented candle or a scarf with pink posies on it be then? I want to tell this person that I like trees more than I like shopping bags. That I don’t want to be contributing, even in a small way, to the wealth of the already wealthy and the poverty of the already poor. That I’m trying to be a good person and set a good example.

How hard have I been trying? Well, I haven’t joined any movements dedicated to eradicating world hunger. As an occasional editor and book publisher, I haven’t edited or published any books about falling prey to consumerism.  Worse, as a grandmother I haven’t even been able to get my grandchildren to listen to my mother’s lecture on the difference between want and need.

Nonetheless, I do not and will not buy-buy-buy. it does seem absolutely necessary to me to do something else to show I care.


Published in the 2020 edition of Groundwaters