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Rant #64
(published Late in the Year, 2001)
Recycled Christmas: One Family's Revolution Against the Shopping Mall
by Brian Smith

Sitting around the dinner table out at the farm last Thanksgiving, the subject of what to do about Christmas came up. How would we organize a family gathering now that we kids are grown and scattered across the state? Whose house would we use? How would we deal with the whole gift-giving thing?

Everyone seemed completely unenthusiastic about engaging in another orgy of shopping and crowds and waste. There was the sense of duty: to tradition, to the nation. TV newscasters claimed that the very health of the US economy depended upon our generous holiday spending. Christmas consumerism is patriotic. Don't think about it too much, just shut up and shop.

After confessing distaste for the entire affair, one rebel relative proposed we just bag the whole holiday. The lobbying for this option was fierce and convincing. And for an agnostic family, ignoring Christmas altogether seemed like a perfectly viable option.

Though we really enjoyed coming together for a mid-winter celebration, the very thought of shopping ruined Christmas. Wasn't there another option? Didn't we have the right to reclaim the holiday and create our own family tradition?

After an hour of discussion, and a few more glasses of wine, we arrived at a solution: Recycled Christmas.

And it turned out to be the best Christmas since I was a child.

Here is how it works.

Everyone is invited to give presents to anyone else, but these rules must be followed: you can only give a gift that has been previously owned, nothing new; you can make a present, a painting, a song, a poem, or whatever; you can give away something you already own; you can purchase your gift at a second-hand store or garage sale; and all gifts should be wrapped in newspaper. (Sunday comics if you want to get fancy.)

That's it. Simple.

Well, not exactly.

As it turns out, giving the perfect Recycled Christmas present is a much more personal experience than just going to the mall with a credit card. When you give a present from a garage sale, or from your attic, you must understand and care about the person on the receiving end. Another tie for dad or bath soap set for auntie just won't do. You really have to think about your loved ones and who they are as people.

My mother found some used photo albums for each of us kids and filled them with pictures from our childhoods. She had written personal memories next to each picture. I was in tears seeing photos that had lingered in shoeboxes and drawers for twenty years.

I gave my intellectual cousin one of my favorite novels that she instantly curled up with and read by the fire until she fell asleep.

My father received a big plastic lawn-goose, with a light bulb inside. It was the perfect gift for a man who had discovered his love for raising birds on the farm in his 50s. He giggled with delight as he turned it on and placed it proudly on the mantel.

My aunt gave my girlfriend her favorite cookbook, with the best recipes clearly marked by gravy stains — a subtle hint to make sure I was eating right.

My brother and I baked loaves of beer bread and handed them out to family members still warm and wrapped in tinfoil.

The gift giving went late into the night because each person told a story about what they were thinking when they chose the gift. We laughed and felt like a family again. We participated in the holiday on our own terms. The advantages of Recycled Christmas became apparent quickly.

We all saved a ton of money. We had a lot more fun. We never even stepped foot in a mall or felt the crush of the holiday traffic. We contributed nothing to the local landfill. And best of all, we knew the presents we gave and received had all come from the heart.

This piece originally ran on AlterNet on November 21, 2001.

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