I’ve not had much Christmas spirit this year.
I’m not sure what it is about this year that’s different but it is. I generally dislike the season anyway. Not the getting together with the people who love you, or sharing heartfelt gifts with one another. I like that part. But, overall, I see the holiday as little more than a mechanism that’s designed to compel most of us to spend money we don’t have on meaningless shit we don’t need. We’ve made a holiday out of the day after Christmas, when everyone returns all those unwanted gifts for cash so they can buy what they really wanted anyway. We’ve pushed Thanksgiving off to the sidelines, and this year I couldn’t help but notice that the fat ass of Christmas was even trying to push Halloween out of its October seat.
Call me a Grinch, if you want. But let’s be honest; there’s nothing special or meaningful about buying someone the same thing that 20 million other people will also open on Christmas Day. That is commercialism, capitalism and it’s a retail holiday. It’s not about Jesus, or love, or togetherness or any of the things we say Christmas is about. It’s little more than a function of the American economy. Black Friday is a thing. Cyber Monday is a thing. Small business Saturday is a thing. Opening up for Christmas shopping on Thanksgiving is a thing, and 24-hour Christmas Eve day sales are a thing.
So I’ve been thinking about this a lot this year, wondering how it is that Christmas become so bastardized. It’s been a long process, but one that has grown more intense in recent years, I think. I started doing a little research, and realized I’m not a Grinch after all; I’m a SPUG.
SPUG: Society for the Prevention of Useless Giving.
According to this article, and others, in 1912 thousands of women began a movement to combat the commercialization of Christmas and the expectation of gift giving not done in the spirit of love and generosity, but in the hope that such gifts would pay dividends in the coming year. Or because it was simply expected.
“The yearly emphasis on materialism annoyed the so-called Spugs, but there was also a practical complaint: the era’s custom of employees giving gifts to bosses and higher-ups in exchange for work favors. Frequently, these gifts didn’t run cheap, costing in some cases up to two weeks’ worth of wages, a tradition propelled in part by peer pressure that had grown only bigger with each passing year.”
There’s also the original New York Times article of the event that kicked off the SPUG movement. It’s worth reading, partly for the history of the SPUG, but also because it is a peak into a time when the wealthy elite would intercede on behalf of the working class when they were being exploited by normalized, or customized, greed and selfishness. (The cliff note on SPUG: Wives and daughters of the wealthy in New York saw the growing expectation that shop workers were to give extravagant gifts to their bosses, as outlined in the quote above. So they held a party and created a group that refused to participate in the practice any longer).
It didn’t hurt that my favorite president, Theodore Roosevelt, joined in on the movement.
I asked a question on Facebook – “Let’s say that you get one – and only one – gift for Christmas. Money is no object, yet this gift can cost nothing at all. What would you hope for? Likewise, let’s say you get to give one gift, and only one gift, what do you give, and to whom?”
Far and away, the thematic answer to this question was time. Or sharing time with the people they love, and who love them in return. If it wasn’t time, people generally wanted to give their loved ones something that made their lives better – money to pay bills, or live a life without worry. Likewise, if people hoped to receive something other than time with loved ones, it generally involved something that would make life better, more peaceful, than it is currently.
Yet, here’s what I see most of the time around Christmas: Stressed out people frantically going to a store that is crowded with too many other likewise stressed out people, who are all spending money they don’t have on gifts that are manufactured by the millions and that will fall into the trash heap by the time they all do this over again next year. By the time Christmas rolls around, and it’s time to actually sit down and enjoy time with loved ones, we’re tired, broke, frazzled, and already looking toward New Year’s Eve when we have a legitimate reason to get drunk because it seems poor form to do that on Christmas Day.
There’s not much baby Jesus in that. There’s not much love in that. There’s not much peace in that. And there’s not much goodwill in that. What there is in that is a lot of automatic response to a social norm that has existed for too many years: The only way to show someone you care about them is to buy them something. And while most people in my very informal and unscientific poll indicated the most valuable thing in the world was time, we actually take time away from the people we love so we can buy things to show them that we love them.
Now, I know this isn’t universally true. A gift – even a purchased gift – that addresses a need, or was remembered from a long ago conversation, is soulful and meaningful. I got several gifts like that this year; they were incredibly thoughtful and I truly appreciated it. But I’d say in too many cases, we’re just going through the motions, buying things as a means to fill a perceived obligation.
I don’t hate Christmas, but I do hate what it has become. I hate that I know so many families that feel bad if they can’t fill all the spaces under the Christmas tree for their kids. I hate that I know too many people who go into debt because we have created this idea that if you’re not giving too many gifts for Christmas you somehow suck at life. I hate that there are so many people who are alone, who are separated from their loved ones either emotionally or physically. There are two sides to the Christmas coin – one that is jolly and happy, with abundance, family and friends; another that is pain, longing, loneliness and a gnawing recognition that you lack the ability to give your family the sort of Christmas that’s the stuff of movies and television shows.
When I look at Christmas today, I see little more than a crafted and manipulated function of the consumer economy. Santa Claus is a Coca Cola commercial. Every year, there’s some must have toy that is marketed to children – and even parents who struggle to put food on the table will move heaven and earth to find that toy. This year, the average American will spend $830 on Christmas. That’s an average, remember. Some will spend far more and some will spend far less.
And I’d pose this challenge as well – sit down and try to remember all the Christmas gifts you’ve received in your life. I’m sure you’ll recall some, but it’s doubtful you’ll recall all of them. And my guess, if you’re like me, is that those you remember most are the ones that weren’t the most expensive, but the most meaningful and personal for you. Moreover, you’ll likely remember the stories of mom and dad’s reactions to gifts you gave them, or stories about grandparents, aunts, uncles, friends, cousins. I’ll bet you can recall any number of those, but you’ll scratch your head trying to remember what the hot toy was when you were 8 years old.
It doesn’t really matter what one believes religiously (or secularly) – the message of Christmas, or Yule, or Hannakah, or whatever, is really quite simple and plain: Love each other. Support each other. Stay close to your people. Spring is around the corner. Don’t give up. With each other and hope, miracles can happen. When I step back from the commercials, the big box stores and the framework of the culture we’ve all been conditioned in that tells us to buy, buy, and buy some more, I see a Christmas where knocking on someone’s door for a visit, or sitting down to share a meal, or a warm drink, where an encouraging word or an open ear, is the best gift of all.
I don’t know how that message translates into a this stupid thing called a Hatchimal, but apparently it does.