There's a parody version of The Twelve Days of Christmas in which the recipient of the increasingly elaborate gifts finally melts down. What, he pleads, is he going to do with all those French hens, calling birds and milkmaids?
It's a cri du coeur being increasingly heard in a climate-crisis world as the environment, and Christmas itself, start to buckle under the weight of too much stuff.
"I've been asking my family for a while now, can we please stop with the gifts," says video news producer Ella Wilks. "There is too much that ends up in landfill. There is too much plastic, too much wrapping, and not enough time! I'd rather give my child a planet to live on than more stuff."
It's got so bad some people need counselling. "Christmas is overwhelming because it is all about consumerism," says Christine Macfarlane, president of the Association of Counsellors. "It's everywhere you look, starting with Black Friday. The financial pressures and feeling of having to keep up with other people are massive."
She says young people are suffering from an overload of information about what is wrong with the world. "They can get overwhelmed and feel powerless. If they're living in a household where it's not being taken seriously, and they are concerned, that can cause distress."
And you don't have to be an urban teen to hear the seductive call of the mall. Adrian Ball and his wife Pauline are the 2019 Balance Farm Environment Awards winners and live in Tirau. "It's quite hard at times with the amount of commercialism and packaging type things in the market," says Adrian. "Our philosophy is to minimise as much waste as we can and not create excess and still enjoy life."
Increasingly, the festively inclined are looking for ways to celebrate Christmas without punishing the planet.
Secret Santa was an early strategy to ease gift-buying pressure. Instead of everyone buying something for everyone else, everyone buys one present which is put in a pool and given anonymously to the recipient.
"We started doing secret Santa because the extended family was so big, there were so many
people to buy for," says Wilks. "Too much stuff was being bought and thrown away."
It's been going long enough now for variants to have started appearing.
At the Earthsong Eco-Neighbourhood in west Auckland, reports long-time resident Cathy Angell, "We often play the 'silly Boxing Day gift game', where everyone brings a wrapped gift, which goes into a basket. The general principle is that it will be the most unwanted item you can find – a kitsch knick knack, a CD of Paul Holmes singing. The game can get as silly as the group wants it to be."
Wellington dentist Laura Ichim's practice of around 25 people used to have secret Santa for the team, but this year they've taken it a step further.
"We got in touch with a local school that is decile one and we're going to fund their prize-giving because the school can't afford presents. Everyone is contributing what they want."
Another popular alternative is to combine resources for one gift. "My daughter suggested contributing to a set of golf clubs," says Adrian Ball. "Whether she had sustainability in mind or wanted to play a bit of golf I'm not sure, but it's not like buying a dozen small things. We try to give our daughters practical gifts that help make their lives a bit easier."
"I think we're all getting much better at thinking about gift giving and our own consumption ethically," says Green MP Golriz Ghahraman. "Buying from local businesses, buying locally made or ethically made gifts, and buying less are all ways to have a compassionate, sustainable Christmas that still involves gorgeous gifts."
For some, the Christmas spirit is becoming a matter of doing, not getting. Wilks says she would rather get an experience than an Xbox: "And the experience doesn't have to cost a lot of money. I don't need a helicopter ride to Waiheke. A picnic on a beach with family or someone's time would be great."
Macfarlane says this is a good trend. "What we remember is experiences rather than stuff. Look back on your childhood - you remember the things that went really well or bad. You don't remember a sweater you got when you were six."
Over at Earthsong, says Angell, "Many of us are much more interested to spend relaxed time together with family and friends, rather than race around spending lots of money on stuff which may be quickly discarded. In our own family, we have moved to giving experience gifts - vouchers for a guided paddle on the upper Waitemata, a trip on board the Dolphin and Whale Safari catamaran, membership for kids of Kiwi Conservation Club."
And for those who find experiences just a bit transitory, there are solutions, especially homemade ones. "Increasingly many of us now will gift home preserves, baking, upcycled goods, and time - to help someone in the garden, for instance," says Angell.
It's not just what we're wrapping up that's changing – it's the wrapping itself. "My younger sister informed us we are not to use wrapping paper as its non-recyclable, unless we have some leftover from last year," says Ghahraman: "We should use newspaper instead, or paper bags we have lying around."
Earthsong can beat that. "Many of us will re-use wrapping paper or make our own or even use banana or canna leaves," says Angell.
But Christmas isn't just about getting stuff. It's also about eating stuff. Groaning boards and groaning digestive systems have traditionally been the order of a day when excess has been not just encouraged but almost obligatory. This too is changing, but food and the symbolism of sharing and generosity are still central for most people.
