“We’re proceeding into the shopping season under an enormous misunderstanding. We think that we are consumers at Christmastime. No, we are being consumed at Christmastime.” ~ Reverend Billy
Christmas has turned into the biggest retail nightmare in human history. The season has become a monstrous undertaking for each individual due to the hundreds or even thousands of dollars that simply must be spent on everything from holiday-themed potholders to the countless presents that will be torn apart come Christmas morning. On average, Christmas is something that is dreaded nowadays rather than eagerly anticipated. On average, the holiday has become a time of irrational spending and incalculable debt. It has created what I have disgustedly dubbed the ultimate Retail Suckhole.
Every year the expectations for all things Christmas grow larger, and every year the market faithfully and cheerfully provides for these demands. The terrifying part? There is no stopping this rapid progress because it is not fueled by the government nor is it powered by evil conspiracies and corrupt organizations. We, the people, are the consumers. We are the ones who stimulate the materialism that Christmas now represents. Ask anyone – child or adult – and he or she will tell you what all anyone is thinking about this time of year: presents. It’s all about the presents, the long lines at jam-packed stores, the stampedes at shopping malls, the bargains and sales and the desperation of eager customers to find them. Santa Claus and his elves have become metaphors for parents that run around getting gifts for their children. The work of this beloved folklore character and his workers has become a metaphor for people going to great lengths to go above and beyond their friends’ and families’ wildest dreams all for the sake of it simply being Christmastime.
In 2006, the United States alone spent nearly half a trillion dollars on Christmas (What). Let’s look at that number again. Half a trillion. That is $500,000,000,000 – 500 billion dollars. Divided between 300 million Americans, that is (on average) $1,670 per person. This money goes to presents and gift-wrap and ribbons and bows. It goes to trees and lights and ornaments and tinsel. It goes to a ridiculous amount of food that will be consumed all at once by families. It goes to new clothes for this party, and new shoes for that outing. It goes to toys that will be played with for a week or two then thrown under the bed and forgotten. It goes to satisfying the ever-increasing lists people make in anticipation of receiving anything they want this time of year.
Speaking of gift-wrap and ribbons and bows, 5 million tons of waste is created from the packaging for these presents. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the average American created 4.2 pounds of trash per day in 2008, which is just over 1,500 pounds of trash per person for an entire year. 5 million tons (which is 10 million pounds, for those of you keeping score) of extra trash is produced in these holiday-driven weeks. These figures are difficult to imagine since they are simply numbers on a page, but think about it for a second. That is a lot of trash. Furthermore, that is a lot of unnecessary trash. Not only do people splurge on unneeded materialistic goods, but our planet pays a heavy price for our gluttony.
So what am I getting at? Why am I taking the time to describe in great detail what happens in the United States around the holidays? It’s simple. I am trying to stress one thing and one thing only:
This is madness.
This Retail Suckhole is madness. It’s insane. It has to stop. And as I type these words I can already hear the roars of outrage from economists who will argue that Christmas is a huge stimulator of the economy and essentially helps our capitalist society. There is no denying that fact. I simply wish to say that the desire to show our love for our children by rushing madly from store to store in order to buy a mortgage’s worth of presents is completely outrageous. The idea that the most valuable things in life can be bought and wrapped up is saddening and disturbing.
Now, if you think I’m one of the only people that think this way, let me just say right now that there exists a church called the Church of Stop Shopping. I’m not kidding. These guys go around to malls and other public places imploring and begging people to stop their shopping and turn to what’s truly important in life. Their documentary, What Would Jesus Buy? depicts the commercialism of this nation and the Retail Suckhole we’ve unintentionally created. Led by “Reverend Billy” and his “church” members, the group reveals how the holidays have turned into a hellish shopping battleground.
One point that the documentary made really bothered me. Dr. Peter Whybrow, author of American Mania, stated that thanks to commercialism and the emphasis on materialistic goods, children now tend to associate good feelings and happy memories with toys. “Togetherness is now created over gift-giving,” Dr. Whybrow said. “Christmas almost died out in America after the Revolution. And then it was realized that this is a wonderful commercial opportunity because it combines this commercialism with a true feeling of love and affection.” It causes one to think. What would happen if children learned that they wouldn’t be getting any presents for the holidays? We could hope that we’ve raised them correctly and that they would smile, nod, and say, “That’s okay! As long as I’m with my family I don’t need presents!” But would that really be the case? Would they feel cheated, unworthy, and unloved because they didn’t get free stuff from Santa Claus?
