The Lessons Of The Christmas Season - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Author

Christina Hill

Christina Hill was born and raised in Oahu and is a recent graduate of Columbia University. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, she has moved back with her family in Hawaii Kai.

Three years ago my dad put his foot down and announced that, after spending an arm and a leg on my college tuition, we needed to have a Sustainable Christmas.

Naturally, I was taken aback. 

My indignation grew as he explained what sustainable meant to him in this case: almost no material gifts, decorating our small indoor palm rather than buying a Douglas fir and spending Christmas morning baking and eating cinnamon rolls rather than unwrapping presents.

“But, Dad!” I cried. “It won’t feel like Christmas without a Christmas tree! And without presents!”

Despite my reservations, it did. The weeks leading up to Christmas were filled with long FaceTime calls to extended family and friends to have genuine conversations about how they were doing. My brother and I baked gingerbread cookies and later dropped them off at our neighbors.

We spent Christmas Eve at the beach. On the morning of Dec. 25, we woke up to the smell of cinnamon rolls rising in the oven and fresh coffee brewing. Since then, every Christmas has been sustainable in our house.

To say that the holiday season in the United States has been overrun with commercialization in the past years would be an understatement. Christmas has seemingly become synonymous with Buy! Buy! Buy! The holiday industry is worth $465 billion and the average American will spend $900 on gifts this season.

That number doesn’t include the amount spent on decorations, Christmas trees, gift wrap and other holiday-related items. When asked to describe their feelings around the holidays, Americans will frequently use the word “stressful” because of the societal pressure they feel to give family and friends the “perfect” gift.

The Hills’ Christmas tree is alive and well and ready for the season. Christina Hill

Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, certain Americans seem undeterred when it comes to having a big Christmas. In Hawaii, the holiday season has brought large numbers of shoppers to Ala Moana Center, and thousands of Christmas trees have been shipped to our islands in refrigerated containers that require massive amounts of fuel to keep them cold. Even more carbon emissions are being generated to deliver the many Amazon packages that we see arriving on doorsteps each week.

As expected, this massive amount of consumption culminates in yet more waste: Each year roughly 25 million tons of garbage are thrown away nationally between Thanksgiving and New Year’s. Think of all the flimsy plastic toys that pile up in the landfill every January. Further, the fashion industry has consistently been a large emitter of carbon emissions; the  average American consumer discards around 20 pounds of textile waste each year. 

I can think of no better time for a Sustainable Christmas than 2020. This year, carbon dioxide levels continued to rise despite the global COVID-19 lockdown. California was ravaged by an unprecedented number of wildfires that were made worse by climate change. The UN General Assembly has already concluded that there are only 10 years left to stop irreversible climate change. This should be a Christmas to reflect on our consumption habits before it’s too late.

Although my family isn’t completely sustainable yet, we are making small steps to get there every year and I would encourage everyone to do the same. A Sustainable Christmas might feel different to your family at first, but it will not make you feel deprived.

Consider buying a local Christmas tree or decorating your own palm. The spirit of the season can still be found in alternative gift-giving. Last  year, I gave my dad coupons for “one day of hiking” and “one car wash.” My mom gave me a day at the movies. Sustainable Christmas is bound to quickly become a beloved tradition in your family too.

Most importantly, a Sustainable Christmas allows us to reconsider our priorities and focus on the true meaning of the season. Ultimately, it is to celebrate those we are with and to give thanks for what we have. 

Community Voices aims to encourage broad discussion on many topics of community interest. It’s kind of a cross between Letters to the Editor and op-eds. This is your space to talk about important issues or interesting people who are making a difference in our world. Column lengths should be no more than 800 words and we need a photo of the author and a bio. We welcome video commentary and other multimedia formats. Send to The opinions and information expressed in Community Voices are solely those of the authors and not Civil Beat.

Read this next:

Chad Blair: A Casino In Kapolei? Don't Hold Your Breath

Local reporting when you need it most

Support timely, accurate, independent journalism.

Honolulu Civil Beat is a nonprofit organization, and your donation helps us produce local reporting that serves all of Hawaii.


About the Author

Christina Hill

Christina Hill was born and raised in Oahu and is a recent graduate of Columbia University. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, she has moved back with her family in Hawaii Kai.

Latest Comments (0)

Coming from a family of seven children we not only made cookies, we made gifts, went out in the woods and cut our own tree, and made Christmas decorations.  Here in Hawaii, our neighbors have a tree decoration party.  Everyone brings something to put on the tree.  The tree is a very large floral arrangement made from items that grow in the yard. We have a potluck meal as well.  Great fun.

Richard_Bidleman · 2 years ago

The most sustainable humans alive today are childless, pet less, vehicle-less, vegans who don't fly. Either reside in high density vertical structures (for efficiency), and/or live off grid, grow own food and perhaps export overproduction. Not sure if such sapiens exist. No gifts on Christmas are mere table stakes in sustainability (great start though); daily habits matter more. 

luckyd · 2 years ago

I think the paper waste generated by all the unwrapped Christmas gifts will be much greater in January. And even if people recycle the paper, the recycling process itself has a carbon footprint. Should we eliminate wrapping gifts for the sake of sustainability? Now that's a touchy subject, isn't it?I'll leave it to everyone to decide for themselves how they want to celebrate. But in considering what traditions & practices we want to keep or change as we progress into the 21st century, we might want to go back to the basics & really think about what we're celebrating for: What is the meaning of Christmas? A character named Linus gave a very eloquent answer to that question in the much beloved TV special, A Charlie Brown Christmas.  I do occasionally revisit that show. And if whatever me & my family are doing honors what Linus talks about, then it's all good, far as I'm concerned.

KalihiValleyHermit · 2 years ago

Join the conversation


IDEAS is the place you'll find essays, analysis and opinion on every aspect of life and public affairs in Hawaii. We want to showcase smart ideas about the future of Hawaii, from the state's sharpest thinkers, to stretch our collective thinking about a problem or an issue. Email to submit an idea.


You're officially signed up for our daily newsletter, the Morning Beat. A confirmation email will arrive shortly.

In the meantime, we have other newsletters that you might enjoy. Check the boxes for emails you'd like to receive.

  • What's this? Be the first to hear about important news stories with these occasional emails.
  • What's this? You'll hear from us whenever Civil Beat publishes a major project or investigation.
  • What's this? Get our latest environmental news on a monthly basis, including updates on Nathan Eagle's 'Hawaii 2040' series.
  • What's this? Get occasional emails highlighting essays, analysis and opinion from IDEAS, Civil Beat's commentary section.

Inbox overcrowded? Don't worry, you can unsubscribe
or update your preferences at any time.