Jane Goodall said that “stuff” will be the end of civilization. Try telling that to a nine-year old on Christmas morning. But last year, I made a decision. Given my family’s commitment to decreasing our environmental footprint, I decided we should cut down on the crap – I’m sorry, toys and paraphernalia – that accompany birthdays and Christmas. As you can imagine, my suggestion was met with horror.
“I didn’t say we were going to cancel Christmas,” I explained as my kids stared at me, blinking back tears. “I just don’t think we need to go overboard.”
“So what does that mean?” Ethan, then nine, tried to maintain his composure. “Not going overboard?” I explained my environmental stance in gentle yet firm terms. They heard: “blah blah blah blah less presents.”
But I vowed to do it. Every time I thought of the Christmas morning excess, a chill ran down my spine. All those trees killed for wrapping paper, the plastic toys that would end up languishing in a landfill, and the over-packaging! (Have you ever tried to get a Barbie out of the box? Every strand of her hair is sewn to the cardboard, secured by a plastic sheath that is held in place with numerous plastic-covered wires. God forbid her hair got messed up on the boat ride over from Taiwan.) I was taking a stand. We were going to have a minimalist Christmas.
So we bought the children a week of ski lessons at Grouse Mountain. They’d been given hand-me-down equipment, which we supplemented at the consignment store. They’d learn a fun, healthy winter activity, we’d support our local economy, and it was just a slip of paper.
To my surprise, they were fine. In fact, they were as happy as any other Christmas. Of course, my “not going overboard” stance did not extend to grandparents, and aunts and uncles, who continued to spoil them rotten, so I’m not sure they actually noticed a difference.
So when Tegan’s seventh birthday rolled around, I decided to push the envelope. “I’ve got a good idea!” I said. “Why don’t you ask your birthday guests to bring $10 instead of a gift? You can donate half to charity, and use half to buy something you really want.”
Tegan was immediately dismissive. “I think I’m a bit young for that,” she said. “Why do you insist on ruining my childhood rites of passage with your minimalist ways?” (Okay, she didn’t really say that, but I can practically hear her relaying it to her therapist in about 20 years.)
By Ethan’s tenth birthday in May, I had refined my pitch. “Look,” I said, “You’ve invited eight kids to your party. Do you really want eight little toys that you’ll be bored with in a month? Why don’t you go for the cash and buy something you really want?”
He quickly did the math. “I’ll do it!” he said, rubbing his hands together à la Monty Burns, his pupils shaped like dollar signs. “I’ll do it!”
In keeping with our low-impact birthday theme, I decided to forego loot bags. I’ve never understood the concept anyway. Why do children need to be rewarded for spending two hours with their friends, playing games and being stuffed with pizza, cake and pop? This year I would boycott the plastic parachute men (that make one leap from the top of the stairs and end up hopelessly tangled), the rubber bouncy balls (that always end up behind the couch), and the spider rings (that invoke a panic attack when you stumble upon them in a dusty corner two months later).
And so the sustainable birthday party went off without a hitch (well, there were hitches, but not related to the sustainability). Each kid brought $10 dollars, half of which was donated to tiger conservation (Ethan’s cause du jour).
Now, if I can only convince Tegan to have a minimalist eighth birthday party without crushing her dreams. And of course, think up more exciting yet environmentally friendly Christmas gift ideas… for the next 10 to 15 years.
Robyn Harding lives in Vancouver and is author of the novels The Journal of Mortifying Moments, The Secret Desires of a Soccer Mom and the recently released Unravelled.