Another rather childhood-killing point is the one that Christmas historian Dr. Steven Nissenbaum makes: “Our parents go to such immense trouble to make it seem to children that nobody shopped for Christmas, the presents were all brought by Santa Claus who made them each by hand, to disguise the fact that the gifts they’ve bought for their kids have, in fact, come out of shops and come out of a season of anxiety and sometimes frantic desperation.” Is realizing that a ridiculous amount of shopping was what actually put presents under the tree what ultimately kills the magic? Is finally understanding the debt and the pandemonium that goes into making those boxes appear what destroys the spirit of Christmas for us all?
So if the holidays are not about spending lots of money to fulfill our kids’ wildest dreams, then what is it about? What are the other options? What should Americans be focusing on during the holiday season? That is a gray area, something that depends on religious and/or personal preference. Christians celebrate the birth of their savior this time of year. Those of the Jewish faith celebrate the triumphs of their people and the miracle of one days’ worth of oil burning for eight days. Pagans celebrate their Winter Solstice. Kwanzaa participants celebrate their Nguzo Saba. Atheists and agnostics celebrate being around their loved ones and show gratitude for their abundance. Of all of these religions and beliefs, there is one constant, reoccurring thread that weaves all of them together, an idea that is buried under mountains of presents every holiday season and must be dug out and dusted off: materialistic goods are not important.
They’re not important.
That’s what we should be focusing on. That’s what we need to make a priority.
If I ever have children some day, I don’t want them to grow up seeing Christmas as the season of getting free things. I don’t want them to see mad rushes to shopping malls to get the best bargains that end in people getting carried away on stretchers. I don’t want them to see Mommy and Daddy spending money we don’t have in order to buy things we don’t need. I especially don’t want them to receive an insane amount of toys that are played with for a few hours then quickly forgotten. I don’t want them to retain the idea that a good Christmas = lots of good toys.
I want to see the smiles on their faces as they give food and clothing to those who spend the holidays in shelters. I want to watch them as they happily decorate the house and spend time giggling over making cookies. I want to see them light up as they receive a few very special toys that they’ve wanted all year long. I want to see them interacting with their family and those who love them. I want them to know that the true magic of Christmas can never be handed directly to them.
This retail catastrophe that has become Christmas is not the Christmas I know and love. The magic of Christmas does not come wrapped up in boxes, and I don’t want the next generation to grow up believing that it does. Should you have fun picking out one or two meaningful gifts for your close friends and family this holiday season? Absolutely. Should you try to make presents rather than buy them? If you have the time, of course you should. But all of this splurging and buying incessantly, this ridiculous obsession we have with materialistic items? It needs to end. We need a wake up call. We need to break free from these chains that bind us to our desire to spend, spend, spend. As a member of the Church of Stop Shopping said in their documentary, “We say ‘stop shopping’ just to get your attention. Certainly nobody can stop shopping, but you can have a conscience about your shopping. Think about how it affects other people. Just explore the options. That’s all we ask.”
Buy things less this year, and give yourself a little more. Give love, patience, acceptance, forgiveness. Spend your time, not your money. The holidays are magical not because of sales and specials. They are magical because we make them that way. We give our hearts to our fellow man. The more we do that, the more special the holidays will be.
In the perfect words from a speaker in What Would Jesus Buy?: “If we were able to change Christmas, we could change the whole year.”
“What was Christmas before the shopping started? Christmas is the birth of a child that we believe will grow up to teach us peace. And you don’t have to be a Christian to hope that’s true. Amen?” ~ Reverend Billy
What Would Jesus Buy? Dir. Rob VanAlkemade. Warrior Poets, 2007. Film.
[Cover photo from Huffington Post: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/11/12/walmart-black-friday-2014-thanksgiving_n_6140442.html%5D