What About Gifts?

I’m lucky that my extended family figured out several years ago that the thing we look forward to on Christmas is spending time together. Now that’s all we do — there is no gift exchange, just a delicious breakfast and a lot of catching up. My husband’s family is Buddhist, so their Christmas celebrations are infrequent (I think in the last ten years there have been three) and usually involve a gift exchange game. I actually didn’t get the memo about the gift exchange this year, so I didn’t participate in that. I did give out a couple tins of lip balm with instructions that if they ran out, they could return the tins to me and I’d refill it with more lip balm, sunscreen, or lotion. Our actual gift to the group was much-appreciated food (my husband made it all, but I bought a lot of the ingredients, so it was from me, too). We got as many ingredients as we could in bulk (still can’t find plastic-free cheese), so our contribution was low-waste but not quite waste-free.

My immediate family exchanges small gifts on Christmas morning. I usually don’t give any on Christmas itself because I’m a horrible gift-giver under pressure and it’s much safer for everyone if I just give things (usually theater tickets or meals out) over the course of the year. My husband offered to detail everyone’s car last year, but no one took him up on it but me (which is too bad because he’s really good at it). My gift this year is tickets to something I know everyone wants to go to, but for which the tickets aren’t yet on sale.

But what do you do when you’re trying to reduce the waste you create, and the people giving you gifts aren’t? Among the gifts I’ve received from students and in-laws are a ton of individually wrapped hard candies, a nice mug wrapped in clear plastic film, a bottle of scented lotion, a small bottle of scented hand sanitizer, and a little electronic gadget. More earth-friendly gifts were socks (from two different cousins — probably synthetic, but I haven’t taken on plastic-free clothing yet) and bar shampoo and conditioner wrapped in a paper grocery bag. That last one was a particularly welcome surprise, and my husband swears he didn’t tell anyone in his family about my no plastic changes.

Of course I received everything with genuine effusive thanks because it’s so nice to be thought of. My husband’s aunt that I’m lucky to see once or twice a year doesn’t know I have allergies set off by scented lotion any more than she knows I’m trying to not accumulate plastic, so I was touched that such a distant aunt thought to include me.

It’s not just Christmas; little gifts throughout the year add up. Take my recent birthday; two things made it not plastic-free: the plastic bottle of orange juice used in the sangría my husband made (in retrospect, I could have easily juiced some oranges) and the excessive wrapping for the Spanish cheeses. I don’t want to micromanage gifts — how ungrateful I would feel and how rude that would be — but where do I draw the line? Even yesterday when my husband, brother, and I swung by a boba place on our way home, I decided not to get one, partly because I didn’t have my own cup and straw on me, but I failed to avoid waste. The server accidentally made an extra one, and I ended up with an cup of milk tea boba in hard-to-recycle #5 plastic.

I think what it comes down to is that we can and should only control ourselves (and guide our children, if we have them). As I get the hang of this plastic-free thing, my values will become more obvious to those I spend time with, and just like no one who knows me ever slips up by offering me gluten-filled food anymore (it took about a year, but now after five it’s a non-issue), my guess is that friends and family will eventually stop offering me items packaged in tons of plastic. I have to also remember that plastic was pretty invisible to me just two months ago, so chances are my friends and family won’t notice plastic packaging unless it’s extreme.

Last summer I decluttered both my home and my classroom which changed my attitude about stuff. That new attitude coupled with my desire to create less waste means that except for replacing plastic items that are likely to be leeching toxins into my food, I don’t need to buy much and I certainly don’t need to receive much. I also don’t want to burden others with objects they didn’t choose to find a place for, maintain, or dispose of.

I know I can’t erase decades of consumerism indoctrination, but here’s what holiday giving would look like if I could:

Gifts for children
Families would get together to purchase or make a few thoughtful gifts for each child in the family ten years old and younger. The group gift-giving would solve a lot of problems:
1. Fewer presents means less packaging and wrapping waste.
2. Pooled resources means the gift can meet several criteria that shoppers often overlook in the holiday rush: the gifts can be durable, fair trade, sweatshop free, toxin free, etc.
3. A more durable gift means it is more likely to be given a second life with another child after the giftee is done with it.
4. Fewer gifts combats the consumerist message that more is better.
5. Fewer gifts will be cherished more than an overwhelming number that cannot possibly all be used or played with.

Gifts for everyone else in the family
There wouldn’t be gifts for people over ten, but there would still be giving. Family members over ten would, of course, be working to make the holiday great for those under ten, but they would also pool their resources to help people in need. Maybe they’d schedule a family volunteer day (not necessarily during the holidays) or they’d make a group donation to a well-researched charity that reflects their values. The discussion over the holiday meal would be proposals for how they would help this year, followed by a secret ballot. Whatever idea wins, everyone helps with.

Gifts for friends
Friends would give the gift of time together doing something they enjoy but that is out of the ordinary for them. Alternatively, they would provide a needed service (like free babysitting for friends who have a young child). No stuff need be exchanged.

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