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  November/December 1999 Features:
On Thin Ice
The Polluters' President?
Earth in the Balcony
Inside Sierra
Good Going
Hearth & Home
Lay of the Land
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Last Words

Sierra Magazine
Hearth & Home: The Green Season

Trim the holiday fat—and rejoice

by Tracy Baxter

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 tradition.

"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 month.)

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 change them."

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 (

(C) 2000 Sierra Club. Reproduction of this article is not permitted without permission. Contact for more information.

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