Shopping as ritual

John Hearn recalls shopping as a child in a family that didn’t have all that much money.  He reflects on what shopping has become today and reminds us of the true meaning of shopping:

We shopped rarely and with forethought and together. Shopping was a social ritual, a group activity that followed a set procedure. After the tax refund check arrived, usually in late March, when the cold ocean winds still swept the hills south of Boston, my mother gathered the four of us for our biannual trek uptown. Each of her three boys would get a pair of trousers, summer sneakers and a Red Sox cap, all at least a size too big, to better accommodate growth spurts. She feared the prospect of a child who had outgrown clothes that could not be easily replaced. “Don’t be so full of yourself,” she would admonish, after I complained that the new pants bunched up or the inexpensive sneakers turned skyward at the toes. “Do you really think everyone is looking at you?” . . . .

At Christmas, we received things we needed: socks and underwear, a sweater to grow into. When Frankie got a paper route and hired me as his helper, we would put aside money so we could buy gifts for our parents. The Friday before Christmas, after delivering the last of the newspapers, we’d walk by the shops, assuring each other that we’d find perfect presents, ones they needed and wanted too. But they needed everything, and what they may have wanted we couldn’t afford and they never would have mentioned anyway. . . .

I hated shopping. It was an activity filled with anxiety and embarrassment and guilt. It required that I deny myself: that I sit down, don’t fidget, listen, stop complaining, say thank you, shut up, don’t interrupt, stop staring at my brother, walk in the freezing cold and subdue the desire stimulated by the new and shiny to the modest reality defined by my meager paper-route profits. As an adult, though, I understand that neither the quantity nor the quality of the gifts really mattered. It was those social rituals I reluctantly shared with my family that remain a fundamental source of meaning. Shopping was all about the social processes that, like a shared meal or religious service, reminded us that we were together, as a family and congregation and neighborhood. We were embedded in a web of interdependence, a reality greater than ourselves, one in which we had to sacrifice our individual whims and desires.

via When shopping was a family ritual – The Washington Post.

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • Tom Hering

    Over at Cultivare, Kyle Roberts quotes William Cavanaugh’s book, Being Consumed:

    What really characterizes consumer culture is not attachment to things but detachment. People do not hoard money; they spend it. People do not cling to things; they discard them and buy other things … rather than hoarding treasured objects, consumers are characterized by a constant dissatisfaction with material goods. This dissastisfaction is what produces the restless pursuit of satisfaction in the form of something new. Consumerism is not so much about having more as it is about having something else; that’s why it is not simply buying but shopping that is the heart of consumerism.

  • Tom Hering

    Over at Cultivare, Kyle Roberts quotes William Cavanaugh’s book, Being Consumed:

    What really characterizes consumer culture is not attachment to things but detachment. People do not hoard money; they spend it. People do not cling to things; they discard them and buy other things … rather than hoarding treasured objects, consumers are characterized by a constant dissatisfaction with material goods. This dissastisfaction is what produces the restless pursuit of satisfaction in the form of something new. Consumerism is not so much about having more as it is about having something else; that’s why it is not simply buying but shopping that is the heart of consumerism.

  • Joe

    Tom – this is what a friend of mine would call “uncommon sense.” It is something we should all understand but don’t.

  • Joe

    Tom – this is what a friend of mine would call “uncommon sense.” It is something we should all understand but don’t.

  • PinonCoffee

    Huh. Consumerism as detachment to stuff. I’ll have to chew on that one.

  • PinonCoffee

    Huh. Consumerism as detachment to stuff. I’ll have to chew on that one.

  • Tom Hering

    There’s no detachment in wanting stuff. The detachment begins with getting it. We almost immediately (if not immediately) start wanting something else or more. And we know we’re going to be throwing away (or storing away, to be forgotten) whatever it is we just got – probably sooner than later. So consumerism involves a cycle of desiring and disposal. A cycle that goes faster now than ever before.

    I think of my parent’s household of the 1950s and ’60s. They didn’t own a lot of things, and almost everything they owned was acquired by saving for it. I can’t remember much of anything being thrown out or replaced. Ever. They treasured what they had (no detachment), and worn or broken things were repaired. (I’m old enough to remember fix-it shops.) Our home certainly didn’t require many electrical outlets!

  • Tom Hering

    There’s no detachment in wanting stuff. The detachment begins with getting it. We almost immediately (if not immediately) start wanting something else or more. And we know we’re going to be throwing away (or storing away, to be forgotten) whatever it is we just got – probably sooner than later. So consumerism involves a cycle of desiring and disposal. A cycle that goes faster now than ever before.

    I think of my parent’s household of the 1950s and ’60s. They didn’t own a lot of things, and almost everything they owned was acquired by saving for it. I can’t remember much of anything being thrown out or replaced. Ever. They treasured what they had (no detachment), and worn or broken things were repaired. (I’m old enough to remember fix-it shops.) Our home certainly didn’t require many electrical outlets!


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