The Christmas problem

Happy Holidays, everyone! Some Christmas reflection.

This past summer I had interesting discussions with friends about Christmas gift-giving rituals. My friends being spiritually inclined, there was much critique of the consumer society. My own position was to argue that the underlying impulses of gift-giving and hospitality are positive behaviors. They argued that even these things were more complex, that even gift-giving and hospitality in a consumer society were often tainted by status-seeking and competition. I thought they were being harsh. They thought I was being naive.

Happy Holidays, everyone! Some Christmas reflection.

This past summer I had interesting discussions with friends about Christmas gift-giving rituals. My friends being spiritually inclined, there was much critique of the consumer society. My own position was to argue that the underlying impulses of gift-giving and hospitality are positive behaviors. They argued that even these things were more complex, that even gift-giving and hospitality in a consumer society were often tainted by status-seeking and competition. I thought they were being harsh. They thought I was being naive.

I actually really like this time of year in this part of the world. The snow is pretty, there’s this quietness created by it. Everybody has some time off work and tries to get together. We have an excuse to tell each other and show each other that we care.

But – and it’s always hard to tell whether it’s me changing, being more on my own these days, or the world – with each passing year I feel that this time of year is more of a race of its own: to buy stuff for everybody, to pack in appointments with everyone we haven’t seen, to accomplish social tasks as if they were so much more work to be done.

This year I actually pitched to my friends that we could dispense with the gift-giving ritual. I didn’t have it in me to go shopping. I don’t know what to get people. Everything is just so easy to get now! If I want something, I can get it for myself. The same is true of my friends. So I have to rack my brains to try to think of what item 11 on my friend’s wish list might be, because he’s more than capable of, and has long since, acquired items 1 through 10 on his own list. Meanwhile when my friends buy me gifts, I feel a moment of gratitude followed immediately by trying to figure out how I’m going to get rid of this new item, since I don’t want or need it.

It seems to me that this whole ritual of gift-giving arose when stuff was scarce. Stuff is certainly scarce in much of the world. Stuff may be scarce again here at some point in the future, but today, in this part of the world, and in the demographic I find myself in, it is not.

In the past my preference has always been to give friends some kind of information – music, books, movies. But all that stuff can be downloaded quickly for oneself and what is scarce these days is the time and attention to pay to information. By getting somebody a book or an album or a movie all I am really doing is imposing a burden of attention on them – and in an information-soaked environment, people manage that attention burden very carefully indeed, and extra burdens on the attention are no kind of gift at all.

The “gift registry” approach, used in weddings, is another way. People identify what they want you to buy them, and you buy it for them. That’s a bit of a substitute for the slightly more crass gift certificate approach, which is a substitute for the crassest of all, simply giving people cash. But all amount to the same thing: a recognition that in this society, gifts amount to consumption by proxy, and consumption by proxy is a poor substitute for individual consumption.

I have no answers on this one. I think maybe the core of these rituals is a desire to build communities and strengthen relationships. I think maybe we build communities and strengthen relationships when we can find out what actually *is* scarce that we can give, and give *that*.

Author: Justin Podur

Ecology. Environmental Science. Political Science. Anti-imperialism. Political fiction. Teach at York U's FES. Author. Writer at ZNet, TeleSUR, AlterNet, Ricochet, and the Independent Media Institute.

One thought on “The Christmas problem”

  1. the Christmas problem
    The theme of Christmas may seem a bit old for someone to be commenting on it now, but I’ve just stumbled on the post, and am moved to add to the thread. You did a beautiful job of articulating how many of us feel about Christmas, how something deeply wonderful is being consumed by its antithesis.

    Years ago my brother decided, and announced to family and friends, that the only gift we should expect from him from then on would be a homemade card. Period. He was opting out of the pressure of having to run around trying to find something to give people just to meet expectations, and not from a genuine motivation.

    Those cards!! Man oh man! They were a collaborative effort between him and his young son, a talented cartoon artist. My nephew would draw the scene, and my brother would scan it into Photoshop and add faces from the family photo album. The results were funny, hard-hitting anti-consummerist statements driven by black humour, printed on an Epson inkjet printer on fine card stock. They are collector items. Those cards do not go into a recycling bag the week after New Year’s! They come out every year to be displayed in our homes – a Christmas-themed mini art exhibition.

    That’s one way of handling it. Anything fait à la main (made by hand) is a scarce commodity these days.

    One of my sons devotes a couple of hours of his day off work to baking shortbread cookies, starting around the end of November. That’s what he gives for Christmas.

    Myself, I always loved giving candles and/or calendars. It’s about lighting up the dark, and our relationship with time and spacetime. And, on the back of my homemade cards, I always print the date in several different calendar traditions, not just the Gregorian. That usually gets people’s attention.

    The great thing about Christmas is that it’s flexible and versatile enough to take whatever shape we impose on it.

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