Seven ways to recover Christmas gift giving

"Today’s economic mechanisms promote inordinate consumption, yet it is evident that unbridled consumerism combined with inequality proves doubly damaging to the social fabric." + Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium.

With those of us in the States recovering from or critiquing the often beastly shopping phenomenon called “Black Friday,” it's a good time to purge the Christmas gift-giving season from its gluttonous levels of eco- and soul-damaging consumption.

And so as an antidote to the modern madness of Christmas shopping, here are seven ways we can check off our shopping lists and take back the meaning of Christmas.

Photo: Flicker/by Sam, W

7. Shop local. Some of the most unique and meaningful gifts—and certainly the most helpful to your community's economy—come from local artisans, shops, and farms. Whether you know them or not, your neighbors own these small businesses, and that often means they don’t need much gas to transport their goods to their shop. Sure, not everything made in locally owned retail stores is made nearby, but often it is and you should search it out. Rather than ordering gifts the impersonal way from an online behemoth—who has to fly whatever it is to your door after it has probably already made a trip from China—take some time to explore what’s happening in nearby village centers and artist communities. Make a day of it. Get to know the owners. Pet their dogs (local stores always seem to have a dog or cat somewhere by the register) and have a free cookie (small shops often give away cookies, too, and if they don’t the really should). When you shop at local stores that sell local wares, you support your community and you ease up on the pollution that comes from far too much packaging, shipping, and perhaps even less than ideal working conditions to justify those advertised low, low prices at those big box stores.

[There is an exception here: If you have a Hobby Lobby in your community, shop there, too. In fact, shop there often. The company is going toe-to-toe with the United States HHS mandate, the Obamacare provision that requires Catholics to violate their conscience by providing health care coverage that pays for abortions, artificial contraceptives, and the like. The owners of Hobby Lobby are doing Christians a great service. They need our support.]

6. Shop eco-friendly. Whether you’re shopping in family owned stores, mega malls, or online, look for gifts that are either made from recycled goods or that support and/or are made by eco-friendly companies. There are a number of outlets that specialize in gifts that are organically made (here and here for instance); made from recycled goods (here and here); or that help homeowners live with the environment in mind (here and here). Now of course these links are not meant as endorsements for everything sold at the referenced sites, but they offer places to start your own searches. And if you find other eco-retailers that you’re happy with, please add them to the comment section below.

5. Encourage learning. A similar option is books (from you local bookstore, of course). Three of my favorites about faith and nature are Charlie Camosay’s For Love of Animals; Tobias Winright’s Green Discipleship; and Jame Schaefer’s Theological Foundations for Environmental Ethics: Reconstructing Patristic and Medieval Concepts. A full array of additional ideas—from music to books to Catholic publications to resources on spiritual growthare at Kudos to Dan Burke who assembled this helpful list.

4. Buy from Bethlehem. Another option is to buy from the artists in Bethlehem, who use fair trade practices and local scraps of olive wood to make beautiful Nativity Scenes and other religious and artistic goods. Yes, I know—there’s a bit of a carbon-loading issue when you factor in the shipping. But many of the local artisans are Christians living in harsh economic conditions. They truly need our support. Where to look? The Bethlehem Fair Trade Artisans are wonderful to work with and use eco-friendly fair-trade practices. (Last year I gave small olive wood Nativity Scenes from the BFTA to the volunteer teachers in my Confirmation program. They loved them. So will the people you give them to.) You can also find similar goods on eBay and Amazon.

3. Give the gift of time: Members of an incarnational faith should naturally want to spend time with the people we love. Life makes this difficult, for sure. That's what makes the gift of time so special. So get some of your favorite Christmas cards (made from recycled paper, of course) and give a hand-written gift certificate for a movie and dinner, or a trip to a museum exhibit coming this spring, or the philharmonic, or a night for beer and jazz. You get the picture. And they’ll get the best gift you could give: your time and attention, your listening and appreciation. When all is said and done, this sort of gift gives wonderful memories.

2. Pray together. Buck the gift-giving conventions and have Masses said for deceased loved ones of the person you’re giving the gift to. You’ll not only be offering a gift of infinite meaning—a Eucharistic sacrifice for the souls of the dead—but you may also help someone return to Mass. The pray-as-gift option comes in other forms, too: Books on prayer and the lives of the saints make good options, as do Rosaries (locally made are a nice touch). You might even give four of five or ten nights of homemade dinners at your kitchen table that includes bible study—not to worry, if you’re not comfortable leading a conversation on scripture, you can find someone qualified that can. You could also alternate the subjects of conversation between the bible and teaching texts from a few of the most influential pontiffs in the history of the Church—John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and now Francis. After all, considering what we’re all celebrating at Christmas, these last options seem to make the most sense—and they use the least amount of our planet’s resources. This seems to me like a combination that will certainly bring joy to the world.

Before we get to Number 1, please share other ideas in the comments. We all need to rethink how we spend these precious weeks of Advent and how we celebrate the great feast of Christmas. If we do, maybe the wider world will watch joyful, eco-friendly Catholics give differently and pray more. Perhaps what they see will encourage them to ask questions, pray, or attend a Mass for the first time in years. In other words, all this could become a kind of evangelization—and that would be Number 1, the seventh idea and the greatest gift of all: offering God's grace and the Good News of Jesus Christ.

Photo: Flicker/Mahat Tattva

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Catholic Ecology posts my regular column in the Rhode Island Catholic, as well as scientific and theological commentary about the latest eco-news, both within and outside of the Catholic Church. What is contained herein is but one person's attempt to teach and defend the Church's teachings - ecological and otherwise. As such, I offer all contents of this blog for approval of the bishops of the Church. It is my hope that nothing herein will lead anyone astray from truth.