The Dark Side of Christmas Shopping

Most of my family had ‘the conversation’ about Christmas shopping years ago. They opted out of ‘obligatory gift giving’, and decided to focus on other elements of Christmas instead—getting together, creating happy experiences, enjoying a special day.

I envied their escape from the retail carnage of Christmas shopping, vowing I’d do the same someday. Maybe the time has come—for the past few years, exchanging presents has lost its glow, becoming part of a Christmas to-do list that is harder and harder to manage.

The progress of habitual gifting

When I taught school, I was immersed in it—there were gifts to be bought for the school secretary, the librarian, the janitor, my special ed assistants, the staff member whose name I drew for ‘Secret Santa. It didn’t end there. When I retired, I was done with that part, but not the rest—buying for the neighbors, the person who delivered the paper, the boy who raked the leaves, the guy who shoveled the walk. And there was more—the parcels to be mailed, the gifts for relatives who lived in town, and of course, my immediate family.

Lately, I’ve been re-thinking the entire process. In retrospect, except for the years when my children were small, the satisfaction quotient of Christmas shopping has been steadily decreasing. But reevaluating Christmas spending can be an emotional exercise. It can go deep—it may take a reevaluation of your entire Christmas experience.

As North Americans, we spend millions in gifts this time of year. Some of us love doing this and would never consider giving it up. Others have dared to break with tradition and end it altogether. But some of us are in that grey arena of indecision, going through the motions or approaching it halfway,  cutting down a little, but remaining caught in the net. We become resentful of the effort and expense, but stay involved. It takes a conscious effort to change a tradition so entrenched—in order to change it, we have to understand our part in it.

Where it all started

In the Christian religion, the tradition of giving presents at Christmas can be traced back to the biblical story of the three Magi, who gave gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to the Christ child. By the end of the middle ages, giving gifts at Christmas became embedded in Western culture, and as the modern era began, the custom became a regular part of Christmas celebration. European settlers carried the tradition to America, and in time, Santa Clause, who the Dutch settlers introduced as St. Nicholas, became the symbol of gift-giving in North America.

As the 20th century unfolded and literacy developed, Christmas customs gained importance through the writing of authors like O. Henry, Charles Dickens, and Hans Christian Anderson. Later, during the 1940s and 1950s, Hollywood further romanticized the Christmas experience through movies like It’s a Wonderful Life, and Miracle on 34th Street

Today, Christmas gift-giving has become a vast and powerful engine of our economy. Prompted by an astute advertising sector, the buying season has expanded into months of frenetic shopping. No longer a meaningful and sincere activity motivated by expressions of love, for many, giving gifts at Christmas has become a mechanical obligation, a chore. When this happens, it’s time to consider exactly why we participate.

Why we feel conflicted

Psychological studies have explored the activity of gift giving at Christmas, and found that it is fraught with contradictions. On one hand, our Christian teachings encourage us to be reverent and spiritual during Christmas. We are moved by the ‘Christmas spirit’, the religious ideals of compassion, generosity towards the poor and restraint of our own materialistic desires.

Yet we indulge in the biggest materialistic extravaganza of the year, where this same ‘spirit of Christmas’ manifests in piles of gifts under an overloaded Christmas tree, and a Christmas dinner table groaning with an excessive display of decorations and food.

The altruistic desire to reach out to less fortunate people is lost as we realize we can’t make up for our year-long failings in one day. We are reluctant to cut down on our indulgencies, so our conflict with Christmas takes hold.

Magazines, movies and television perpetuate our confusion. The research shows that the more people watch television, the more they believe that buying things will make them happy. It’s not hard to understand why—after all, advertising images suggest that happy, successful people are wealthy, have nice things, and are beautiful and popular. For most people, that’s a tall order, so instead, they experience unpleasant emotions such as depression and anxiety, and a pervasive sadness and dissatisfaction that no material things can mollify.

