Have yourself a modest little Christmas? The holiday season highlights a wasteful culture.
Hear me out before writing me off as a Grinch.
For many Christians, Christmas is the most joyful time of the year. Reuniting with family and friends to celebrate Jesus’ birth is always cause for celebration—but perhaps we could be more mindful of just how much celebrating we are doing.
Between unwrapping unwanted presents, tons of holiday food ending up in the garbage, fossil-fuel burning to power millions of Christmas lights and many other instances of Yuletide overindulgence, the commemoration of the humble birth of Jesus comes at a significant expense to the environment.
This is by no means a call to end all of the joyful festivities and traditions that accompany Christmas time, but it is worth examining how holiday extravagance contributes to our environmental footprint, especially on the heels of the publication of the apostolic exhortation “Laudate Deum,” Pope Francis’ follow-up to his encyclical on care for the environment, “Laudato Si’.”
Paz Artaza-Regan, program manager at Catholic Climate Covenant, is an advocate of a more environmentally conscious approach to Christmas, where it can be a celebration more directed to the importance of family and service. Catholic Climate Covenant’s Advent Resources emphasize four tenets for practicing a more mindful approach to the holiday season: Worship fully, spend less, give more and love all.
Using our faith to be more aware of how personal behavior affects the environment is something that should not end after Dec. 25.
“If you do intentionally focus on those four things,” Ms. Artaza-Regan said, “you’re really moving away from the Western overconsumption model of Christmas to what Advent and Christmas should be all about. You center on Christ, family, friends and service, which is something that we seem to have forgotten.”
Ms. Artaza-Regan believes that like Lent, Advent offers an opportunity to shift away from material possessions and instead reflect on the things that mean the most to us in our lives and spiritual journeys. She urges “thinking of Advent as a mini-Lent.”
She advises using an Advent calendar that instead of “giving you stuff” creates opportunities for “mini moments of reflection, meditation, prayer and sacrifice.”
While there are things that all of us can do to be more mindful and rooted in the real meaning of Christmas at the individual level, Ms. Artaza-Regan was also quick to point out the need to push back against the corporate and societal influences that drive overconsumption at Christmas.
“While personal change is important, you need to also be part of a push to get systemic change done,” she said. “We also need to be dealing with those huge systemic changes that are going to get us off this craziness that we’re in.”
And using our faith to be more aware of how personal behavior affects the environment is something that should not end after Dec. 25, Ms. Artaza-Regan adds. Our New Year’s resolutions can offer a way to start 2024 on an environmentally friendly note. “Ask ‘How do I move into a year where I’m intentional about my consumption?’” she suggested.
Not a bad resolution to reflect on while unpacking your Christmas decorations this year. A white Christmas is always nice, but you can still make the most of the season by having yourself a merry green Christmas this year.
Michael O’Brien is a Joseph A. O’Hare, S.J., fellow at America.
- About $960 billion: the record amount of U.S. spending in November and December 2023 predicted by the National Retail Federation, 3% to 4% more than the record set in 2022. Consumers say they plan to spend an average of $875 on gifts and holiday purchases this year.
- $8.3 billion: the amount spent on what survey respondents called “unwanted Christmas presents” in 2022; 52% of Americans open at least one unwanted holiday gift each year; 4% of unwanted Christmas gifts end up in the trash.
- $171 billion: the value of holiday gifts estimated to have been returned to U.S. retailers in 2022; 25% of the returned items ended up in landfills. Online shopping has led to substantially higher rates of returned items.
- 25%: the increase in household waste between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day in household waste—from 4 million tons to 5 million tons, about 1,000 extra pounds of trash per household.
- 120 million trees: the number of trees cut down every Christmas across the world, almost one-third of them in the United States alone.
- 130 million Americans plan to spend an average of $1,947 on flights or hotel stays this holiday season—about $254 billion total.
- 15% of the average home’s energy use occurs in the kitchen. Common sense conservation, like keeping oven doors closed and waiting for leftovers to cool before going in the refrigerator, can help lower energy demand.
- $12.7 billion: the amount Americans spend on gift wrap each year, mostly during Christmas—about 4.6 million pounds of paper. About half of that ends up in landfills.
- 75%: the reduction in energy use of L.E.D. Christmas lights compared with incandescent bulbs. U.S. consumers use more energy to power their Christmas displays than many small nations use for all purposes in an entire year.
Sources: National Retail Federation; Finders Unwanted Gifts Report; U.S. Environmental Protection Agency; U.S. Department of Energy; Nerdwallet; Optoro Impact Report; Center for Global Development.