Debating Holiday Consumerism

  • Santa in a window display. Some families wrestle with the question of how much to give each holiday season. (Photo by Mark Brush)

A lot of people don’t want to get caught up
in the consumerism of the holidays. But often
family and friends expect to get gifts from loved
ones. Julie Grant spent time with one family where gift-giving is a real struggle:


A lot of people don’t want to get caught up
in the consumerism of the holidays. But often
family and friends to get gifts from loved ones.
Julie Grant spent time with one family where gift-
giving is a real struggle:

Susan Testa is stuck in the middle between her sister and her husband. They see the
Christmas holidays very differently. Susan and her husband Matt try to teach their two
little girls to live in balance with the natural environment. That means at Christmastime,
Susan says her husband wants to put the brakes on buying gifts:

“I think if it was up to Matt, we would have nothing because it’s just too much
consumerism, too much waste, too much this, too much that. I want to balance that
with, well, let’s not go overboard. Let’s bring some green concepts, which we’re both
very interested in, into the tradition. However, let’s not be scrooges about the whole
thing either.”

But on Christmas Eve, Matt doesn’t have visions of sugar plums dancing in his head.
He’s got visions of wastefulness. He can’t stand to watch the wrapping paper pile up as
the relatives rip open gifts:

Matt: “It doesn’t sit well with me, this frenzy of ripping things open, where no one can
even be appreciated or it’s hard to link the gift to the giver because of the frenzy going

(Sound of child in background)

Susan: “Well, what do you want to do, say okay, everyone stop. Let’s take a moment to
realize the true meaning of Christmas. And just put your gifts down and open them slowly… what do you think needs to be done?”

Matt: “Less about the things, more about the act of getting together, of sharing and all that.”

Matt says at the very least, instead of mindless toys and gadgets, the family ought to
give smart gifts: educational gifts, savings bonds – or giving the holiday gift money to

“Oh, he’s such a killjoy. You know, he’s missing the whole point of it.”

That’s Susan’s sister, Pam Nervo.

On Christmas Eve, Susan and Matt take their family over to Pam’s upper middle class
suburban home for a gift-giving session. Unlike Uncle Matt, the nieces love watching all
the wrapping paper pile up on Christmas Eve, and they don’t want educational gifts, and
Aunt Pam doesn’t plan on buying them for Sue and Matt’s girls either:

“I’m not gonna be the aunt that gives the educational toys. Not gonna happen Matt, not
going to happen.”

Pam and Sue are sisters, but their families have different philosophies. While Susan is
concerned about celebrating the love of the season and the earth we live on, Pam thinks
Susan and Matt should worry less about the consumerism of Christmas and spend more
time celebrating the birth of Jesus:

“I think when you don’t have the religious aspect to it, you are stuck with the
commercialism of it. That’s what happens. When you don’t have religion as part of your
life, that’s all this is, it’s a show.”

Julie: “Unless what you see as sort of, I mean, I’m just playing devil’s advocate for Matt a
little bit… unless what you see as your moral center is kind of…”

Pam: “Are you saying, I don’t know. Do you really want
your moral center to be based on the ecology system here. Is that what we’re saying?
That this is your moral center? That’s kind of crazy. I can’t imagine that being your
belief system.”

As we said, Susan is stuck between very different philosophies between her husband
Matt and her sister Pam.

But the holiday with the extended family is just that one day. The important thing for
Matt and Sue is that they teach their children the holiday season is more than just the
holiday shopping season. They turn to their 5-year-old daughter Geanna, smiling, Matt
asks her about her favorite part of Christmas:

Matt: “What’s your favorite part of Christmas?”

Geanna: “Um, getting presents.”

Matt: “Really?”

Geanna: “It’s just fun opening up presents.”

Well, nice try Matt. So, for this year Susan says she’ll be buying gifts she thinks the kids
in her life will enjoy. Environmental or educational qualities are secondary.

For the Environment Report, I’m Julie Grant.

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