A few years ago, I went viral for my love of big Christmases. I wrote an article that, honestly, I still find fairly compelling even now, mainly because my point was that others had no right to judge how my family celebrated Christmas. I wrote the article because I’d had several real-life friends make snide remarks about a picture I had posted to social media of my and my sister’s combined Christmases at her house on Christmas Eve. Her living room was packed with presents for nine people.
It was a lot, no doubt about it, but at the time I didn’t think we should have been judged for it. I still feel that way. There’s no need for anyone to judge anyone else for how they celebrate Christmas or any other holiday.
However, I’ve totally changed my mind about big Christmases.
Back then, I kept my shopping list in an Excel spreadsheet, which I would use to compare competitor prices to make sure I got the best deal on the items on my kids’ lists. They didn’t get everything they wanted, but I was remarkably frugal considering how high our pile of Christmas presents could get.
For years, I just kept doing what I was doing and closing my eyes and ears to any potential negative effect my actions may have had. I know better now, so I’m doing better.
I argued in my article that my kids would play with each and every gift they received. That was true. I also defended our big Christmases by noting how grateful my kids were. That was also true — they were, and still are, grateful. They are aware of how comfortable their lives are compared to many other children around the world.
I also argued, Christmas is a once-per-year event. I’ve never been one to allow “impulse buys,” not for myself and not for my kids, and one of the reasons we did big Christmases was because in the four to five months leading up to Christmas, I wouldn’t allow my kids to buy much of anything at all. I would say I was adding it to the Christmas list and they would have to wait. So, part of my big Christmas argument was that I was teaching my kids patience and delayed gratification.
It was about memories, I claimed. I loved the excitement of Christmas morning unwrapping insanity — the sound of paper tearing and children squealing, Christmas bows flying through the air. My kids would never forget those moments, just like I never forgot those moments from my own childhood.
Nevertheless, I’m done with big Christmases. The reason for my change of heart is the environment. For all my spreadsheet keeping and carefully managed gift accumulation, for all the gratitude my kids may have shown, for all the time they may have spent playing with each gift I got them, the fact is, I still purchased a lot of plastic — a lot of brand-new plastic that my kids honestly didn’t need. Just because they played with every single one of their new toys doesn’t mean they had to have every single one of them. Yes, they enjoyed the big pile of playthings, but they would’ve enjoyed half as much, or even a quarter as much, surely.
Maya Angelou famously said, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” In the last few years, I’ve learned a lot about the dangers plastics pose to our environment. I’ve acquired some “know better,” if you will. And with what I now know, I can’t in good conscience continue to purchase plastic just for fun for my kids, no matter what holiday or sentimental excuse I contrive for myself.
We have a major worldwide plastics problem, with the U.S. being one of the biggest contributors. The U.S. represents only 4% of the world’s population and yet we produce 12% of global waste. Worldwide, humans produce 8.3 billion tons of plastic waste, and we recycle only 9% of it. 40% is dumped into our oceans, and the rest ends up in landfills.
I can’t claim to be an environmentalist if I buy my kids a bunch of plastic every year. My concern for the environment is greater than my desire to watch my kids screamingly tear open a mountain of gifts.
We used to ship our plastic to China to have it recycled there, but since 2017, China no longer accepts being the world’s plastic waste bin. Their population was suffering environmental and health issues and had to dramatically restrict the amount and type of plastics they would accept. We are now in charge of dealing with our own garbage, and we don’t have the infrastructure to handle it.
American citizens diligently recycle plastic like we’ve been told to, but at least half of that plastic is trucked to incinerators and burned. We simply don’t have the infrastructure here to handle all of that recycling. An incinerator in Covanta, Pennsylvania burns 3,510 tons of trash per day. That’s the equivalent of 17 blue whales. The pollutants like nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxides, and particulate matter that end up in the atmosphere around these incinerators all cause health issues for the people who live nearby, typically socioeconomically disadvantaged communities comprised of black and brown people. Our wastefulness is shameful, harmful, and unforgivable.
So, that’s it. I can’t claim to be an environmentalist if I buy my kids a bunch of plastic every year. My concern for the environment is greater than my desire to watch my kids screamingly tear open a mountain of gifts. It seems obvious when I write it like that, but, sadly, for years, I just kept doing what I was doing and closing my eyes and ears to any potential negative effect my actions may have had. I know better now, so I’m doing better.
I admit, I still love the festive visual of prettily wrapped presents tucked under the tree, and I do love watching my kids unwrap stuff, so I probably won’t go full-blown minimalist by only buying three gifts or not wrapping anything. I’ll compromise by buying much less, buying mostly gently-used secondhand items (Goodwill and Facebook Marketplace are my happy places), gifting more experiences, and using recycled wrapping paper.
It won’t be perfect, but it definitely won’t be the plastic nightmare mountain of years past.
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