Previously I wrote about Buy Nothing Day, an activist-driven movement in protest of Black Friday. Further thought has led me to reflect more personally on why I object so strongly to today’s growing commercialization and out-of-control consumerism of the holiday season. I realized my distaste for Black Friday and the gift-giving emphasis placed on Christmas (and other winter holidays, though for my family it is Christmas) relate back to both my childhood family memories of the holidays, as well as my eight years running a retail business. These experiences have driven me to try to focus much less on buying gifts – and expecting gifts – and more on finding other ways to celebrate the holiday season.
As a child, of course, I loved Christmas, and much of my excitement over Christmas revolved around anticipating the gifts I might receive. Like many kids, I made lists for Santa Claus (and later, gave hints to my parents) of what I wanted. And of course I was usually rewarded with much of what I asked for, and then some! Spending in excess around the holidays was a family tradition, although one that could cause more fights around Christmas than anything else. My grandfather never skimped on what he would buy for anyone, and used to take me to the mall to help me buy gifts for the rest of the family. Yet, if he felt other family members spent too much on gifts, he would criticize them vocally and sometimes very abusively for it. More than a few family Christmases were ruined and ended with huge, nasty fights under the tree, with gifts ending up being major sore points instead of things to celebrate and take pleasure from.
When I was in my early twenties, my grandfather passed away in the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas. As he was very much the center of our small family, his death had a huge impact on how the rest of us felt about celebrating Christmas from that time forward. For several years, we sought ways to break from long-standing traditions, like instead taking my grandmother on vacation to the Caribbean, or to New York City for a fancy meal out on the town. While we exchanged some gifts, it no longer seemed important to make sure every inch of floor space beneath the Christmas tree (if we even had one) was covered with wrapped boxes and gift bags. It was also, honestly, a relief to not have huge battles any longer or worry if we’d spent too much or too little on each other.
Several years later my mother and I were in the process of opening our art gallery and jewelry store in Philadelphia. With all the construction, licensing, and paperwork to establish the business, we were in a rush come the fall to try to open in time for Christmas. We didn’t manage to do so, but did end up spending that year’s Christmas day cleaning and arranging display cases instead of celebrating with the rest of our family. We were so exhausted from the whole experience that we barely bothered to cook much of a meal nor do anything else to mark the occasion. The spirit of Christmas had been lost beneath the pressure of trying to meet market expectations for our new business.
And unfortunately, that would become our routine for the next five or six years of the holiday season. All our focus, from Thanksgiving until Christmas Eve, revolved around chasing the all mighty dollar of Christmas gift sales. We would decorate our store, instead of our own home. We would spend, spend, spend on new inventory to try to hit the latest trends and fashions, only to find we could never compete price-wise with the big retail department stores who had their own manufacturers (even if their products were highly inferior to ours.) We would work long, late hours, work through every weekend, miss friends’ Christmas parties and barely remember at the last minute to get any gifts for each other or the rest of the family. We would work straight through until 7 or 8:00pm on Chistmas Eve trying to get in that last gift sale. Sure, we would make more money during those few weeks than sometimes the rest of the year – but was the profit worth what it was costing us physically, emotionally and spiritually? All the extra money we had to spend on inventory, gift boxes, decorations and advertising?
We began to doubt as much, especially as we were finding running the business full-time more of a money-losing chore than a profit or pleasure. Eventually I converted the space into my personal studio only open to the public by appointment. I would do some special open sale days during the holiday season, but by that point I was finding other things more important in my life. My fiance’s family always celebrated Christmas Eve with a huge Feast of the Seven Fishes, and spending time with them was more important than making one more day of trivial gift sales. Often it was the only time of year extended family members would see each other, making that time even more precious. With financial pressures on both of us, my mother and I agreed that we would not spend excessively on each other for the holidays – no more than one gift each, and some years our gift was simply preparing and cooking the nicest meal together that we could.
I try to find other ways to celebrate Christmas with friends and family these days than through buying generic gifts. If I can have them over to my house for a party or dinner, I will. If I can bring them food that I’ve made when they’re under stress or suffering illness and don’t have the time (or ability) to cook for themselves, I will. I’ll make jewelry specifically meant for the person I’m creating it for instead of buying a mass-produced necklace or bracelet in the mall. I’ll paint a picture of a favorite pet for someone, or make a collage or special book of family photos. If I am going to buy anything, I try to shop other crafters and individual artists, either at holiday bazaars or through sites like Etsy. And most of all, I try to remember what Christmas is meant to celebrate: the birth of Jesus Christ. The religious aspects of the holiday can get so lost under the emphasis on gifts, food and “Santa Claus” that I’m sure more people these days spend Thanksgiving night camped out in WalMart parking lots than they do, on Christmas Eve, attending Midnight Mass.
So these are my reasons for embracing the activist call of Buy Nothing Day instead of the consumer frenzy of Black Friday. I don’t need the entirety of December, every year, becoming more and more about scoring the supposedly best deals (and getting further into credit card debt). In my opinion, it’s time to stop spending so much money in the first place, and spend more time concentrating on friends, family and loved ones. Those are things that don’t come with a price tag, and can’t be bought during 50% off Black Friday sales.