As holidays go, I’ve always liked Thanksgiving better than Christmas. It’s not because one is a secular holiday and one is religious – really, both are secular holidays that have been layered over with religious propaganda – but because, of the two, Thanksgiving has only things I enjoy. It’s all about togetherness, gratitude, and great food. I’m up for those things any day. Christmas has those too, but it has one other aspect I dislike: the expectation to buy things.
I hate shopping, I always have. Malls exhaust me very quickly. And they’re never worse than during the holiday season: the crowds, the lines, the shamelessly exploitative advertising, the carols played over and over until your brain turns to slush. I find it incomprehensible that some people think this is a fun activity. Online shopping is a little better since you can do it from the comfort of your home, but it still seems a frustrating and pointless exercise trying to guess what someone might like.
But when you try to opt out of the gift-giving tradition, you’re going up against a juggernaut. Advertisers spend hundreds of billions of dollars each year trying to make us want things we don’t need. All these ads instill the mindset that happiness and meaning in life can be obtained through purchases. There’s very real harm associated with this message: the average American has an astounding $4,717 of credit-card debt, and piling on more of it can only cause extra stress in lives that already have too much.
This consumerist mentality makes people dissatisfied and unhappy even when they’re not spending wastefully. It makes us look outward, to material things, rather than inward to fill any emptiness we find in our lives. That’s an attempt that can only end in failure, since possessions offer only fleeting pleasures, not true contentment.
There’s too much tradition and social pressure around holiday gift-giving for me to opt out entirely. But unless I’m very sure about what kind of gifts a friend might want, I prefer modest, consumable presents – coffee, tea, wine, chocolate, soap or candles. It’s better than cluttering up people’s houses with tchotchkes or making them feel pressure to be appreciative of something they won’t use. Making donations to a person’s favorite charity in their name is another good strategy.
Just as I don’t like the pressure to give gifts, I don’t need to receive them either. I already have everything I need to live; I don’t feel an urge to clutter my life by acquiring more possessions. I’d rather live simply, with intention, and buy only the things I use. (That said, I’ll always make an exception for books.)
Here again, the marketers have played their tricks on us. Surveys often show that people believe giving is better than receiving, ranking it as one of their favorite things about the holiday season. But that’s the same consumerist message, just viewed from the other side.
To resist the tide of consumerism, it may help to remember that as far as much of the world is concerned, we middle-class Westerners already live in a post-scarcity society. We enjoy a level of comfort and abundance unmatched by any other society in history. If we haven’t learned to be content with that, another new car or big-screen TV isn’t going to change things.