"My dad absolutely loves cooking," says Ghahraman. "It's one of the ways he shows his love. So, we generally start early, prepare and eat beautiful homemade food, a mixture of Iranian and Christmas treats. Both my parents also love gardening, so Christmas centres around eating and drinking outdoors while they show off their gardens where half the produce we're eating comes from."
"As a neighbourhood we get together ... perhaps 60 or so of us," says Angell. "We each choose from a suggested menu, and bring some food, and whatever we want to drink. We try to be as organic as possible, and we pick from our community gardens for salads, fruits and so on wherever we can."
They have to be feeling all this at the mall, right? Right.
"This Christmas season we have seen a shift in more consumers opting for sustainable and environmentally friendly gifts," says Paul Gardner, regional centre experience manager for Scentre Group, which owns and operates Westfield shopping centres. "We are finding wooden toys are becoming increasingly popular and we are also seeing parents unplugging their children from screens and gifting toys to get them outside and active, whether it's sports equipment, pool toys or scooters - anything that spells fun in the sun."
Gardner says people are increasingly opting for a green Christmas. "Many of our customers are turning to sustainable and eco-friendly gifts this season, such as reusable cups, environmentally friendly clothing ranges and organic products such as skin-care and grooming products."
If you're looking for an environmentally friendly recycled gift, then the nation's online megastore, Trade Me, is the place to go.
"One-third of Kiwis told us that they'll buy at least one second-hand gift this Christmas," according to Lisa Stewart, head of Trade Me marketplace, reporting on a survey conducted by the organisation. "While some of us do it to save money, 31 per cent said they were buying second-hand gifts to help the environment."
Charities do well out of Christmas and retailers have not been slow to notice. "Many of our retailers work with charities on an ongoing basis, enabling our customers to donate while they spend," says Gardner. "For example, The Body Shop's Love Your Body Club gives the choice to donate your rewards to one of their partner charities. Lush is another retailer who donate all proceeds from the sales of their Charity Pot Hand and Body lotions to grassroot charities."
Half of New Zealanders say they donate time or money at Christmas, and if you prefer your seasonal altruism spend to bypass commercial imperatives, established charities are ready and waiting with their Christmas lists. Where once these prominently featured goats and wells, the offering is now broader, under the Smiles brand.
"We're getting a lot of corporates buying [our] Smiles gifts for their staff," says World Vision media advisor Gabriel Thomas. "From small companies where the boss is buying Smiles gifts for the 10 people in their office, though to a software company that spent $1500 on Smiles gifts."
World Vision recently surveyed attitudes to Christmas across Australia and New Zealand and found we're good at the talk, not so good at the walk. More than 80 per cent of New Zealanders say giving to those in need is more in the spirit of Christmas, people are too wasteful at Christmas and Christmas has become too commercial.
"But their actions aren't backing up those views," according to the survey report. "Figures from Stats NZ show there continues to be a huge peak in spending every December, and each of those peaks is higher than the last. And despite many people saying the best gifts they receive are handmade, only half of those we surveyed have ever given an ethical gift and only three in 10 say they have received one."
'Not everyone is lucky'
Video news producer Ella Wilks and her 2-year-old daughter Milla Campbell-Wilks have given Christmas a radical makeover.
"My mother never wants anything," says Wilks, "so for Christmas last year Milla and I went and picked out a bunch of wooden toys for about $100. Then she and Mum took
them to the City Mission and donated them together. That was Mum's present from us, and it gave them more time together. Milla and I continued the tradition this year together."
For Wilks it was about ""teaching Milla from a young age that giving is important but not
everyone is as lucky as her. Her birthday is the fourth of December, which is so close to
Christmas anyway, so this year I asked people not to give physical presents. Although she'll
still get presents, she's two and doesn't really know what it's about yet, so I asked people to consider giving experiences rather than physical things – such as pooling together and gifting a membership to a toy library or a zoo pass."
Which is fine now, but what about when Milla works out she's not getting stuff like all the other kids?
"It's not necessarily permanent. But it's important for me to bring her up realising not everyone is as lucky as her and that helping people is important in life. And when she does get presents she will appreciate them more."
'Memories rather than buy things'
Laura Ichim is a Wellington dentist. Her partner Pat Shepherd is founder of One Percent Collective, which facilitates donations to small charities.
"We do a little bit of gift giving in the traditional sense," says Ichim. "Over the years we've changed a lot and we have a rule in the household to make memories rather than buy things. This year we're gifting each other a ticket to something – a concert or theatre or something live that supports local talent."
Both grew up with traditional white Christmases – he in Scotland and she in Romania.
Ichim's parents are in New Zealand. "We are doing Christmas with them and we have agreed as a family that we won't buy a lot of stuff - maybe something small like a book."
Shepherd's family is in Europe, so "for my mum's Christmas and birthday we started up a new bank account that is her flight fund, and we top up into that on her birthday and Christmas".