Giving actual gifts is a beautiful thing ensconced in most religions. When you give a thoughtful gift to a friend or loved one, you are honoring them. I hate the messages to give to charity instead — giving to charity is essential but to set it up in competition for the same dollars is unspiritual. We are to give in love out of abundance, not in obligation out of a budget.
Choosing a present specifically for another person, wrapping it playfully and offering it to them involves love, selflessness and hospitality. If you equate gift giving with money and greed, then consumerism wins. You’ve bought into the same paradigm; just picked the “other” side. No. I want you to buy real physical gifts for people. But how do you do this consciously in our mass consumer culture?
The spiritual principle here is to be mindful of the whole gift: what it will mean to the recipient but also where it comes from, who you buy it from, how it is made and what it’s made of. A simpler principle still, to borrow E. F. Schumacher’s line, is: small is beautiful.
Even if you buy on “Black Friday.” I can’t say I’ve ever understood Black Friday — I mean, you still have a month to buy. Unless your goal is that toy or gadget that will sell out, you’ve got plenty of time. Most of the frenzy is concocted by the retailers for their own benefit. And the irony is not lost on me that on Thursday folks celebrate being thankful for what they already have, then on Friday they frantically buy more more more. The fact that the purchases are gifts for others helps make up for it a little, I suppose.
With all these things in mind, I want to encourage you consider the following in your holiday shopping this year:
Don’t start early — The big retailers are trying to get people to start shopping Thursday evening. Walmart, Sears and Toys R Us are opening Thursday at 8 p.m.; Target at 9. And Kmart will be open during the day. Do not do this. I don’t care what sales they’re offering. Boycott it. Keep Thanksgiving as the family and gratitude-oriented holiday it is meant to be. Thanksgiving evening is meant for recuperating from an L-tryptophan and carb-induced coma and watching sports or playing board games at home. If you must go out, go see Life of Pi with family or friends — here’s my review.
- Buy local — When you buy something from a local vendor, $45 out of every $100 stays in the local economy. When you buy the same thing from a chain store, only $14 stays local. Buying local, you support a neighbor, encourage a more decentralized and resilient economy, and keep a human face on your purchase. The government is getting involved this year, promoting Small Business Saturday — #SmallBizSat — picking up on the campaign American Express has been doing since 2010.
Buying local and handcrafted, you can find special gifts that will stand out and show your love for the other person with the thought you put into them. In many towns now you can find local craftspeople too small to have a store at the farmer’s market. You can also find some of them on Etsy, which includes a “shop local” option. Speaking of online, I’d still say buying mail-order from an independent business elsewhere is a kind of buying local, even if they’re not local to your town. Not the same, but better than other options.
And where possible, even for mass-produced items, buy from local non-chain vendors to keep more money local. I’m not saying the employees of chain stores aren’t also local citizens and possibly friends, but the dollars speak for themselves.
- Buy fair trade – Save some of that shopping energy for #FairTuesday — next Tuesday buy gifts from fair trade sources and tell your friends you’re going to do it and that you have done it using the hashtag #FairTuesday.
Buying fair trade is another way of buying local, in that more of your purchase dollars go to local farmers and craftspeople rather than corporations and middlemen. When you buy fair trade, you are supporting indigenous cultures and ecologically balanced operations. Fair Tuesday is being promoted by Global Good Partners, which has a list of vendors on their page. You can buy fair trade lots of places, including local stores, churches and online, and Fair Tuesday endorser, Fair Trade USA, the main fair trade org in this country, has lots of information on its site too.
- Give unconventional gifts — Give at least some non-consumer gifts. I’m not saying you should give a child something homemade when all their friends are getting the latest gadget. That’s mean. But where possible and appropriate, give homemade, give playful, give eye-opening.
To put it another way, starting from something handmade by you with love, we can back away step by step from that ideal:
- to something handmade by a local craftsperson with love;
- to a fair trade, handcrafted or ethically manufactured item sold by someone local;
- to a fair trade, handcrafted or ethically manufactured item sold online;
- to a fair trade, handcrafted or ethically manufactured item sold by a chain store;
- to a mass-produced item sold locally;
- to a mass-produced item sold online or by a chain store.
I am not saying you need to do these things for all your gifts. If you know the perfect gift for someone and it is mass-produced, I would say buy it for them anyway. The main reason for gifts is to honor and delight the recipient, not to make a political point. But consider keeping these guidelines in mind while approaching the season and apply them at least some of the time. Happy Thanksgiving.