What do you want for Christmas?

In much of the Western world, the December festive season has become little more than a celebration of excess and conspicuous consumption. We run around in malls like maniacs as we count the “shopping days” till Christmas, searching for the perfect gifts for everyone we know.

In much of the Western world, the December festive season has become little more than a celebration of excess and conspicuous consumption. We run around in malls like maniacs as we count the “shopping days” till Christmas, searching for the perfect gifts for everyone we know.

We stop briefly to gorge ourselves on turkey and pie, and on the day after Christmas, we rush back to the malls to see what kind of deals we can get.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with offering gifts to friends and family, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with celebrating those connections with wonderful feasts.

Although I’m not a Christian, I love the rituals and family time that come with the holiday season. But it’s gotten out of hand. It may be good for the economy, but is it good for our mental health – and is it good for the environment?

What’s really important as we celebrate this time of year when longer nights give way to longer days? I had a chance to think about some of these things this month, as I prepared to give what has been called my “Legacy Lecture” in Vancouver and to accept a “Right Livelihood” award in Sweden.

In writing them, I reflected on the values I have learned during my 73 years on Earth. It reaffirmed my belief that our most important need as social animals is love.

Everything else flows from this – our commitment to protect the environment so that our own lives and those of our children and grandchildren will be healthier; our recognition that we are all connected to each other and to the natural world through the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the food we eat; and our belief that all the world’s people have a right to justice and freedom.

Whether it’s for holy days or the winter solstice – or both – this time of year offers the chance to reflect and to be with people we love. For many people, the solstice symbolizes renewal and rebirth. We should take advantage of this by using the time wisely. And maybe the wisest use of our time is not to run around shopping and stressing, but rather just to spend time with our loved ones and to consider what we can do for this Earth that gives us so much.

To start, we can make the holiday season itself greener. Gift-giving is a tradition with tremendous symbolic value, but rather than giving each other gadgets and gewgaws that end up in the landfill in less than a year, we should put some thought into gifts that are meaningful, and that are preferably made locally and made to last – unless the gift is food or drink, of course, even though some of the Christmas cake I’ve seen seems like it could last forever!

How about recycling something that we’ve already used, like a good book? You could also consider gifts offered by conservation groups that help advance worthy causes, or give a donation in the gift recipient’s name.

To me, one of our most important rituals is giving gifts to others who are not as well off as us, either at home or in poorer countries.

Gift wrap and cards also have an impact on the environment. If you must wrap your gifts, save a tree and use recycled paper, gift wrap from previous years, or even newspaper. Use cards that are made from post-consumer recycled paper – or send e-cards. You can also tear of the fronts of old cards to re-use them, or even forego an envelope and make them into postcards.

The David Suzuki Foundation’s Queen of Green, Lindsay Coulter, suggests cutting old cards into cool holiday shapes to make excellent gift tags.

Speaking of trees, I’m often asked whether it’s better to use real or artificial Christmas trees. A life-cycle assessment study conducted by sustainability research firm ellipsos inc. found that real trees are better for the environment overall than fake trees.

In Vancouver, the Carbonsync organization will even rent you a potted tree that they will deliver and pick up after Christmas and plant, with some of the proceeds going to the Burns Bog Conservation Society.

I’m sure we can all think of ways to make this season a celebration not just of family and friends but of the wonderful Earth that is our home. Have a happy holiday.

This column is co-written by scientist and broadcaster David Suzuki and Faisal Moola, a scientist.

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