Buy? Humbug!

[Happy first night of Hanukka, people!]

Okay, maybe Ebeneezer Scrooge was a bit cranky. And of course I don’t condone his (pre-conversion) obsession with commerce over compassion. But the Grinch, Scrooge’s Seussian counterpart, had a point. Sure, he took it all a bit too far, making children cry and such. But here’s another way to look at it: by attempting to hi-jack X-mas by making away with all its trappings, he set up Whoville (and himself) for the refreshing realization that holidays are not about the exchange of material goods, but rather what that exchange ostensibly represents.

I would have thought that’s how all holidays began, back in the sweet long ago, before capitalism/commercialism ruled the earth (and monarchies and despots ruled instead — I know, I know: there is no utopia, past or present). But Leigh Eric Schmidt, in Consumer Rites: The Buying and Selling of American Holidays, makes the point that many of the holidays we currently celebrate in the U.S. are only in our collective consciousnesses because of commercial interests:

…holiday celebrations were almost banished by Puritans and other religious reformers in the colonies but went on to be romanticized and reinvented in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Merchants and advertisers were crucial for the reimagining of the holidays, promoting them in a grand, carnivalesque manner, which could include gargantuan fruit cakes, masked Santa Clauses, and exploding valentines. (from the publisher’s notes about the book)

Now, of course, it’s all big business. Or if not all of it, a lot of it. Want to know how big? Look at some holiday sales figures from a few years back, collected by the U.S. Census bureau. Or keep abreast of this season’s trends via the Wall Street Journal’s Holiday Sales News Tracker. Yep, you read right, the Holiday Sales News Tracker. Here in the U.S., observers of other wintertime holidays — Hanukkah and Eid-al-Adha and the Solstice and Kwanzaa — are vastly outnumbered by those who observe Christmas. But my guess is that, were the numbers reversed, we’d find those holidays just as commercially doused as Christmas now is. Just a hunch.

To one such as myself who is both anti-commercialism and on an austere budget, the “Buy Nothing Christmas” Adbusters campaign holds great appeal. And as one who dearly wishes that her kids will have a planet to sit around on in another fifty years, celebrating whatever holidays they want, the idea of limiting consumption also holds great appeal. So in the spirit of authentic holiday cheer, I offer up some alternatives to a consumerist holiday season:

    • Adbusters’ Buy Nothing Christmas, your one-stop no-shop info shop.

    • New American Dream’s Holiday Tips for Parents. New American Dream promotes “conscious consumerism,” clarifying the ecological impact of over-consumption and providing ample resources for folks to forge alternative paths.

    • The Green Parent’s To Spend or Not to Spend. You be the judge.

    • If you must spend, The Green Parent offers a Holiday Gift List, filled with eco-friendly, low-impact holiday alternatives.

    • The New York Times covered eco-gift giving in this piece last month, “Jolly and Green, With an Agenda.”

    • Alternatives for Simple Living offers a catalog of ideas in a book Simplify and Celebrate (link to Powell’s page for the book), for people of Christian faith to reclaim various Christian holidays from commercialism. The organization started in 1973 as a protest against the commercialization of Christmas, and focuses on encouraging celebrations that reflect conscientious ways of living.

    • Consider “Eluding Happiness: A Buddhist Problem with Christmas,” Jess Row’s reflections on Slate a few years back, on the tangled mess of gift-giving.

    • In a recent blog post on the site for his Network for Spiritual Progressives, Rabbi Michael Lerner suggests we limit what we spend on gifts for children for Hanukkah and Christmas, and instead spend something more precious — time — on people in our lives:

    Send your entire guest list a copy of this article and then offer them four hours of your time—to provide childcare so they can go out for an afternoon or evening, to paint their apartment or house, to shovel their snow or help them with gardening, to teach them or their children some skill of yours, to do shopping or errands for them, to help them clean their garage or arrange their papers or books, and you can think of much more.

    Yeah, now we’re talkin’. You want a gauntlet, now that’s a gauntlet.

I leave us now with the deathless words of the big G himself, from Dr. Seuss’ How The Grinch Stole Christmas:

And he puzzled three hours, till his puzzler was sore. Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before! “Maybe Christmas,” he thought, “doesn’t come from a store. Maybe Christmas perhaps means a little bit more!”

5 thoughts on “Buy? Humbug!”

  1. Amen, sister. We’re trying to balance wanting to reduce spending, the giving of unnecessary crap, the stress of deciding what unnecessary crap to give everybody… with the fact that our families are REALLY attached to the giving of unnecessary crap. It’ll be a slow weaning process, I think. It’s especially difficult when, at this time of year, suggesting that you NOT bankrupt yourself buying unnecessary crap automatically puts you in bed with Eb and the big G. Sigh.

