‘Tis the season for shopping. Thanksgiving Day is eclipsed by Black Friday as the annual Christmas buying frenzy begins. Stores extend business hours, hire more sales clerks, pile merchandise higher and marketing reaches a fevered pitch. We make lists of gifts we feel obligated to give. Our expectations are high and our stress levels are even higher.
One can hardly blame retailers for their emphasis on selling for the holiday season. According to the National Retail Federation, for some retailers, the holiday season can represent anywhere between 25-40% of annual sales. Holiday shopping is expected to reach $465.6 billion in November and December. Stores will hire an additional 500,000 seasonal workers to handle the extra business. What business person could ignore those numbers and refuse to be part of the Christmas shopping season?
When we were the target of terrorists on 9/11, our president told us to go shopping. When the stock market faltered and the economy headed toward a recession, we were told to spend. Our whole economy is based on the buying and selling of stuff. That is not all bad. Making stuff and selling it creates jobs and meaningful work for millions. It keeps money circulating in the economy.
Unfortunately, many of us in this country already have too much stuff. The plight of people who have been totally overwhelmed with stuff is even the subject of reality television. Most of us know someone who is unable to organize and manage their stuff. Businesses pop up with whole buildings just for storing people’s stuff. We spend our time sorting, discarding and preserving our stuff. Who hasn’t fantasized about simplifying our lives and paring down the amount of clutter around us?
When I was a child we had one television and one radio in our house. Even though we got a clothes drying in 1957, my mother continued to hang clothes on our clothesline. We hardly ever ate out. We grew and preserved most of our own food. We had a single car and a farm pickup. My father farmed with one tractor. My sisters and I wore handmade dresses or handed down clothes from cousins and friends. We had an everyday pair of shoes and a pair of Sunday shoes plus overshoes for the winter. We had enough toys to keep us happy, but didn’t need another room to store them in. We had few closets and not many cupboards in our house. We usually got one or two gifts at Christmas, not a whole truckload.
We didn’t feel deprived.
Now we are trapped by our possessions. Most middle class households have multiple televisions, numerous radios, more than one computer, several music players of one kind or another, a telephone in every room and closets and cupboards stuffed with goods. We have grown accustomed to using our gadgets and when they break, we replace them. Our electronics often don’t even wear out. They become obsolete. Our clothes go out of style. The color of our carpets seem outdated and unattractive to our eyes long before they are threadbare. Our appliances can’t be repaired when they break down. There is always a better model to replace them. If we decide to simplify our lives and eliminate some of our stuff, then we are faced with the problem of disposing of it. We are trapped and have become slaves to the stuff we own.
In the past, I have tried to simplify gift giving. I have given family members animals through Lutheran World Relief and Heifer International. I have given certificates for my time. I have told my family I didn’t want “things.” When Christmas Eve came, however, and there are no presents under the tree, I felt a little let down and sad. I still like getting presents and I like giving them. The little girl inside of me still hopes to find a pony under the Christmas tree. Somehow, deep down, we equate that perfect gift with being loved and cared for.
Simplifying Christmas sounds easy, but doing it is more difficult. Our economy would collapse if everyone completely quit buying Christmas gifts. Retail stores would go out of business on every main street in the nation, putting millions of people out of work. Whole industries would become irrelevant. Children (even old ones) would miss the thrill of opening presents. Maybe we don’t need to give up gift giving entirely. Perhaps we can start by giving fewer gifts. We could make some of them. We can give our time. We could give away some of the things we treasure and are loved by others. Do we need to give stuff to teachers, the mail carrier, or coworkers? Might there be a different kind of gift they would appreciate more? Do we give others gifts because we feel obligated to do so or because we really want to? Have we remembered to tell those around us that we appreciate what they do? We can give each other more of ourselves and less stuff to burden our lives.
Whose name can we take off our gift giving list? Who would rather have our help than another piece of stuff to take care of? What do those we love need? How can we make each other feel special and appreciated? Rather than just complaining about the commercialization of Christmas, can we make shopping less important in our own Christmas?
Copyright © 2011 Janet Jacobson and Sustaining the Northern Plains