The other day I was driving with a friend, trying to explain why I decorated my house for Christmas. It came up as a part of a larger conversation about the commercialization of the season, how many resources—of time, money, energy, not to mention the other tangibles: trees and wrapping paper and Christmas lights—were consumed every year by Americans getting into the spirit of the season. Was it worth it? we wondered. Is there value in investing in the appearance of Christmas?
As with most big questions there wasn’t an easy answer. It’s nuanced, a gray in-between, dependent on the person you ask. And really, at the heart of it, is the fundamental issue of how to live in a consumerist society while also trying to be an ethical, conscientious and independent person—while also acknowledging and participating in the culture and country that raised us (and that we love!). But I think it’s also a good question to ask ourselves, always, if the things we’re doing and saying and buying align with the values we hold. It’s good to ask even about Christmas, maybe especially about Christmas.
It made me pause, this question of decorations. It’s true. I bought a Christmas tree, grown to be cut down. I bought lights to put on it, and I’m using an exorbitant amount of energy to power them. I have lights in the garland on my mantel, and outside my house (and not the energy saver kind, but an old school strand I inherited from my grandparents, which are stunningly bright and vibrant but alas terrible for the environment). I have three different poinsettias—grown in hothouses and shipped North—and two mini-cedar trees that I’ll compost as soon as January 1 hits. It’s pretty damning evidence for someone who considers themselves environmentally responsible.
And yet, when I pull up to my house at the end of the day, in this season of darkness, it makes me so glad to see my house lit up and cheerful for me. I’m not here to debate the merits of Christianity, but there’s something to be said for the need of light in the time of darkness. And that’s what I ultimately tell my friend. There’s a balance, of course, for how we consume and how we choose to spend our money. I buy my presents locally and don’t leave my lights on all night. I don’t buy wrapping paper with foil on it, even though I desperately want to, so that I can recycle it. They’re small concessions, granted, but they’re there. At the end of the day, when we have seven hours of weak wintery light to live by and depression and anxiety lurk at my door, I’m happy to have my Christmas lights. I need them. When I drive past other people’s windows and see their Christmas trees twinkling, my heart is filled with quiet joy. When I see my own tree, all the ornaments my mom spent my childhood collecting for me, I remember that I come from a place of love. Decorations speak to me of warmth and family, of the promise of spring to come, of renewal and rebirth. It’s not an excuse, it’s still a waste. But maybe once a year, when we most desperately need it, it’s alright to allow everyone to find light however they can.