The Christmas Conundrum

How do we bridge the “disconnect” of the modern Christmas Holiday? How do we practice what we are preaching, as farmers, as parents, as members of our small local community? How do we live the life we envision? How can we truly value local, seasonal and handmade everything?

The answer is at least three parts big, all of which have to be answered together… not one of them can stand alone to solve the problems at hand. The answers actually bring up yet more questions that need their own answers. However, here is a beginning to this conversation: First, we must place a priority on local, even if it means doing without certain things. Secondly, local businesses must find a way to compromise on their prices so that we CAN shop locally without sacrificing too much of our hard earned money – and we know this is most difficult when local businesses cannot compete with outside corporations. And thirdly, we must change our mindset so that we do not feel as if we are sacrificing at all!

What parameters are we defining? Local… yes. But in what sense? Locally purchased or locally produced? Just because we shop in our own small town does not ensure that the products we can acquire are better than those at big box stores. And in that situation, do we settle on paying more for the same items that we can get at the bigger stores, but feeling more at ease about it because we are contributing to “local” economy?

Case in point. Today, we went to the big city, Portland, on a mission to find some Christmas gifts for friends and family. We lacked enthusiasm and joy as we were constantly met by foreign made junk that nobody really needs or even wants, and which just drains the pocketbook needlessly. We even coined it all “C.R.A.P.” (Christmas Re-Action Presents), meaning nothing in it is useful, rather it is just the obligatory items that show up on everyone’s list: toys, electronics, gift cards. Or, Crap. We came home mostly empty-handed. On the return trip, we discussed how we are so hypocritical of not living the way that we feel is right, and living the way that we know we need and want to, and often, of living differently compared to what we suggest to others to do! It felt just awful to come to this realization. But why do we feel this way?

Each time we shop at Winco instead of our local grocery store we are sending a message, that we value lower prices and do not value local economy or local employees. (But that is not how I really FEEL, I protest!) Although we prepare made-from-scratch meals more than anyone we know… the “scratch” ingredients, by and large, are neither home grown nor local. We do purchase them in bulk… but they arrive from far away farms. While we do have meat from animals (and milk, and eggs) that were raised, produced and harvested on our farm, and we “assembled” the feed for those animals… the ingredients are purchased in bulk from suppliers who get them from far and wide. Yes, we have hundreds of home-canned foods: much of it homegrown and wholesome, but we still require (or think we do) so much more food in the form of bulk inputs and staples to complete our meals. And where is it all coming from? Just because we purchase it at Safeway rather than Winco doesn’t mean it is any more local or healthier… it just means we are supporting local “economy” and ensuring that our Safeway employees still have jobs so they can sell their overpriced food.

But wait, I say! Our hens eat a homemade diet – oh, but do they really? Our goats produce amazing milk… but on what, really? Eastern Oregon alfalfa and non-local grains? The only truly local, organic, sustainable food in our house might just be the wild-harvested game meat that we have in our freezer and the jars of canned fruits & veggies that line our pantry shelves!

So, where do we begin to bridge these huge gaps? How can we start to live a life of local consumerism, of loyalty to our fellow community members, or live a truly non-hypocritical life? There is no time like the holidays to assess this fundamental symptom of hypocrisy in our lives than when we are spending countless hours and money in search of what? The perfect gift? The one that nobody wants or needs? The one from an overseas producer that does not nurture, favor or contribute to local economy?

Ok. Patrick needed new jeans. So, he went to the local hard-goods store here in our little town and bought a couple of pairs. But were they made locally? Nope. They just were resold by a local family trying to hang on to their business. In Portland… well, we saw the same jeans in another store… half the price. And, hence the Conundrum. Trying to do the right thing, but paying for it in multiple ways.

This conversation is not new, however. This is something my husband brings up every single year. He empowers me to the notion that Christmas gift-giving is really about two things, and two things only: family… and the kids. Christmas is not a time for adults to swap useless presents or share gift cards and money back and forth. (Though sadly, that usually seems to be the case.) Christmas is about spending time with family, friends and loved ones… creating memories, not credit card debt. Christmas IS about the kids… about showing them the joy of giving and receiving gifts.

For the umpteenth year, my husband tries to convince me of these truths… and I follow along heart and soul until I am overtaken with ill-placed guilt. I suddenly envision gifts flowing our way from friends, my sister, mother, in-laws… and feel the urgent need to return the gesture with nonsense gifts as well. So, my resolve weakens, and I rush out to purchase gifts that will not be appreciated, only really buying them appease my inappropriate guilt.

It isn’t about the money, really. IT is about the gesture. The act of giving and receiving, over and over again. We have the money this year to buy lots of gifts. But… I can’t find anything worth buying to give! So, I will bake. And make Irish Cream. And spread my Christmas Cheer with handmade cards and lots of hugs. Right?

Even as I write the words, I feel the weakness spreading. I feel the resolve wavering. How can I change that? How can I stick to my (compromise) plan of JUST doing some holiday baking for my gift giving efforts? Maybe by simply writing this down? Perhaps by the courage of my own admission? Maybe if I look forward enough, maybe if I envision myself on the receiving end, and maybe if I can picture the joy of receiving a homemade loaf of cranberry bread and a bottle of handcrafted liqueur – instead of the cheap made-in-China fleece blanket – that I am certain to receive (er… make and give as gifts) this year? Maybe. Maybe.

But until then, I need to plan my shift gradually, in little increments, so as to ensure possible success. Maybe I could shop at Safeway for those last minute baking ingredients. Maybe I can skip running to Dollar Tree for gift wrap and use newsprint instead. Maybe. Can I? Will it really help?

What if those things are not the answer at all? What if there was a real, lasting solution?

