Decoupling Christmas from Consumerism

It was only two weeks ago, but I’m already nostalgic for Thanksgiving. I miss that tranquil time when nearly everything shuts down, and the only agenda involves the communal preparation and enjoyment of harvest-time foods and the giving of thanks.

It is a peaceful holiday, and a redemptive one.

Each year, though, this venerable tradition gets further abridged. When we should be sleeping off the effects of turkey tryptophan, there’s a pell-mell rush for the malls and the Internet – as millions load up on so-called bargains.

After midnight on Black Friday at the Maine Mall.

After midnight on Black Friday at the Maine Mall (Portland Press Herald file photo 2015)

The prevailing spirit of gratitude shatters in the face of a frenzied quest to acquire the latest, most advertised novelties and gadgets.

The quest for “perfect” gifts is a beguiling trap: I speak from experience. But each year, I find my enthusiasm for this seasonal gift hunt dwindling.

Perhaps it’s a near-allergic reaction to stores’ piped-in renditions of “Jingle Bell Rock” and “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town.”

Maybe it’s linked to the realization that this month-long shopping spree leaves far too many families further in debt–with no lasting happiness to show for their spending. A recent Gallup poll found that American adults are planning to spend an average of $830 on Christmas gifts (up from $720 in 2014).

Mostly, though, I think my diminished enthusiasm comes from seeing each potential gift item through a life-cycle lens. I’ve watched too many past gifts travel a speedy circuit from store to sitting wrapped beneath a tree, then breaking within days or weeks, getting thrown in the trash and finally going to the transfer station (where they’re ultimately incinerated and become part of the polluted air we breathe).

If holiday gifts don’t join the more than 4 pounds of daily trash each of us discards, on average, they accumulate. They add to the inevitable clutter of a busy household, demanding time no one likes making to pick up, put away, clean and maintain them.

Admitting distaste for the extended Christmas shopathon opens me to charges of being a Scrooge or having – like Dr. Seuss’ Grinch – a heart “two sizes too small.” But this isn’t a “bah humbug” dismissal of all holiday merriment.

I would just like to see the Christmas season decoupled from the consumption of cheaply made (but ecologically costly) stuff. In that desire, it appears, I’m not a lone Grinch.

When the Pew Research Center surveyed Americans in 2013 asking what they liked least about the “Christmas or the holiday season,” fully a third of respondents objected to the commercialism and materialism. A fifth dreaded the expense and a tenth were turned off by crowded stores.

What people did eagerly anticipate (more than two-thirds of them) was spending time with friends and family. Only 4 percent looked forward to the exchange of gifts, yet nearly 90 percent still planned to buy gifts.

We’re trapped in a gift-giving exchange that has lost its meaning and value, taking with it much of the season’s promised peace and joy. Those elements can still be found, but not inside a wrapped box.

For Christians, this is a season to remember religious traditions and core tenets – such as unconditional love, forgiveness of sins and voluntary simplicity.

By those measures, it’s not hard to surmise “what Jesus would do” in the modern-day Christmas season. Suffice it to say, he would not be leading the pack at the Black Friday store stampedes.

Whatever one’s religious or spiritual disposition, the dark depths of December can be a time for celebrating non-material gifts–like the resurgence of light that follows the winter solstice. Without the stresses of shopping and spending, this can be a reflective and nourishing holiday–a lot, in fact, like Thanksgiving.



KNOWING THAT only 4 percent of poll respondents relish the holiday gift exchange may help liberate us from an obligation we’d rather not maintain. If you want to cut back or eliminate gift exchanges, discuss this desire with relatives and friends in advance of the holiday so everyone is clear on expectations. If you still feel compelled to offer a gift of some sort, consider these alternatives:

 Give experiences – a concert, sports game or camping excursion.

Donate to a charitable cause in the recipient’s name.

Offer your time or skills to help meet perennial needs, like yard care or a home-cooked meal.

Give locally produced food that won’t take up shelf space for long.
© Marina Schauffler, 2015. All Rights Reserved. Column reprints available upon request.