Fresh Ideas: Breaking a Christmas tradition for the environment

Last January I was writing an essay on climate change when my 13-year-old son strolled in my home office and I declared, “I’ve decided we are never going to have a Christmas tree again.”

I remember feeling both surprised and smug, as if I was David standing up to the Goliath of Christmas. I also remember mistakenly believing my decision was driven only by my goal to minimize my carbon footprint.

“That sucks,” he said. “What are we going to do?”

I gazed into his angry eyes and said cheerily, “We’ll make one from branches, scrap wood and pine cones in our yard.” Then offered, “We can still decorate it with our box of family ornaments.”

“Sounds like a bad version of a Charlie Brown tree,” he said and crossing his arms he marched out of my office grumbling, “Grinch.”

Last Christmas season, I had been determined to choose the best “green” tree (fake, live or cut). But once again I skipped the research and bought a cut tree. My only excuse was a lengthening holiday to-do list. It was post-Christmas though when my resolve returned. With tinsel and brown needles clinging to my black leggings, I’d drug my brittle tree to the curb only to notice the many other dead trees lining the street. Quickly I did some rough math: one million streets, 10 million cities, 100 countries and suddenly I envisioned a mountain of sacrificial trees as tall as the 10,000-foot peak in my backyard. All for a mere 2- to 3-weeks of decorating our living rooms?

I was aghast.

It turns out neither a fake, cut nor live tree is a better choice. The fossil fuel consumption to make and ship long-lasting fake trees is not significantly more or less than the annual fossil fuel consumption to transport real trees, even though with real trees there’s a side benefit of carbon sequestration. Yet, oddly, this ambivalent information didn’t affect my resolve to give up the Christmas tree.

To understand why, I called friends and cornered family. I needed to talk about it. Though each conversation began with me telling them that one kind of Christmas tree is not more “green” than another, every conversation ended with me asking this question: How will our societies make the enormous economic, political and social values shifts necessary to avert a climate change crisis?

In every discussion I also described that post-Christmas mountain of dead trees, and it was with that persistent and haunting image my answer slowly emerged: though previous generations have handed down traditions or values that were right for their times, they might not be appropriate for our times.

So last week when my son asked me if we were going to get a Christmas tree I knew the real reason why I again told him no.

“We could get a live tree then plant it in our yard,” he quickly offered.

Though I felt guilty and sad for stealing from him what I as a child had unquestionably enjoyed, I knew I couldn’t budge.

“It’s not about what type of tree is best,” I said, “it’s about questioning tradition.”

“But why Christmas and the Christmas tree?” he asked.

“Because it’s symbolic and it gives me the strength to take a hard look at any other tradition or socially tolerated behavior that might be compromising my stewardship of our planet.”

“It won’t make a difference,” he said, looking deeply confused.

“Trust me, one day it will.”

Kathy Walters is the mother of a teenage boy, works for Kirkwood Mountain Realty and lives in Gardnerville.


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