Have you ever wondered why, exactly, we give gifts at this time of year? Regardless of whether you celebrate Christmas or not, nearly all religions and cultures celebrate a winter festival of some sort, and nearly all of those traditions entail gift-giving. Many people even observe Christmas as a secular holiday on which the requisite ritual is buying things. In other words, one would be hard-pressed to find someone who does not participate in gift-giving at this time of the year, not to mention the amount of over-spending this practice brings with it.
I, like many people, often find this time of the year particularly stressful, and I find that troublesome. Although I often start out with enthusiasm for listening to holiday music, making my home cozy and bright, cooking and baking special treats, and of course spending time with the people I love most, those important things are often quickly eclipsed by worrying over never-ending shopping lists. And this year, it has been bothering me more than usual. I worry about missing the point of why we are giving gifts in the first place, and I am increasingly convinced that the amount of over-spending that takes place in America every December is damaging on several levels.
First, it hurts our planet. In a piece for The Guardian published this year just before Thanksgiving, environmental activist George Monbiot pleas for people to spend less recklessly during the holiday season, and provocatively declares, “Christmas permits the global bullshit industry to recruit the values with which so many of us would like the festival to be invested – love, warmth, a community of spirit – to the sole end of selling things that no one needs or even wants.” Last year, he made a similar point, decrying our habit of “pathological consumption” which leads to the destruction of the planet as well as the exploitation of people within the supply chain. His point is, we really do not need more stuff (and the acquisition of said stuff should really not be the point of Christmas). We especially don’t need useless stuff – the gag gift he’ll throw away next week, those cheap boots she doesn’t really want. Monbiot cites Annie Leonard’s popular short documentary, “The Story of Stuff”, which breaks down the production process of consumer goods, and the history of consumerism.
Second, it hurts other people. Purchasing disposable, mass-marketed, cheap products not only hurts our planet by creating more non-biodegradable waste that will never be recycled or reused, but it also perpetuates the exploitation of impoverished people in other countries, and furthers the schism between socioeconomic castes within our own country as well. To make it worse, the system pits poor against poor – cheap products are cheap because they are relying on cheap labor. Poor people buy cheap products because they cannot afford to buy more expensive products, thus fueling demand for these products, which in turn propels the system which oppresses poor workers. The inordinate amount of spending that takes place around Christmas is also a problem because it is funneling money into this exploitative cycle, effectively diverting it from other places where it could be put to good use. Rev. Evan Dolive writes about this problem being the “real war on Christmas”, and asserts, for example, that “The real ‘war on Christmas’ is when Americans spend $450 billion on Christmas; however, it would take only $20 billion to ensure that all people in the world could have access to clean water for a year.” Here, Dolive cites a statistic frequently touted by the Christian activist group, Advent Conspiracy, who advocate for reducing superfluous spending at Christmas and giving the money you save to charity.
Finally, it hurts ourselves. Our personal agency is taken from us when we are literally compelled to SPEND SPEND SPEND. It is no accident that this explosion of consumerism is focused around the holidays and equated with cozy ideas about love and happiness. And that’s the sick and scary part. Equating gift-giving with showing love is problematic because the inordinate frenzied spending is instigated by some mysterious externalized pressure to spend more lest they think you do not love them. Eve Ensler recently pointed out the ways in which capitalism masquerades as the impulse to find love and urged people to remember to focus on the rich love already in our lives, and not to be fooled by the pressure to always be waiting for fulfillment. And if you don’t spend enough, you feel guilty. And when you really think about it, that’s absurd. As Monbiot astutely comments, “So effectively have governments, the media and advertisers associated consumption with prosperity and happiness that to [criticize consumerism] is to expose yourself to opprobrium and ridicule.”
What it comes down to, therefore, is that we must live deliberately. If we are to give gifts, it must be because we want to, and not because we feel pressured by society to do so. For me, shirking consumerism in December is similar to going vegan. It is about being aware of my actions and the impact of those actions, and making deliberate choices based on that knowledge. It is about making an effort to be mindful of where our stuff comes from – whether it’s a cheeseburger, a new iPhone, or a diamond ring. That, then, is empowering: when my choices come from within myself, as opposed to an externalized societal pressure.
I can, however, offer a suggestion for how to navigate the holiday season with mindfulness. If the thought of abstaining altogether from the Christmas shopping season seems too preposterous or impossible, in the spirit of Advent Conspiracy (but without the stuff about Jesus, since I am not a Christian, and, more importantly, I by no means find that a prerequisite for doing the right thing), may I humbly suggest my own list of rules for doing things right:
- Give with intention. Limit the number of gifts you give. Give only to your most inner circle of loved ones, those you consider family. Once you start feeling stress and pressure to give a gift to someone because of societal expectations or fears of reciprocity, the meaning of the gift becomes lost and it becomes an empty symbol. If you feel you must proffer something to your boss or your mail carrier or your babysitter, give something that doesn’t cost you any money (like baked goods!)
- Give with deliberateness. Put thought and care into where and how your gift came into the world, and be deliberate with your choices. Emphasize handmade gifts and gifts of your time/presence/company/service. When you must purchase something, think about where it was before it got to you. Where did its raw materials come from, and who made it? Think about what kinds of businesses you want to support, and make an effort to give your money to small and local businesses.
- Give your presence. Focus on the celebration, not the empty gift-giving. Put your money into hosting friends, family, and loved ones for dinner. Don’t stress too much about the menu or the decoration – years from now, people won’t remember that you bought that roast from the store instead of slaving all day over an artisanal recipe. But they will remember the company and the laughter and the music and the games. Remember why you are celebrating in the first place: the successful end of a long, hard year; the love, health, and happiness of those close to you; the slow but inevitable return of longer, brighter days; and bright exciting opportunities in a new year ahead.
- Give to others. If all this aimless spending in our country could be channeled into other avenues, we could be making an enormous impact on the betterment of quality of life for people around the world. Calculate the amount of money you aim to save from buying less, and donate that amount to one, effective charity. Make it a family tradition to volunteer together every year around the holidays. Peter Singer, noted humanist and proponent of effective altruism, recently published an op-ed in the New York Times about this very issue. His website, The Life You Can Save, has put in the hard work of researching charities around the world, and has ranked the top ten which give you the most bang for your buck. These are charities in which the greatest percent of your dollar goes directly to the cause, and in which the impact of that dollar affects positive change in the most lives.
Emma Waldron (Staff Writer, Rutgers University) Emma Waldron is a Rutgers alumna and currently works with first-year students as an academic advisor. She spent her formative years in Boulder CO before relocating to the Garden State, and recently spent a year living in Bristol, England where she completed her MA in Performance Research. Her research focuses on the concept of authentic identity, and her dissertation addressed issues of gender and musical performativity in Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Emma has recently become vegan, and documents the transformation on her blog “I Am What I Eat”. Emma spends a lot of time thinking about Judith Butler, iambic pentameter, vegan cookies, Ralph Waldo Emerson, sunshine, drag queens, Nordic larp, and tea.