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A gift wrapped in dollar bills

Source: Diane Macdonald / Getty


Recently, I sat down with a friend for dinner and he talked about how much he hates this time of year. While I tend to feel more stressed out and anxious during the holidays, I wouldn’t say I “hate” it. I asked my friend why he felt the way he did about the holidays and he put it simply, “Growing up poor, this was the worst time of year.” His response gave me pause.

Now I didn’t grow up poor, but I did grow up in a big family where there was sometimes a lot, and there was sometimes less, but there was mostly always enough. But my parents did grow up poor, and I have family and friends who according to their income, are poor. I also grew up in the sort of home where Christmas was and continues to be a religious celebration more than anything else. Sure, we exchanged gifts but it was one or two things, and it felt like a privilege rather than an expectation. Moreover, every Christmas, my mother would make us gather all our items that we weren’t using anymore and give to those less fortunate. So Christmas to me, was more about giving to the less fortunate than giving to those who already have more than they need.

Having lived in the United States for the last eight years, Christmas is indeed different from how I celebrated it as a child, and especially when I don’t make it home (to Nigeria or wherever my parents are) for the holiday.

It is no secret that the United States commercializes every holiday possible. New Year’s, Valentine’s Day, Easter, Halloween, Christmas, etc. I often tell (see: troll) people that my favorite religious “holiday” is Good Friday because there’s no real way to make the crucifixion of Jesus come across as “fun.”

Now what does it mean to say a holiday has become commercialized? It is a term that people may use without full understanding. The working definition I am using here is to indicate that an entity becomes more about the financial consequences and marketability, than about the meaning.

Some would say capitalism is the enemy. In and of itself, I don’t think capitalism is a bad thing. (Just like I don’t think socialism is a bad thing.) I think how those in power practice and promote capitalism is what is most important. In relation to the holidays, the ugliness of capitalism tends to be apparent during the season of giving.

The truth we must confront in our society is that most of us buy into the capitalist system in which we value ourselves and others by (literally) how much a person is worth. Everything from our education system to where we buy our produce, is indicative of our social class and wealth, which are the measurements we often use to judge people. And not only that, even though you and I may individually think differently (or claim to), it is apparent from how we treat the poor, that we think of being poor as inherently lazy and irresponsible, all while encouraging both the poor and everyone else to spend, spend, spend.

Why do we spend so much on Christmas? Because that’s what we’ve been taught to think. Our societal messages reveal that relationships, love, affection, and community are functions of the marketplace like everything else, and they have a price tag. An ABC reports states that the average American will spend about $700 on Christmas, while the country as a whole will spend $465 billion in holiday-related items. It is worth noting that many might even get into debt for this expenditure.

Perhaps the hypocrisy in all this is while we all understand the commercialization attached to the holiday, we then mock each other, and indeed those who are economically marginalized, for doing exactly what we’ve been trained to do: spend, spend, spend. Moreover, the ever-enticing sales and deals always seem to encourage people to buy, buy, buy, especially targeting those who may not otherwise be able to afford gifts for loved ones.

In order words, we encourage vulnerable people to buy, then vilify them for doing just that.

So, indeed, it is an unfair stance to simply say, “we commercialize Christmas,” and to look down on those who fall prey to the capitalist system without recognizing the social structures and institutions that make it all possible. But it is also true that our spending on Christmas costs us, financially and socially.

In the first place, the reality is many Christmas gifts are frivolous items, without recognizing the opportunity cost of those expenditures. It is too easy, for example, to spend money on a nice pair of over-priced shoes for Christmas, instead of buying some moderately-priced shoes and putting something in a savings account or a college account.

From a social perspective, our relationships can easily become about the quid pro quo, rather than about the spirit of giving and thoughtfulness with which we may show our loved ones during this time of year. Additionally, spending habits are passed down from what and how our parents, guardians, and elders spend. Now, gifts, simply by their existence, take away from the holiday season. But the implications and consequences financially and socially, may have negative impacts.

So, what are the solutions? Should we just cancel Christmas entirely? Or perhaps celebrate Christmas, but start a revolution in which no gifts are exchanged? In the first place, it is important to recognize that this goes beyond our individual decisions – the social institutions that celebrate the commercialization of the holidays exist are part of a system of capitalism. So any systematic change will come with demanding systematic changes to our current capitalist system as a whole.

But you and I can make better decisions all the same in our personal lives. We can choose to reflect on our intentions for gift-giving and our relationship with love, affection, and money. Those micro decisions, when spread across our social communities have macro effects. By doing so, we can know and teach that spending does not need to reflect who we are, and the relationships with whom we love — not in the Christmas season, nor any other time of the year.

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