Holiday season is approaching, but life is not all gumdrops and Norman Rockwell-esque vignettes. A climate crisis is upon us, even amid the coziness of the winter months. A startling, unfortunate truth is that Americans produce 25% more waste between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day, according to Columbia Climate School’s blog. Americans scrap 2.3 million pounds of wrapping paper each year. It is a strange vision: holiday cheer stacking up in landfills, with Santa Claus’ crumpled image eerily emerging from the piles. 

A Culture of Overconsumption Veiled as Festivity

It is no coincidence that holiday season has grown into a decadent grandeur in American culture. Large companies pivoted Christmas away from the rowdy traditions it once held. Gone are the days when intoxicated, unkempt men in ostentatious costumes would arrive at one’s door, singing horribly and demanding payment. It was a time for vandalization, vice, and clamorous noise. Perhaps it was fun for some, but terribly annoying for others. In the 19th century (mainly through the figure of Santa Claus), perceptions of the holiday season began to change to something completely different: a meek, spiritually reflective, highly aestheticized time of year. At first, it was a practical change: mayors and citizens alike wanted to rid the holiday of the boisterous, costumed young men who caused chaos. As a result, the drunken mobs of roughhousers dissipated and cultural mindsets shifted. But, some aspects of this shift went into the realm of greed.

For companies, the season took on a theme of giving to others emotionally… but also materially. Companies such as Coca-Cola and Macy’s encourage gift-giving in a seemingly genuine way, but use the pressure of buying to capitalize on customers.

But it's not too late to break the chain of unsustainable consumption this holiday season- as the infamous Dickens character Jacob Marley states, “link by link, and yard by yard.” 

Rent a Live Holiday Tree

Whether you call it a ‘Christmas Tree’ or ‘Hanukkah Bush’, a tree taken from the Earth is one less tree to emit oxygen. It may be time to branch out into something more sustainable. About thirty million trees are harvested for the holiday season each year, but some companies are trying to change this with progressive action. Rent Xmas Tree in California lets consumers rent a potted tree. At the end of the season, the company comes to retrieve the tree to be reused. After around seven years when the tree becomes too large for domestic use, it is planted in a nearby forest or community area. For those with plantable garden space, buying an evergreen tree from a local nursery (for eventual outdoor display) will be a gift that keeps on giving.

Shop Second Hand or At Small Businesses

It takes 1,800 gallons of water to make a pair of jeans. With fashion micro-trends on the rise that enable overconsumption like SHEIN or AliExpress, the holiday season seems to only encourage unethically-made goods. Beyond the unethical labor practices in fast fashion, the amount of fossil fuels involved in the makeup of synthetic fibers (65 percent) is concerning. Thrift stores and second-hand shops are excellent alternatives to shopping at fast fashion brands, especially during the rising fad of thrift-hunting for unusual finds/authentic vintage. Shops such as  Fyre Vintage, which sells vintage and reworked pieces, have a quality that cannot necessarily be found on websites like SHEIN. Also, supporting ‘Mom-and-Pop’ businesses is a sustainable, impactful way to help keep smaller companies alive.

Send Holiday Cards (Or Love Letters) On Seed Paper

The paper waste that holiday cards and gift wrapping generates is immense—over two billion cards are sold yearly in the U.S. alone. A sustainable and creative alternative is to send out cards on seed paper. The recycled paper has seeds embedded within it, meaning that it can be planted to grow wildflowers or herbs. As a result, the cards (and envelopes, too) can function as a no-waste alternative and an added botanical gift for the recipient. 

Normalize Re-Gifting

Re-gifting has historically been frowned upon in American culture, viewed as parsimonious and inconsiderate. It is time for gifting to be rooted in giving instead of as a materialistic, status symbol. Demonstrating loyalty or admiration for a person should not equate to money spent. Rather, the intent and thoughtfulness behind the gesture should be paramount. Re-gifting is an act of rebellion: opposing the big-company mindset that buying is a peak expression of love while also curtailing waste. Opposed to unwanted goods ending up in landfills, giving re-gifted items to someone who genuinely appreciates them helps save money and the planet. 

The Gift of Knowledge: Holding Lawmakers Accountable

Fossil fuels power the holiday season: from light displays to transport. Hence, the winter months (and all seasons) are a powerful time to educate oneself about systemic climate injustices that affect some communities while ‘benefiting’ others. The Philippines, for instance, are known for having the most extended Christmas season in the world. However, the celebrations have become bleaker in recent years: powerful storms sparked by climate change have forced people from their homes to celebrate the season in evacuation centers. The stark contrast between the holiday spirit here in the U.S. and in climate-affected countries is startling. Writing to lawmakers, utilizing one’s right to vote, and getting involved with advocacy are potent ways to participate in macro-change alongside micro-individual choices. 

While there is power in individual acts of sustainability, lifestyle changes on a personal scale are not enough to solve the climate crisis. The lump of coal belongs, quite literally, in the stocking of the fossil fuel industry. Approximately 80 percent of the world’s energy comes from burning fossil fuels. Lawmakers and people in positions of power can fight for net zero emissions by utilizing renewable sources such as solar and wind power.

As the holiday season inches nearer, the chaos of consumerism and climate change can feel daunting. The once whimsical nature of a snow globe becomes a wry metaphor—it is easy to feel encased in glass despite the cheery optimism that surrounds us. Swap out faux snowflakes for greenhouse gasses filling the air, and the beloved kitschy holiday gift becomes life on Earth in the 21st century. It is time to give the greatest gift to succeeding generations—the hope of a future untampered by irreversible climate change.