My compromise

So where did this re-evaluating exercise take me? Have I really changed anything? Yes, I acknowledge that there have been changes. The amount of money I spend at Christmas is a fraction of my Christmas budget years ago. I exchange gifts with only immediate family now, and even that list is getting shorter. I’m making inroads into my ambivalent feelings about Christmas gifting, having ‘the conversation’ with a select few who seem to be on the same track as I am. I’ll keep chipping away until someday, I’ll be the picture of relaxation—with a smile on my face, and no gifts under the tree!

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26 Responses to The Dark Side of Christmas Shopping

  1. Janis says:

    I hope you can do this! My family hasn’t exchanged gifts in years and it’s so freeing… we actually enjoy the season. It helps that there are no young children anymore, but I think even changing those expectations isn’t a bad thing either. Teach moderation rather than over-indulgence. Giving of self and time, rather than receiving stuff.

    P.S. We don’t even put up a tree, which was another very freeing decision.

    • Still the Lucky Few says:

      I hope I can do this too! I feel I’m half-way there, so I’m sure the next two years will bring on some sort of resolution. Thanks, Janis, for your direction in this!

  2. My partner and I stopped doing the whole Christmas gift thing nearly thirty years ago. Yes, we did it for all the reasons you discussed in your post. But more importantly, we did it because we so love the Earth. And we have long since realized that consumerism is the ‘religion’ which has caused millions upon millions of its blind, sheep-like followers to keep right on trashing this beautiful, wonderful planet and is what will eventually result in wiping out our species and many others with us. George Monbiot, in last Wednesday’s Guardian says it more forcefully and eloquently than I ever could – see:
    It’s why we live simply, it’s why we buy only necessities, it’s why he and I both write books about Earth-based spirituality and simplicity and downshifting and developing a warm, comfortable sense of inner ‘enoughness’. Sometimes I weep and thrash and want to stand in the nearest mall and scream “PLEASE everybody, STOP SHOPPING!!!!! But I don’t. And they don’t. They go home and watch Blue Planet 2 on TV and think it is beautiful but still don’t make the connection and still keep buying stuff ( much of it made of plastic that ends up in the ocean and in our bloodstream). Yes, I could scream. But mostly I just cry.

    • Still the Lucky Few says:

      Marian, you were ahead of the loop to do this 30 years ago. I’ve followed that conviction for many years—Christmas shopping, as modestly as I could manage, has hung around a bit longer for me. I will read the article you sent with great interest, and do my share in posting it on social media. I know of your thinking through your posts on Facebook, and applaud you!

  3. Marion, our Christmas gift giving has changed significantly as well. Instead of giving more “stuff,” I like to look for opportunities. I’m sending two sisters to see A Chorus Line when it comes to town. I’ve bought a family pass to the Atlanta Zoo for my nephew and his family. Tickets to the Shakespeare Festival have been on my list. And sometimes I create “family gifts” – baskets with games and popcorn and snacks for the families of nieces and nephews with young children. I’m trying to make it more about the experience and of being together! I hope you are successful as you bend your traditions to suit you! ~ Lynn

    • Still the Lucky Few says:

      Thanks, Lynn, you are on the right track! Great ideas about how to focus on experiences, rather than ‘stuff’!

      • Marion, I answered Lynn with your very words! You did a scarily good analysis of the paradoxes and dilemmas of gift giving, and I like the way you’re moving. One thing I like to give grandchildren is a gift of money for a charity of their choice. We do the $10 limit in our family, with occasional draws for one bigger prezzie, and tiny gifts permitted for Christmas stockings.

    • Lynn: So thoughtful! Thanks for reminding us of other possibilities. You are giving experiences rather than stuff.

  4. We’ve always keep our Christmases low-key. When I had nieces and nephews to buy for I always had presents shipped by the weekend after Thanksgiving so December has always been a peaceful time for me. Kaitlin still has fond memories too.

    • Still the Lucky Few says:

      Very lovely. But you were in the minority, I’m sure. We’ve had wonderful times at Christmas, as well. But I was always exhausted by the time it was over!

