Monday, November 17, 2008

Rethinking the Holidays

My church and my friends have been engaging in conversations about our consumer culture and the empire it has created. Challenging our consumer culture is something I'm always thinking about (see old posts on corporations, fair trade, and the local economy).

But we're about to come upon our culture's greatest celebrations of gluttony: Thanksgiving and Christmas. So I thought I'd do some nerdy linguaphile investigating, and I looked up the definition of the verb "to consume".

con⋅sume /kənˈsum/ Show Spelled Pronunciation [kuhn-soom] verb, -sumed, -sum⋅ing.
–verb (used with object)
1. to destroy or expend by use; use up.
2. to eat or drink up; devour.
3. to destroy, as by decomposition or burning: Fire consumed the forest.
4. to spend (money, time, etc.) wastefully.
5. to absorb; engross: consumed with curiosity.
–verb (used without object)
6. to undergo destruction; waste away.
7. to use or use up consumer goods.

Notice that only the final definition, number 7, takes on our current-day economic meaning. It's also the only definition that is not negative (although I would argue that it very much is a negative definition).

And this is what most economists, companies, and corporations think of us - a market of consumers. A group of destroyers. In terms of the holidays, it makes me wonder: What are we really celebrating?

People always say the holidays are about family and the people you love. But isn't it more about eating too much, spending too much, and getting too much?

As I've wondered how the answer to that question translates practically, I've found a lot of people are trying to figure it out, too:
  • Buy Nothing Day. On the Friday after Thanksgiving, the crazy folks at Abusters are asking consumers to stop being consumers for a day and simply buy nothing. So instead of rushing to the mall to get those sparkling day-after-Thanksgiving sales, why not enjoy your day off, enjoy some leftovers, and actually spend time with your family (not shopping). Or you can protest in a Santa suit outside the mall.

  • The Advent Conspiracy. This brilliant idea came from the minds of a several churches who were tired of Christmas. Seriously. They were tired of it, tired from it. Then they started asking why it wasn't about Jesus anymore. So they came up with the Advent Conspiracy to get the church back to the meaning of Christmas and celebrate in more holistic ways.

So what does all this come down to? It's actually pretty easy. Consider a buy nothing Christmas and make gifts instead. If you find it hard to make gifts for family members (like younger brothers who don't want something "crafty") consider giving time and offering to do something for them instead. My dad always asks for socks for Christmas, so I'll probably still buy him socks but also offer to take him out to dinner for once (instead of the other way around).

There's a lot of alternatives. You just have to be creative and think of ideas tailored to each person. You know, put in some thought and effort. It's a bit tougher than buying a gift card, but I think it's more rewarding in the end. And you might just have your most memorable Christmas yet.


Sarah said...

I feel what you're throwing down here, but I don't know that I entirely agree. Maybe it's because I come from a family that was always relatively poor and could never afford the rampant consumerism Christmas seems to ignite in the masses. We got things we needed and a few things we wanted, but we never had a lot of presents under the tree, and I think we definitely still had our focus in the right place.

I honestly don't think there's anything wrong with buying people gifts around the holidays. I tend to only buy for people I truly care about, and I buy specific things that I know they've been wanting but either haven't been able to afford for themselves or have not bought because they used the money towards something else. I think "consuming" in that way is not "consuming" in the "consumerism" mindset, but consuming to supply a need/want for someone you love. I don't know. Maybe it's because I've never spent more than I can afford on presents, nor have I ever given someone a gift card, but I do see the holidays as the one time in the year I can purposefully give someone a gift...and when it comes to my family, it's usually a want that they've denied themselves all year to keep up with necessities. I think consumerism does definitely need to be tempered and that people shouldn't be spending money they don't have just to appease the Christmas Marketing Gods, but I think you can shop for the holidays thoughtfully and responsibly without becoming a mindless consumer. Of course making things is also lovely (especially when you're a knitting goddess!), but when someone wants a book, they're kind of difficult to make. ;)

The Lazy Editor said...

No, you have some really valid points, and I know you well enough to know that you actually put a lot of thought and love into what you're buying for Christmas.

I guess I should've noted that I think it's ok to buy presents (but I was on one of my anti-consumer rolls). And yes, sometimes it's appropriate (like when someone wants a book). And I'm glad you brought up the examples of getting people something they really want when they've been spending money on necessities all year.

There's something humble and loving with that approach and those feelings seem to be missing from most Americans' (specifically middle class and up) Christmas celebrations. It seems that people buy gifts out of obligation and guilt rather than something more genuine.

At the same time, this goes back to the other conversation my church has been having -- that it's a privilege to even ask these questions. There are many people who are forced to live simply rather than make the choice to.

But I definitely think the way our culture celebrates Christmas is in direct conflict with Christianity and much of Jesus' message. My family always made a big deal out of presents, and this year, I need to take a break from trying to find the perfect gifts. I guess it's one of the many ways I'm trying to reconcile my actions to my faith.

The Lazy Editor said...

The other point I should add -- I can't just rant about something. I have to do something. I can't just say that I believe something and not change my behavior. So I think that's what this is about for me. If I say consumerism is wrong and bad for people and the earth, then I have to do what I can. Changing the way I do Christmas is a start for me.

Also, I realize that I can get kinda preachy. "You should do this" and "You should care about this". The last thing I want to do is create a new set of rules and legalistically enforce them. So I'm sorry if I came across that way.

Sarah said...

Oh Gina! I hope you didn't get the impression that I thought what you were saying wasn't right...I think you are right in so many ways, and that we do need to make Christmas what it should be by simplifying it and not giving in to the silly nonsense of consumerism. I was just throwing in my two cents about how sometimes purchasing is good and necessary. I greatly admire your courage...especially given that your family seems to care about gift-giving more than mine does.