December 21, 2004
by Dennis T. Avery
Do we need to amend our Christmas tradition to reflect modern affluence and abundance?
Modern American Christmases typically feature huge feasts and lavish gift exchanges. The feasting, at least, dates back long before the birth of the Christ child. The Yuletide was the time of the winter solstice, the shortest days of the year.
It was a natural time for lavish meals and blazing fireplaces. Mid-winter was when feed for the livestock began to get scarce. Even in the years with good harvests, the rats and weevils were at work in the stored grain. Winter rains moldered the haystacks. Keeping livestock past Christmas was a chancy business. Most of the poultry and livestock had to be killed, or there would not be enough feed to keep the breeding stock alive for the next spring and summer.
The meat had to be eaten within a fairly short time or it would spoil. Thus Christmas became one of the few times during the year when common people could count on having meat. The summer solstice was another big feast day -- the culinary highlight being scones with butter! But mostly, they ate porridge -- grain soup -- made with milk when they had it, water when they didn't.
The 17th Century British and French began to invent modern farming with crop rotation and animal-drawn machines. This was the first time in history that the common people of Europe could think about having meat for Sunday dinners.
For most of the world, only in the past 50 years has food abundance become the norm. The tractor and chemical fertilizer have enabled much of the pastureland to be planted to crops, doubling the world's crop production base. High-yield seeds and pesticides have tripled the harvests on the good land.
The huge piles of gifts in most American homes this Yuletide are products of the same expanding technical knowledge that produced the tractors and the pesticides. Wondrously colorful and durable toys for tots can be cheaply formed from low-cost plastics. New clothes for children are made from threads that no longer have to be spun by hand, and from fabrics woven on automated machines instead of laborious hand looms.
Our future will almost certainly feature even more abundance. The first computer under an Avery Christmas tree -- 20 years ago -- had about one-millionth of the computing power my grandkids use to play games with now.
It takes the kids an hour to unwrap all their gifts nowadays, and there are so many that few are memorable.
Recently, our family has taken to giving each other donations to charities as Christmas presents. My wife and I will give our children the Heifer Project, which provides breeding livestock for poor people in developing countries. The grown kids give the heifer, the grandchildren ducks and rabbits. We think that's a nice twist on the original Yuletide -- the difference being that high yield farming now allows even Third World families to feed livestock throughout the year.
This may not be the ultimate shape of 21st-century Christmases, but it's a move in the right direction. What we really need are more meaningful ways to celebrate the blessings of modern abundance without the modern excess.
Dennis T. Avery is based in Churchville, VA, and is director of the Hudson Institute's Center for Global Food Issues.
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