Consumed by Consumerism

We really can’t miss it; as soon as Halloween is over, stores tear all their decorations down and get prepared for one of the most profitable seasons of the year. Lights, decorations and sometimes even Christmas music invade streets, stores and homes alike, as early as November 1st! The message is clear: Christmas is here! It’s time to buy, buy, buy!

Granted, the Christmas season certainly brings about all kinds of positivity. People suddenly become a little more jolly, they tend to desire companionship and time spent with their loved ones, they may adopt a more “giving” mood and maybe even a little bit of seasonal altruism. I can’t complain about the positive things that bring humanity together, though, even if they are “seasonal”. Everyone needs a sense of community, and if we only get it once a year, then that’s better than nothing, right?

The things with which I take issue have nothing to do with the positive aspects of the Christmas season; I’m more concerned about the fact that we’ve become so consumed by consumerism that we have forgotten what the Christmas spirit is really about. I know this almost sounds like a typical Christmas movie… “Family and the ones you love are the only things that matter in life”. In fact, what’s kind of funny about those Christmas movies is that the characters buy all kinds of stuff for each other and they display all of this cleaver advertising and sell certain ideals, values and beliefs while trying to send “a message”. I digress…

When people ask me what I want for Christmas and I tell them I want nothing, they look at me as though I’ve clearly fallen and hit my head hard enough to knock sanity right out of me. “*insert nervous laugh* No! But really… what do you want?When I say that what I desire most is to serve others, people think I’m lying. Those who truly know me understand that I’m telling the truth, though.

It really is as though I’m supposed to want stuff… more stuff… and to buy all kinds of stuff for every single person in my life. Does this – not wanting a single gift – sound a little radical? Perhaps. There’s a fair amount of reasoning behind it, though.

While growing up, I never got Christmas gifts like everyone else did. I admit that it tore my little heart when I got socks and a doornob one year (Yeah… that’s another bag of chips!) because I knew that all the other kids in my class competed every year for who got the best gifts. Who got the most? Who got the most expensive? Who got everything they wanted? Was I really going to tell them I got a doornob that year? NO! That would have triggered immediate torment and ultimately, death. So, I lied. Every year.

I didn’t understand it at the time, but it was (and still is) just part of “life”. You grow up, write a Christmas list to Santa, and you get what you ask for. When you don’t believe in Santa anymore, you give your list directly to your parents and expect them to get everything. If they don’t, then they surely must not love you enough.

Even parents compete with each other! “Well, I got my kid a brand new pickup truck this year… it’s nothing, but we do what we can…” *insert thought: BEAT THAT!*

OK… maybe this is a little exaggerated, but I’m sure you get the point. Sadly, it’s not far from the truth.

Fortunately for us, we’re not completely to blame for this. Advertising companies make sure to create a longing in kids, teens and adults alike for whatever they’re selling, and then work their behinds off to sell the idea that if you don’t buy your kids everything they want, if you don’t buy your spouse “bigger” (or more expensive) and better gifts, if you don’t buy their love and appreciation, then you must not be a great parent, husband, wife, sibling, grandparent, uncle, aunt, friend, etc. (This entire issue extends farther than just Christmas time, and we buy into it… all the time.)

What do these major companies care if we drown ourselves in debt and we end up getting depressed by January 2nd when we wake up and realize that we spent “so much more than we intended to spend” and that we, yet again, spent more than we did the previous year? Of course they don’t care; your money goes into their pockets. That’s the whole point, isn’t it?

I know, I know. Some of you who are reading this might be thinking: “Yeah, maybe this is true, but I know many families who don’t drown themselves in debt for Christmas and just genuinely enjoy buying gifts for each other.” This much, I can attest, is true. First, though, I can’t help but ask: “Where does the source of this feeling of enjoyment come from, really…”, but I also know some families who go about Christmas in a milder gift-giving manner. Some will have gift exchanges, others will limit gift numbers to one or two gifts per child/person, and others might have price cut-offs. (Even with a spending or gift-number maximum, gift-giving can get pretty expensive!). Isn’t this whole issue about the fact that we’re sold the notion that Christmas is more or less about gift-giving?

