(This article was written for Book Magazine, a lovely online publication for students. Thanks Dominic Wells for getting us involved!)
Why should we be encouraged to buy, buy, buy on the grounds that the festive season is all about giving? Giving is an important part of the Christmas tradition – just think of the Three Wise Men – but that doesn’t have to mean celebrating the newest, coolest, shiniest, top of the line gizmo. We forget about last year’s third generation iPhone because we simply must have This Year’s Model.
Socially we all play our parts in a giant consumer nativity play, and as we’ve wised up to this, so the big corporations have become stealthier about it. Take the new John Lewis Christmas advert: a small boy impatiently waits for the 25th of December to arrive, only to ignore his own presents and dig out a gift for his mum and dad. Awww, because Christmas is about giving, right? But what seems on the surface a sentimental, anti-commercial message still has a hard-sell at heart: ‘People who care buy their presents at John Lewis. And we make it so easy, a ten-year-old child could do it.’
Brands playing a leading role in Christmas over-consumption is hardly a new thing. There is of course the urban legend – or in brand terms, ‘Coke-lore’ – that Coca-Cola invented Santa Claus, with his red and white suit and jolly round face. There is in fact some truth to this. In the 1920s Coke wanted to remind people that you could drink their beverages all year round. So they enlisted Santa Claus as depicted by a cartoonist, to help convey the message that ‘thirst knows no seasons’. And the modern day identity of a florid, flaming red Father C. bellowing ‘ho, ho, ho’ was born.
So, is it possible to be dreaming of a green Christmas unlike the ones we used to know? A Christmas where presents aren’t resource-intensive and wasteful (one in ten toys are broken by New Year’s Eve, and 46 million get thrown away), one that places value on the thought and meaning behind a gift rather than its price tag? One that isn’t so defined by brands and our desire to consume them?
In fact, some of the nicest and most original things to give at this time of year can’t be bought but are made or created by the giver. Ingenuity and creativity go a very long way when it comes to gift gifting.
Beginning with the wrapping of gifts, there are so many better and cheaper alternatives. It’s an age-old tradition: some say it originated in China centuries ago, others say Rome, where gifts would be wrapped and sealed with wax and string. Concealing the contents of a package to heighten surprise is not a new thing at all; it’s just become a tradition that generates colossal waste – 32.5 sq miles of wrapping paper ends up in our bins each year.
So take a cue from other cultures. In Japan they “Furoshiki” their presents. Furoshiki is a reusable cloth that can be tied in a variety of ways to make every gift look unique. The best part, aside from the material being reusable, is that it’s highly functional. With clever little folds and ties, you’re able to create packages that have handles and straps that make them easy to transport.
How about the most common Christmas conundrum: how can I spend less money?
You can give a service or an experience. And that doesn’t necessarily mean blowing £100 on a Virgin hot-air balloon flight. Why not offer up your own skills as a gift? You could teach your parents or grandparents how to blog, tweet or Skype; offer to bake, or babysit, or make a meal for friends.
Better yet, you could give something that in itself symbolises a deeper sense of giving: plant a cherry tree in someone’s name in Japan to help reconstruct the environment damaged by the earthquake; or go to Goodgifts.org who have gifts like hospital kits and seed packets for communities in rural Kenya.
Why not invent your own holiday tradition? It’s a great way to curb consumption and be kinder to the planet. I’ve always loved Secret Santa. It’s always been a Hui family tradition, but with a green-friendly twist: the gift must be homemade. In the past I’ve done mix CD’s, made bowls out of old records and hand-sewed a duvet cover.
It’s easy, pain-free and downright rewarding to start making the green Christmas dream a reality, and the only thing you’ll have to sacrifice is the urge to spank your wallet and wear out some shoe leather on the high street.