A real solution just might be to apply permaculture design principles to answer these questions.

After all, the design system illustrated by permaculture uses ecosystem principles to meet human needs. What are the human needs at Christmas, really?

While conventional thinking asks, “How we can meet our own needs?” permaculture asks the broader question of, “How can we meet our needs while also taking ecosystem health into account?” Permaculture looks closely at how ecosystems work and condenses those functions into twelve general principles. These in turn inform our design decisions about shelter, food, water, energy, and waste management. They also rest on two fundamental assumptions:

  1. Humans are a part of the planet and cannot be separated from it.
  2. Humans can be a positive force that leaves things better than we find them.

If we are willing to learn from and work with nature, we can make smarter decisions to inform how we live. These choices can prevent the wasteful use of fossil fuels or the unnecessary need for environmentally and economically costly foods. They can help us tread more lightly on the environment while saving us money and keeping us healthier and happier in the long-term. And in the instance of Christmas, they can keep us focused on what is truly important and sacred.

Human beings cannot live in a physical world without having an impact. We consume resources, generate waste, and alter our surroundings. But what we can do, as an ethical and responsible species, is to optimize that disturbance. As a global industrial society, we are very ignorant of the consequences of our actions and are causing a lot of damage. Permaculture offers us a framework and the tools to align our creativity with actions that can repair and regenerate both the natural and human world.

At its core, permaculture is an optimistic discipline. Research has shown that negative thoughts can shut down our prefrontal cortex – the part of the brain we think and design with. If our mindset constantly revolves around doom and gloom, it becomes very difficult to find solutions to the challenges which we face! By looking to the wonder and complexity of nature, permaculture allows us to reframe problems as opportunities. In the natural world, disturbance brings about new cycles, niches, and possibilities for species to adapt and prosper. When we approach things with this optimism, problems become much easier to deal with. As permies often say, One never has a slug problem in the garden, but rather a duck opportunity waiting to be exploited.” These feelings of Christmas gift-giving dread are my slugs. Where are my ducks?

Modern society’s metrics for success are fundamentally flawed. Did GDP go up or down? Did quarterly results increase or decrease? Did employment rates rise or fall? As Steven Stoll writes in the Orion Magazine article, The Mismeasure of All Things, a lot of these indicators tell us nothing about the things that are truly important in life. They tell us nothing about ecosystem health and biodiversity, of farmer livelihoods or community cohesiveness. They offer us no advice on how to create a happier and healthier world. They certainly don’t define, or offer a fix, to the current Christmas Conundrum.

What are the metrics that will define success during the holiday season? Did we contribute to local economy? Did we spend our hard-earned money on useful valuable things? Did we support local artisans, crafters and vendors? Are we contributing to the poisons of our modern age by excessive consumption or are we focused on making sustainable choices? Are we contributing to a vibrant and thriving community? These are the things that truly matter, because just as we cannot thrive without clean air and soil, we cannot truly survive without real community, no matter how large the GDP becomes.

Permaculture helps us establish many of these metrics. It helps us identify opportunities to make change and to inspire others. It promotes actions that increase diversity, health, and balance. There’s a lot of exciting work that can be done through the permaculture lens.

And it really doesn’t matter what we are designing – permaculture’s system approach represents a way of doing things differently. Permaculture design is universally applicable because it reflects how the real world, a world of interdependence and complexity, works. It makes available the tools we need to become aware of those connections, always with the big picture in mind.

Permaculture is just one big solutions matrix. For any problem, there are a huge number of potential solutions. Permaculture provides the principles so that we can choose solutions that are optimized for us and for our surroundings. An example, then, in the area of this holiday conundrum:

What is the best holiday gift to give? Store-bought? Hand-made? Consumable (food) gift? Gifts of time and memory-making?

The solution depends on the needs of the recipient: How old is the intended receiver of the gift? Can we identify the critical difference between need and want? Between an essential item and a desire? Which gift will provide the most true enjoyment, usefulness or nourishment? Which gift will be treasured, remembered, long-lasting and least likely to be discarded?

Perhaps this isn’t the same for all of us, but when I think back to periods of gift-giving in my life, I can hardly recall the items which I gave that were purchased with little thought in mind, compared to the items that I handcrafted or carefully chose and gave to the recipient with love and care. I cannot recall which items cost what, rather I only remember with regret the years that I went over my gift budget and rang up credit card debt that had to be dealt with in January. Likewise, nor can I recall the giver of gifts that did not mean much to me, or gifts which were not necessary in my life or were discarded, useless or meaningless. What I do remember is holidays past where I gave loved ones goodies baked in my kitchen, books with a personal inscription, or hand-crafted items that are still treasured to this day. I also recall receiving gifts which have been truly cherished through the years, and even who gave them to me. I recall the excitement I felt when I received gifts such as living plants, useful tools, kitchen implements, and cook books. Handmade cards, family photos, tree ornaments and cookies. My blueberries and broad fork are two of my most prized possessions!

I particularly recall Christmas’ past where I have given my own children expensive gadgets and toys… their heart’s biggest desire… and now those remote control helicopters and video games just gathering dust, are seldom played with anymore. What does that mean?

Therefore, gift giving can be based on systems thinking and focused on optimization strategies. Permaculture is engineering, physics, biology, anthropology and architecture all rolled into one. Obviously we don’t become an expert in all these fields just by studying permaculture, but we can gain a solid foundation in these areas while gaining perspective on how human beings fit on this planet. With this broad knowledge base, we can get started designing around our life’s needs while creating positive change.

As Christmas nears, we can apply these principles to our gift choices and see what kind of positive effect we can create for our community, our families, and even for ourselves. May the Conundrum end and the joy of gift-giving and peace begin.

*Permaculture principles adapted from Films for Action

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