Although 'tis nearly the season to be jolly, most of us, it seems, expect to have
trouble getting into the holiday spirit. According to a recent poll by the Center
for a New American Dream, a nonprofit organization advocating responsible
consumption, seven in ten Americans are tired of excessive holiday spending and
gift-giving. Yet for all the complaining, it's the rare family that breaks with
"A lot of people try to buy love and a sense of self-worth," explains David Ergo,
a "financial therapist" in Santa Rosa, California. "The season magnifies that. We
all long for connection, and advertisers play on that by showing us image after
image of families bonding through consumption."
Ergo counsels victims of "affluenza"-the addiction to material possessions that
spawns an endless cycle of spending, overwork, waste, and debt. To steel your
resistance to the shopping bug that strikes with a vengeance between Thanksgiving
and New Year's Day, a little soul-searching can help. "Ask yourself what you
really want from the holidays," Ergo suggests. Then don't settle for the
exhausting flurry of activities dictated by marketers and retailers. Though our
seasonal customs may differ, 85 percent of us rejoice in the company of those we
care about, according to the New American Dream poll. And as Ergo points out,
"The activities that bring us together tend to be environmentally benign."
Friends and family are more likely to support a plan to simplify the holidays if
it isn't sprung on them at the last moment and it doesn't seem self-sacrificing,
says Betsy Taylor, executive director of the Center for a New American Dream.
"Let them know that the idea is to spend more time together while spending less
money." Collectively agreeing to a maximum limit on holiday spending will help
everyone maintain healthy bank accounts and avoid compulsive consumption and the
waste it creates. During the holidays, Americans generate approximately an extra
5 million tons of garbage, about 25 percent above our usual exorbitant output.
Another Earth- and family-friendly strategy: potluck meals for your holiday
get-togethers. "When a cook goes it alone, prepackaged foods often end up on the
table, and they're most likely overprocessed," says Taylor. With potlucks, each
chef has the time not only to cook conscientiously but to socialize. And asking
guests to choose organic fare, says Taylor, is a natural way for everyone to
thank the planet for its bounty.
Not everyone is receptive to streamlining holiday fanfare-some folks
really enjoy high-octane commercialism. That was the predicament facing Diane
Beach, a writer and Web designer in San Francisco. Though she favors simple
celebrations, some of her husband's relatives relish year-end extravaganzas. So
far, she's succeeded in making a convert of her husband. "We've agreed to give
only token gifts," she says. "Last year, it was an exchange of books."
Although parents are under intense pressure to buy expensive toys and games for
their kids, Taylor says, children often enjoy creating new traditions. In her
family, the children stage a holiday play, the highlight of the family's
festivities. The show was such a hit last year, she says, that the kids didn't
even open their presents until after Christmas dinner.
Ergo's gift to his niece and nephew of a movie matinee made a splash, too. "Kids
mostly want time together," he says. There are plenty of gifts that can show your
love without burdening the planet: art classes, music lessons, local crafts,
trips to the museum or the park, "labor coupons." (Imagine how well you might
have got along with your brother if you'd relieved him of garbage duty for a
But don't be too zealous, says Ergo, and don't try to reinvent your rituals all
at once. "It took a long time to develop these habits. It'll take a while to
Tracy Baxter, Sierra's former associate editor, lives in San Francisco.
For helpful holiday reading, try Unplug the Christmas Machine by Jo Robinson
and Jean Coppock Staeheli (Quill, 1991), Hundred Dollar Holiday: The Case for a
Joyful Christmas by Bill McKibben (Simon & Schuster, 1998), and Simplify the
Holidays, a brochure from the Center for a New American Dream (www.newdream.org).