  2. Not that all gifts are unnecessary crap, don’t get me wrong. I LOVE me a thoughtful gift. But our niece and nephew are drowning in large plastic toys of the variety that are not only unsafe, but represent a whole bunch of things I don’t like about the way the world works these days. But they’re far away, and how do we let them know we’re thinking about their little 2 year old selves at the holidays? We buy them stuff. It’s hard.
    Okay, shutting up now. Boy did this one hit a nerve for me.

  3. I’m with you. A mucky mess every which-a-way. I love love, love ritual celebration, noting of cycles, annual things, connecting with generations and centuries of communitites of people doing the same. Also, I get that we’re boxed into a corner, since the tradition prevailing in this country at this time, thanks to plenty of things but mostly the unholy communion of capitalism and (in this case, in the Christmas Buying Season) Christianity, is that folks, particularly kids, expect symbols of love and appreciation in the form of material goods. Ideally, lots and lots and lots of material goods. Ideally, the ones they’ve been conditioned to want this year, thanks to laser-sharp targeted advertising. More goods? More love. Fewer goods? Less costly ones? Less love.

    The irony is that my mother showered my sister and me with stuff every Christmas — stuff she wished she might have had, when she was young. She was raised on a tight budget by a single mother: apartments only; same dress all year; a pair of skates she longed for in the window and never could have; all that. (As so many of her generation, she was also marked by memories of great worry during the depression, and consequently kept our larder forever overstocked.) I grew to feel the love from my mom — at Christmastime — by looking at her delight as we opened stuff. In my memory now, it was her delight that radiates most deeply, of course. Lord, our whole family was warmed by that love. A hundred thousand BTU furnace. Objects? What objects. I remember only some HotWheels cars, my Ken doll, and a variation on a Pick Up Sticks game (to which I attribute 75% of my parenting patience now).

    Before my partner and I had kids, we thought a lot about commercialism and materialism, and idealized how we would teach something different in our family. But it’s hard, feels like swimming upstream, given how pervasive and insidious the process is by which we’re conditioned to desire products. And then the healthy educational kids’ toys catalog comes in the mail (how? what did we sign up for? when?), and I’m caught feeling bad that we don’t have enough money to provide our daughter a spiffy art easel, or whatever. I look at the pictures of kids being wonderfully engaged by these various products, and actually feel bad about our family income. Zap.

  4. We try very hard to be moderate and thoughtful in our gift giving. We are really good at it on birthdays (last year, Miguel picked a charity and people gave money to that rather than buying him gifts…next year, we’ll have everyone go in on another gymnastics class). Anyway, I really struggle at Christmas though. We are not excessive by the typical American standard but I feel very indulgent at Christmas. There were a lot of less than ideal aspects to my childhood but, Christmas…well, I have only good memories. I can’t help but get excited when my kids see their stockings full. This year, there is an added element to the struggle as our six year old is now acutely aware of what is “cool” and desperately wants to be seen as cool by his older classmates.

  5. This is a deep one, LD, I appreciate your thoughtfulness on it, makes me think a lot. I’m very happy that our kids have never seen a commercial for a toy on TV. But just going to school every day means they know the difference between a Darth Vader action figure and Malibu Barbie and which one they want for Christmas (not that they’ll be getting either one).

    Of the reading list you propose, the NYT piece and the Michael Lerner piece resonated most deeply for me, along with your response to the first few comments. Our Christmases were all over the map as far as presents go. There was always a huge pile of everything from the 1970s equivalent of Malibu Barbie to certificates for back rubs. Loads and loads of tradition around what order things were opened, similar gifts given every year and how the gifts were wrapped (box in a box in a box in a box, treasure hunts, etc.).

    In the end I do remember the family time together (including the joy of opening presents Christmas morn) a lot more than I remember the specific gifts, as you suggest. But I must say that the gifts that stand out for me forty years later are a mixed bag between non-thing gifts (special activities, etc.) handmade gifts (sweaters, art) and store bought ‘things’. What makes them stand out from the rest is that they were given of the heart and with sincere thought about what it would mean to the receiver. I can remember a couple of dozen of these standout gifts from my childhood, only a portion of them were to me, and they all mean as much to me.

    The non-thing gifts were never particularly more or less to me because of their non-thingness. It all depended on whether they were really meant for me (or the other recipient) not so much their origin. I can remember both kinds of gifts that felt like they were given to be able to ‘check the box’ of so-and-so giving a gift to so-and-so, and I remember the emptiness that went with them. But maybe that’s a discussion for someone who charges me a lot more per hour than you do.

    So what do we do today? Well, we like to think we’re careful about the source of the gifts to our kids and the amount of packaging etc. And we tussle (me and the sweetie) every year about how many. But we do give a lot more store-bought gifts than none and (I humor myself) a lot fewer than most. The main thing I strive for is to find gifts whatever the source that will be meaningful to our kids for who they are, not because of cultural ‘buy buy’ stimuli.

    Again, thanks for the think.

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