Better to Give Better
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
what’s a winter solstice gift giver to do? I try to use some
simple guiding principles in my gift-giving practices.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
may your solstice holiday be environmentally green, organically
nutritious, fairly traded and ultimately promote peace on