[SCMP Column] Let’s drop ‘stuff’

December 24, 2016

At various stages in the year, I make my own quiet protests against our planet-destroying obsession with “stuff”. Today, as you nestle into Christmas Eve cocktails, or a massive family dinner and excited young kids restive to discover what “stuff” Santa will leave at the foot of the bed overnight, I am doing my own highly personalized version of “Scrooge”.

Actually, I don’t see myself as Scrooge. Let’s just say I’m indulging in my own version of Christmas excess – an excess that I hope is doing much less harm to our environment than the average “stuff-laden” festive season, where those of us that are affluent enough – and a lot that are not – end up buried under mountains of stuff we neither need, nor in many cases even want. In University of Minnesota Joel Waldfogel’s 2009 book Scroogenomics, this “total deadweight loss of Christmas” in the US alone is more than US$12bn.

When I was a kid, Christmas (and birthday) “stuff” had real relevance and significance. In the tough post-war years, my hard-pressed parents struggled most weeks just to get by. Saving for our Christmas (I was the oldest of five kids, so we had a long list of naughty and nice wishes) began pretty much as soon as the new year began. One year I got a passionately-loved second hand bicycle. Another year, an almost-new cricket bat. And another, an ingenious go-cart that my engineer father had secretly constructed over several months in our outhouse – a miracle of design that had all of our neighbours’ kids green with envy whenever we had races down the slope of our street.

These were years when 11 months of the year were empty of gifts or indulgences. That precious Christmas gift was the one indulgence for which you had craved and prayed for more than 11 hold-your-breath months. My daughters were still in primary school when we officially designated and distinguished “un-birthday” presents to try to remind them how lucky they were. Nowadays, the year is so littered with “un-Christmas” and “un-birthday” gifts that the specialness of Santa’s mystical visit has gone, just as homes have become cluttered graveyards for the  barely-used stuff of Christmases-past.

What makes this “stuff” business even worse is the stupendous uselessness – or vacuousness – of so many things being coveted at Christmas. From the latest app for the smartphone, to virtual reality goggles that allow kids to become social zombies in their own homes, or a gizmo that adorns your wrist to tell you in unnecessarily precise terms that you are alive, managed only 9,700 steps, or slept badly, or need to eat less after Christmas in order to get back in shape.

I confess that my own personal prejudice against the latest creepy fashion to grow bushy or designer beards makes electric beard trimmers a source of quiet amusement. One offering that guiltily tempts me is one of those drones made by DJI in China. It would certainly make all of my “stuff-laden” neighbours jealous. But then I wonder what I might possibly use it for. Apart from some discrete voyeurism, I don’t see much opportunity for dramatic aerial TV footage of earthquakes and floods in Italy, or aerial traffic surveillance.

So if someone were to buy me a drone, there are likely to be just two possible reasons: either they are trying to stir gossip and making a statement that they are buying stuff that few others can afford, or they are desperate to avoid the accusation that they are so dull that the only truly useful thing they can think of to buy is a pair of socks.

So my own version of Christmas excess this year is different. I have escaped the punishing pre-Christmas cycle of annual drinks parties, and – forgive me in advance if you expected otherwise – I have run away from the superfluous cycle of “stuff-giving”. As you brace yourself for a night of Christmas Eve excess, I will be trudging down the snow-covered slopes of Mt Subasio in Umbria, aiming to walk into Assisi as sunset falls, as the Christmas lights go on, and as the bells of the Basilica begin their evening chimes.

Over the past week, as you have guiltily indulged, I have been walking across the frosty Foligno plain in Perugia, starting in the little hill town of San Luca, and then through the vineyards of Montefalco to Bavagna and on to Spello at the foot of 4,000-ft Mt Subasio, awash with Etruscan and Roman history. Even Italy’s economic woes and banking crisis have felt far, far away.

Coming off the chill of Mt Subasio, we will hopefully stop off at the Eremo delle Carceri – the hermitage 4km outside Assisi that St Francis so often escaped to in the two decades up to his death in 1226. There could be few places in the world more at odds with our modern-day story of “stuff” than St Francis’s hermitage – and few more timely days to drop by. St Francis must have driven his merchant father crazy giving away so much stuff from the family store to local mendicants, whether at Christmas or not. And his passionate commitment to the simple life would have been a marketing man’s nightmare.

As we have walked across the Foligno plain, we have indulged too – but much less guiltily I think. Stuffing ourselves every night with wild boar and other Perugian specialities, quaffed down with Sagrantino, has seemed so deliciously hard-earned after day-long treks through the Etruscan countryside.

And there can be no more uplifting escape from our humdrum story of stuff than to join the heaving festive families at tonight’s Christmas Eve midnight mass in Assisi’s Basilica, swamped by incense, candlelight, and surrounded on every nave by glowering frescos from Giacomo Cavallini and Giotto. I am not a Christian, but I have done this before, and I can promise you, few experiences can be more inspiring or awesome.

Tomorrow, weather permitting, we will have a Christmas Day picnic on the slopes above Assisi. There will be not a hint of stuff in sight. The day will be the happier for it. In very un-Scrooge-like fashion, I toast you a happy stuff-free Christmas.
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