Here is a picture of my brother Matt demonstrating our Christmas shopping technique. The location is a used bookstore in downtown Providence, RI. Saturday marked the beginning of our annual ritual of gift purchasing for family and friends. Sunday I preached about being intentional about our holiday purchases, making sure that our covenant with the earth does not get overwhelmed by our busyness and, therefore, eventually degenerate into late night runs to the Container Store for some overpriced plastic.
This is a real challenge, I think, for all of us. We are busy! We also want to do the right thing. If our goal this year is sustainability, then this is where the rubber (or the money) meets the road, both environmentally and financially. So let's get down to brass tacks. What you cannot see in the picture is that Matt is practicing intentional shopping as per the rules of his big brother (me). So, for what they are worth, here they are.
While some of the things I will mention may not work for you, there are two things that I think are crucial to practice. First, we need to practice conversation. I am one of those people who believes that it is important to give presents because they are symbolic representations of our connection to and relationship with each other. However, I also believe that these gifts need not be expensive. The key is to have a sense of the receiver's values. It is also important that the reciever has a sense of yours. We need to talk to each other about money, religion (these holidays are religious, right?), and politics. As a gift-getter I do not want to get anything that seems to me like a repackaged jar of petroleum. I also don't want you to go broke. I also want you to know I will not be giving you petroleum and--though I love you--will not go broke either, assuming that you do not want to have me, my wife and my three kids living in your basement.
Second, we need to take our time. This is why I start early. As a minister I can safely say that I am one of the busy ones as we approach the major holiday milestones. You may be busy, too. Finding time now may seem hard, but it is not as difficult as trying to find a parking space at the mall after Black Friday.
Proper Game Plan:
So, after having "the talk" (or more than one talk for each of you distinct communities) it is time to lay out the ground rules for the gifts. Here are my rules for purchases for siblings and other adults...
The presents I purchase must be at least two of the following three things:
Used: You will again observe that Matt is at a used book store. You can find some truly fabulous things there that--I promise you--you wouln't think of otherwise.
Recyclable: This is the rule for things that are purchased new. Used gifts are being recycled!
Unique/Surprising: The gift needs to be something that says something about you and about the person you are giving it to. My goal is to have the receiver open the present and say "Wow, I never in a million years would have thought of this but it sure is cool!" Obviously this is easier to do at places where they sell used books, crafts, and random inexpensive antiques (in some places they are called "junk dealers").
They must also fill both the following criteria:
They must be purchased locally. By "locally" I mean in an independant store or other organization (my church sells calendars, for example) where you live or where you are shopping at that time. I do not live in Providence, but I do not mind my money going to downtown businesses there.
They must be less than $12 per person! OK, maybe $15 in some cases but the idea to to get something great! A $9 gift that is unique says something better than a more expensive gift that says "lot's of people are getting this, so I thought of you".
Rules like this make the giving a game and a challenge, which makes it more fun....
Now, like I said before, there are different rules for different communities. I have had the "talk" with my children and we have a slightly different plan for them. Also, some folks really do not want more stuff, they might like a gift to a charity or social justice organization given in their name...or a plant.
Whatever the plan you come up with, I urge you not to give up or despair. Gift giving (and receiving) is a way to say "I love you" and "you are not alone". Both important expressions of the sustainable life.
Update: Someone on Facebook asked me where making your own gifts falls in these guidelines. My bad. These are the rules I use and, as someone whith very limited creative skills, making stuff doesn't naturally occur to me. However, they fit nicely, I think, as being certainly unique, usually recyclable, obviously local, and often inexpensive!