Friday, December 5, 2008

Fern Versus The Families

I could write about how Franklin and I are sometimes at odds on green matters, but the truth is that we're more or less in accord.  (Yes, I think Franklin is a bit generous with the indoor heating and he's baffled by my reliance on pre-packaged convenience foods.  But we're pretty much in sync overall.)

The people who challenge us are our extended families, in equal measure.  While my brother-in-law is excited to be receiving a Sigg, my little sisters - women I love beyond measure - are hopeless shop-a-holics, doing their part to keep the consumer economy afloat.  They scoffed at the idea of alternative gifts and much prefer their coffee in paper cups and purchases in store-issued bags, thanks very much.  About their only eco-savvy activity is trading paperbacks back and forth.

As for my husband's family, that's not so much a case of wanton waste, but of a cultural emphasis on gifting.  It's unthinkable to show up to someone's home without piles of presents, regardless of whether they're needed or desired.  And they have set ideas about the right amounts of money to spend.  A few days ago it hit me like a bullet - his aunt had spent a fortune on wedding silver for us (no, we didn't ask for it; yes, it's lovely; no, we never use it) at a time when her husband was scraping together freelance work and they couldn't afford to replace their only car.  This is a sense of obligation that runs deep and defies logic.

The outcome of all of this is as follows:

1.  Gift giving is frequently catalog ordering, one-step removed.  If we're trading Amazon links for our desired gifts, we're not quite in the spirit of things.  Why don't we just buy ourselves new coffee mugs and let my sister pay for her own sweater?

2.  Most creative gifts end up at Goodwill.  My sisters often choose things that I find charming, but they're rarely functional items that I keep forever.  We loved our daffy, hand-painted margarita glasses - but faced with paying to store our belongings during a long distance move a few years back, they got the boot.  The real beneficiary of their generosity is the local thrift shop - and that's too bad.  I suspect my efforts meet the same fate.

3.  We're just swapping gift cards.  This is almost worse than #1, though it's less wasteful than #2.  In recent months, we've bought some cool place mats from Crate & Barrel and a small television set from Circuit City thanks to gift cards.  But we still have $500 or more of unredeemed gift cards in the desk.  Franklin argues that it's wrong to use them for gifts for others, though last year I did just that.  (We had $15 left on a Pottery Barn card that went towards books for Freddie.)

4.  We're ignoring what's really meaningful.  The only gifts my mother has kept through the years are the ornaments her children made in elementary school.  When my grandmother died, I was amazed to learn that she still had some felt-and-bead monstrosities I'd sewn with my inexpert little hands decades back.  I believe they went on her tree every year, in places of honor.

My mother has finally declared that all of this is silly, and that we ought to be jointly supporting a charity.  She started out by dispatching my super-shopper sisters to find gifts for a few residents of a local nursing home.

I have hopes that my husband might be able to reach a similar deal with his brother.  My husband's parents find this idea ridiculous; again, it's cultural and therefore we're hesitant to push too hard.

I'm happy to exempt children from this, mostly because each year I've been able to find unusual and clever creations from museum gift shops and local artists.  My red-headed niece received a purple tutu last year; this year she's getting her name embroidered on a pink cupcake apron, both courtesy of small businesses.  It takes some pre-planning, but I feel like those gifts are worth giving.

In our own little home, our Christmas has gone quite green, with an emphasis on celebration and seasonal activities rather than on mindless gift giving.  But it's sometimes tough to get beyond your four walls.  

With each passing year, Franklin and I have simply pulled back.  We're spending less on gifts and we're trying to put as much thought as possible into them.  But I often feel like a miser at this time of year.

Lots of green bloggers seem unfazed by their family's reactions, but to be perfectly honest, it still represents a struggle for me.  Do we just keep on violating our values and judgment - or do we rock the boat?  So far we're going with incremental change - but we might be at the logical limits of how much we can do without Having The Talk.

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