I don’t want to use blanket statements, but if we really stop to think about it, what do we worry about come Christmas time? We don’t worry about how many kids will go to sleep hungry, or how many people will die outside in atrocious weather conditions; we worry about what we’re going to get mom, dad, the kids, our spouse, uncle bob, aunt Martha, cousin Eddie, and the list goes on…

Consumerism affects us in numerous ways (and in ways we cannot even fathom or truly be able to understand), but what irks me is the fact that this way of being – this culture of ours – has created children who have become ungrateful, selfish little brats. Does that sound harsh? I don’t think it is entirely. Most of the kids I’ve come to know through my many experiences (as a teacher, parent and regular adult), as well as most of my generation, are this way. I’m just stating an observation. Today, kids, like many adults, see christmas as a big gift-giving fest (and if we expand the idea, they want everything – in general – now, now, NOW!).

Think about it. How many people, out of everyone you know or are acquainted with, are wholeheartedly invested in service to others and in being selfless? How many kids do you know, however, who look forward to getting a long list of gifts, only to tear each one up in 5 seconds while sitting eagerly next to the Christmas tree, and throw it aside the instant it’s unwrapped to grab the next gift; what’s worse is that many even get bored with some of their gifts within 20minutes on Christmas morning!

What does “Christmas” – the real definition of the celebration – mean anymore? Our celebration as we know it in our current context is a time where cultural Christians may (or may not) go to midnight mass because Grandma May forced them to go for the sake of maintaining tradition. During that whole mass (if they go), the one thing on their mind is likely: “Man, only 45 more minutes of this. When we get home we’re going to have a feast and I’m going to get to open all my gifts in X amount of hours!“. I’m guilty of this; I did this for years!

Some don’t go to church at all; less and less people go to church to celebrate the most important moment in time for Christians. Doesn’t this just scream the fact that we’ve become entirely disconnected with the true meaning of Christmas?!

Christmas is about celebrating the life of a man who gave everything, all of himself, to mankind. At the very least, even if we don’t go to church or aren’t too sure if we even believe in God, if we’re going to be celebrating Christmas, shouldn’t we be celebrating these values?

In many ways, although I “suffered” tremendously during my childhood, I now appreciate growing up in a home that did not shower me with gifts or useless junk for Christmas.

If I can transmit anything to my own son during this season, it will be that the celebration is about being selfless, giving himself up to help others in every way he can, demonstrating genuine compassion and appreciation for humankind, and investing himself in making others happy. If he needs a new laptop, why would I buy it for him for Christmas when he really needs it in September? To add a little thought, if we give gifts as a demonstration of love, kindness and/or appreciation (as this is often culturally relevant), why must we reserve those acts of kindness for a specific season or commercial holiday? (e.g.: Valentine’s Day)

I don’t mean to sound righteous or overbearing with my personal opinions about consumerism and Christmas; I do, however, appreciate this forum for expression and wish to share my opinion with others with hopes of triggering a certain level of reflection about this issue of consumerism and about what Christmas and the Christmas spirit really is.

Of course, I’m also a product of my general environment and I, too, am affected in many ways by consumerism. I enjoy receiving gifts once in a while… Who doesn’t? I just don’t want them at Christmas time.

I personally don’t always go to church, either. Sometimes I do, but other times I don’t for a number of reasons. I understand that we all have personal preferences and opinions about the religious aspect of Christmas and I can respect others’ choice not to attend church. What I do think, however, is that Christmas is about celebrating the values and beliefs that we’ve been taught through Jesus and everything he aspired to teach us. Most, if not all, of these values and beliefs are pretty universal: be selfless, be of service to others, demonstrate your appreciation for those you love, lead a life that would make the big man upstairs proud, etc.

I write this whole piece with a touch of sarcasm, humour and some exaggerations to simply make a point: we’ve become so wrapped up with consumerism (especially during the Christmas season), that we seem to have forgotten what the Christmas celebration (and ultimately life) is really about. I don’t expect everyone to stop buying gifts altogether or to make all kinds of radical changes to the traditions they’ve developed over the years; I would like to see, however, a population that is aware of this culture of buying and perhaps one that places much more emphasis on the positive aspects, values and beliefs that bring humanity together during Christmas time.

Altruism and philanthropy never hurt anyone, and it is often in selflessness and service to others that we feel the most genuinely happy. We should definitely take more of this on, as well as inspire and motivate others to follow suit.