  5. virginiafair says:

    I agree with you 100%. Other than buying gifts for my brand new 4 month old grand nephew, I view Christmas shopping as a chore. Plus the fact that everybody has everything they need makes it more of a challenge. i do however find Christmas in Manhattan to be a wonderful time, but I’d enjoy it so much more if I could just stroll around without a shopping list.

  6. Rummuser says:

    In India, during Divali, sweet dishes prepared for the festival is shared with neighbours and friends as well as any family members living in the same town. Other than this there is no requirement of giving gifts for any festival. We have however imported one important tradition of giving gifts on birthdays but so far at least, it has been restricted to member of the family. I personally do not give or expect to receive any gifts on special occasions but always am grateful if someone visiting brings a box of sweets and I too take one or a boquet of flowers when I go visiting.

    • Still the Lucky Few says:

      I agree with the giving of consumable gifts, since we all have enough ‘stuff’! Birthdays are a great time to acknowledge someone personally—they are individual, meaningful celebrations!

  7. Teri says:

    Hi! My husband and I are slowly transitioning to fewer or different kinds of presents. Right now, we’re backing away from presents for adults (with one or two exceptions) and switching to family presents and presents for the grandchildren (ages 13, 10 and 2). But with several family birthdays within days of Christmas it’s hard to drop everything.

    For the grandkids Christmas, we’ve opted for giving the family season passes to Canada’s Wonderland. They’d never be able to afford things like that on their own and we want to give family experiences.

    • Still the Lucky Few says:

      It’s a great idea to give your grandchildren experiences to remember! I’m not familiar with Canada’s Wonderland—must be in another province (I’m in BC). Thanks for reading and commenting!

  8. I love the fact that so many of your readers are now giving experiences instead of ‘stuff.’ And edible gifts are wonderful too. Many years ago – before we gave up the Christmas thing altogether – we switched from exchanging gifts to exchanging little hampers of gourmet foodstuffs – one for each family. It was fun to do and also great to be given little treats that we would never have put on our own everyday grocery list.
    Wouldn’t it be great if the people commenting here were actually representative of the population-at large? Maybe one day we will be. Example, as we all know, works better than precept. And the more people let go of the ‘obligatory’, annual gift-buying frenzy and discover that it results in their stress levels going down and their enjoyment of the day increasing, the more this attitude will catch on. Which is better for everyone’s health – and the health of the planet. A win-win.

    • Still the Lucky Few says:

      A win-win for the planet, for sure! I worry about the loads of trash (so much of it plastic) that are being dumped in our oceans, and buried in our fields. With the world’s human population increasing every day, there will be a day of reckoning. But I’m still optimistic that we can change.

  9. tammy j says:

    I have always lived simply. and the family is so small that there were never ‘tons’ of gifts to buy.
    now I give money in pretty little boxes to the two teenagers we have in the family.
    they are both boys and it is a delight for them to spend as they wish.
    I am not a shopper. ever. even for myself!
    I found an interesting remark made on a blog recently… for young families.

    ” I heard on the news the other day that there is a new trend amongst parents not to overspend when buying Christmas presents for their children. Instead they are buying four gifts: something they want, something they need, something to wear and something to read.”
    I though that seemed a wonderful solution!

    • Still the Lucky Few says:

      I enjoyed the remark you included in your comment—kudos to those young parents who are re-thinking our traditions. There is always room for improvement!

  10. worzeloddii says:

    Good evening- I too, have opted out of Christmas and relish sleeping all day. In 1983 I spent the holiday with two families, in The South Pacific, who lived off land and sea, simple, joyful people, unspoiled children. Very little material things- beautiful. My heart and mind return there often. Hope you are well and full of cheer.

    • Still the Lucky Few says:

      Sometimes experiences we have resonate with us for many years. I spent a few Christmas holidays in Mexico, and will never forget the beautiful, restful and simple times I had there! Material things, as you say, seldom bring us happiness!

  11. i think some of you know of my past Christmas experiences – both from angle of gifts and dreadful illness arriving. I’m going to give this C a miss and just do my own thing, in my own way. Especially since, I enjoy the solitude of living more now…

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