Consumer Christmas:  Just saying no

By Louisa Enright | Jan 10, 2011

About 10 years ago, I just said no to participating in what I think of now as Consumer Christmas.

After I hit my 40s, I began to grow increasingly troubled by how I and my family celebrated Christmas.  It seemed to me as if we were caught up in a cultural vortex that was almost impossible to escape, a whirlpool of unrelenting advertising, shopping, and spending.  I felt as if I were being dragged further under water emotionally with each succeeding year.

Trying to find the perfect gifts for my loved ones who in actuality did not need a thing — gifts that showed how powerfully I loved them and how intimately I knew them was, I began to see, an impossible task.  Early on, I often erred on the side of "more is better" just to make sure I was communicating my love and care sufficiently.

Then, there was the work and expense of Christmas. There was the decorating of the home, inside and out.  There was at least one whole day wrapping the presents.  When I think of all that paper now, I want to cry at the heedless waste. There was all the shopping and cooking for all the special meals and for the cookies and candy to deliver to neighbors. There was the buying and addressing of the 100 or so Christmas cards, each with a handwritten note.  (Using computer labels and creating Christmas letters to insert are relatively recent events in this 45-year saga.)  After, there was the cleanup.  Most years, I also worked full time, or was in school full time, or both.

Most of this Christmas work and emotion falls on women’s shoulders. I can relate countless conversations stretching over many years when women indicated their frustration with Christmas. They hated it when the special presents were not received as being perfect, when the desired emotions, therefore, were not communicated. They hated it when the presents they themselves received showed little knowledge of who they really were or of their desires.

It’s unsettling when one realizes that the street traffic of Christmas, the giving and the receiving, does not seem to be running both ways. Though, likely, I think now, the giving task is just as impossible for other family members as it is for the woman at the heart of the holiday. Women hated it, too, when the bills appeared in January, since by then each was fully aware of the excess, of the failures.

Christmas, early in the industrial era, used to be about giving presents to people in your community who actually did need things, like food, warm clothes, warm bedding, shoes, a book to read, a good job. Christmas was not about buying things for people who had, already, comforts and privileges. Christmas was not about people going into debt in order to consume things.

Now, our national well-being is predicated strongly on how much our corporations sell over the Christmas season. And, Christmas has eaten away more and more of the fall.  Christmas decorations now routinely appear around Halloween.  And, Thanksgiving weekend is eclipsed by the Friday "early bird" sales that start in the wee hours of the morning and kick off the Christmas season.

Consumer Christmas has developed since World War II.  It is a creature of a material economy that is selling us dreams that are not necessarily of our own dreaming and that are not necessarily good for us, our communities, our nation, or our world. The dreams involve buying things advertised as having the power to create happiness. Annie Leonard’s 20-minute video, “The Story of Stuff,” available on YouTube, details brilliantly the hidden problems. This system is abusive towards people and the environment. This system is in crisis because the earth has finite resources and because this system must have a continuation of our consumption patterns to exist.

Sadly, Leonard relates that 99 percent of the total materials passing through this system are trashed within six months. In other words, only one percent of the “stuff” we purchase is being used after six months.

Just saying “no" was hard. My family did not want anything substantially changed. So, first we tried scaling back by putting monetary limits on gifts; but, I still felt disturbed. I began to realize what was troubling me was the cultural equation measuring love with a gift purchased or made inside a powerful economic dictate that had jettisoned recognition of the needy.

Worse, Consumer Christmas had confused getting and giving. I realized I was teaching my children a market idea of Christmas, rather than teaching them about the season itself, about what lay, or used to lay, behind not only Christmas, but behind why most of the other traditions celebrated at this darkest time of the year.

Sure, I had been giving to my loved ones. But what was it that I was giving?  Often, I had to cruise stores to see what was “in” this year that they might like. I was giving a sense of entitlement to having “stuff.”  And, I was giving myself the possibility of perfectly showing my love. In reality, I was spending myself on shopping and wrapping and trying to make things perfect as defined by the material economy. Meanwhile, my children were not learning about giving and sharing or about noticing who was without and where real neediness existed. They were learning about getting, about spending, about unwrapping, about ripping up paper and throwing it into the trash. Most of all, what they were not getting as they opened individual gifts was the sharing of communal experiences that truly bind relationships together.

Finally, I announced that I was all done with Consumer Christmas. For the next few years, my children still sent presents. Gradually, they quit. Occasionally, one will send something they know I will especially like, but they are likely to do that at any time of the year.  As, do I.

The holiday stress of too much work or of failed expectations is gone. And, I feel such a sense of freedom. I now have time to truly appreciate and to be grateful for this quiet, dark, restful time of the year. I treasure the warmth of being with friends and loved ones, especially around a dinner table or in a room where good food and candlelight is shared. I love hearing news from old friends, so we, not just me, still send out the 100 or so cards.  And, we each write one side of our shared Christmas letter so our distinct voices are shared.

Sometimes we buy a living tree that has been raised locally. To share light in the darkness of this season, we usually put the tree outside on the porch and decorate it and the porch with lights. Inside, we place candle lights in the windows.

This year, Mike and Tamara, parents of four of our grandchildren (seven, six, four and three years old), put their Charleston, S.C., Christmas tree outside.  The family spent nearly a week decorating it with sand dollars, starfish, flotsam and jetsam from the beach, and strings of cranberries and popcorn for the birds. The only presents the children received from their parents came in their stockings.

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