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’Tis Better to Give Better

It will most likely pass you by without notice, but the winter solstice is rapidly approaching and will clock in at 7:42 AM on Tuesday, Dec. 21, around these parts of the planet. Our winter solstice occurs when Earth maximally tilts so that the main track of the sun runs along our planet’s Tropic of Capricorn, an imaginary line that runs parallel to and south of the equator.

As our local star’s daily path is shifted as it crosses our magnificent clouded blue planet, Earth’s northern hemisphere cools down into winter as the southern hemisphere now concentrates the sun’s warmth and heats up into summer. Northern days lose their hours of light and drift down into freezing temperatures. While once the solstice passes the amount of sunlight will increase in this hemisphere, it will be some time before we really notice its effects.

The seasonal changes of the year have taken on special significance for our species over time, fostering the celebration of festivals and a plethora of related rituals, spectacles, stories, myths and legends. This seems to be particularly true regarding the winter solstice. It is a time rich in symbolism and a certain magic that seems intent on giving us the momentum to get through the cold dark days still before us. Whether we get our goods by gathering and hunting, farming, or shopping with debit cards in globally stocked super malls, humans attach much importance to this time of year.

Christmas has come to dominate much of the solstice activities that take place in this country. I find it very interesting that Christmas has achieved a status in American culture that allows it to be treated as both a religious and secular event. While its origins are religious, in the 20th century it morphed into a dynamic secular engine for end-of-the year economic salvation. Once a festivity focused on the potential for personal redemption and salvation, in the 20th century corporations could be saved through the effects of year-end sales and the “shop-’til-you-drop” mentality that began to permeate the festivities. The rise of gift giving as an important part of this cultural shift helped build this need for end-of-the-year buying. The emergence of the credit card provided a convenient means to annually rekindle this buying binge.

When I was in my single digits back in the early 1960s, I remember how my parents would give me copies of catalogues from Montgomery Wards and Sears to pick out the things I wanted for Christmas. Instead of sitting on Santa’s knee to tell him what I wanted, I made a list of items on a piece of paper, noting the pages they were on and any particulars regarding such things as color choice. Santa was always a prominent figure in these catalogues, but I suspected that he had not gone into the catalogue business.

I was working the catalogues because my folks had credit at these companies and could stretch out their payoff for the goods over an extended period of time through the magic of something called “interest.” I would learn later that this “interest” over time could cost more than the original item purchased and that it could add its own burdens of stress to the family. While the solstice’s Christmas conversion had associated it with evergreen trees and boughs, yule logs, candles, Santa, reindeer and a burgeoning list of holiday pop songs, it had also become thoroughly linked with pocket plastic and the dramatic growth of American household debt.

The initial idea of giving that fostered the holiday as it emerged in American culture, would be supplanted, following the Great Depression, by the idea of Christmas as an important annual stimulus for the American economy. Massive buying became almost a patriotic duty. Keep the country strong, get into more debt.

But today, few of us can afford or appreciate this approach to the winter solstice, regardless of the name we apply to it. While many Americans still outspend their means at this time of year, there are many of us who are looking to meaningful giving that reflects the importance of our relationships to one another rather than to the economy.

So what’s a winter solstice gift giver to do? I try to use some simple guiding principles in my gift-giving practices.

Buy local. I look to support local artists and craftspeople, many of whom have their wares available through stores and galleries in areas like Albany’s Lark Street, Schenectady’s Jay Street and the revitalized Troy riverfront. Farmer’s markets in the area (see Metroland listings) are also a great source for crafts and food. And don’t forget the independent booksellers for their offerings of new, recycled and locally written works.

Buy energy-efficient. One of the best gifts I continue to espouse is the compact fluorescent bulb which reduces energy demand through its more efficient lighting. It wouldn’t take many of these in the national gift-giving mix to have a more dramatic and positive energy impact than any plan promulgated by George W. and his petrochemical posse.

Buy fair trade. In this time of great debate over the nature of the global economy, there are many of us concerned about who ultimately gets the money we pay for products. I would rather give those I care for a gift that has been fairly traded with a farmer or craftsperson than a sweatshop knockoff produced under poor working conditions and exploitive wages.

Buy organic. Organic food is a great gift that nourishes and can introduce others to the range of good eats out there produced through environmentally benign farming methods.

Give of yourself. The greatest presents for some may be your presence. Spend time with those who are important to you. Handmade cards, photos and poems are a few of the small things we can make and give.

And may your solstice holiday be environmentally green, organically nutritious, fairly traded and ultimately promote peace on Earth.

—Tom Nattell

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