What if, instead of starting our annual shopping frenzy, we took the lessons we’ve learned from this pandemic era about the importance of people and experience over acquiring things and applied them to the holiday season? What if we made the December holidays about our connections with each other, and not about presents and consumerism?
It’s been a catastrophic year and a half for so many American workers, and a year of other sweeping transitions for many more. While the country has made a significant recovery since this time last year, thanks in large part to a successful vaccine campaign and President Joe Biden’s Covid relief package, millions of American are still out of work, and many say they are still behind on rent, and that their kids are going hungry.
A huge number of mothers have been pushed out of the labor force, thanks to the US’s refusal to provide any form of universal childcare and our government’s unconscionable refusal to provide paid family leave. More than a million women who left paid work during the pandemic have not returned, many of them single moms who are their family’s sole breadwinner.
And the pandemic seems to have fueled another curious jobs trend: Workers are quitting by the millions, perhaps because they have better options elsewhere, and some, perhaps, because the pandemic has radically recalibrated what they believe is important and how they want to spend their time.
We can take all of that with us into late November and December and its season of giving: Instead of stressing over Amazon orders and Black Friday deals and how we’re going to afford the inflated cost of goods, we can choose to make the holidays a time for (vaccinated) gatherings, delicious shared food, and quality time with loved ones.
Gift giving doesn’t totally have to go, but we could reorient our definition of a good Christmas away from one defined by more and more physical possessions toward one defined by care and affection.
Perhaps that includes a thoughtfully chosen token, but it doesn’t have to mean a mountain of presents procured via fistfights at Best Buy, or days wasted on the phone with overworked customer service representatives trying to explain to angry buyers why the toy they ordered in November won’t arrive until February.
American hyper-consumerism is also leaving our children a troubling legacy, as the production of all of these toys, clothing items and other mass-produced disposable things contributes to the climate change that is making our planet less livable by the day.
While we wring our hands over supply chain issues for Christmas gifts, we should be paying much more attention to how supply chains are a chief driver of greenhouse gas emissions — a part of companies’ carbon footprint that they generally don’t count in their claims about sustainability, emissions reductions and carbon neutrality.
In short, perhaps there’s no greater metaphor for where we’re headed than a big pile of stuff bought on credit from planet-destroying retailers and placed under a dead tree, nearly all of which will be headed to a landfill in a few years’ (or weeks’) time.
We can choose to opt out of all of it.
Don’t get me wrong, I love Christmas as much as the next religiously agnostic but fairly sentimental person. Farm-grown Christmas trees are far from the biggest drivers of climate change. And I certainly can’t fault the many cash-strapped parents who have had to say “no” to purchases and gifts all year long who now want to make Christmas special: it is much easier to argue, as I am doing here, for a Christmas of connection instead of stuff when you live in relative abundance and have many other opportunities for saying yes to what your loved ones want.
It’s more difficult when a gift-free Christmas would feel like a painful extension of material scarcity and unrequited desires.
But it’s still worth considering—for all of us– how and on what we’re spending our money and time. The big companies that fuel our seemingly unquenchable consumerism have faced intense scrutiny when it comes to climate change. Some, including Amazon and Wal-Mart, have also faced serious allegations of union-busting and violating workers’ rights (spokespeople for both companies have repeatedly denied wrongdoing).
Most of us occasionally have to buy from stores that don’t align with our values in order to meet our needs and our budgets. But when it comes to totally optional holiday spending, we can choose not to send companies so much of our hard-earned cash if we find them objectionable.
More conscientious spending is one option — shopping at smaller local retailers that desperately need our business, and selecting a small number of thoughtfully-chosen gifts. Another: choosing to spend nothing on items at all, and instead investing your money in gathering, entertaining, and feeding your loved ones.
Forgoing or significantly cutting down on store-bought gifts doesn’t make you a Scrooge; if you instead use your time and money for more social and engaged activities, this reallocation of resources can make for a much happier holiday. There’s a large body of research on what contributes to both short- and long-term joy, and the results are clear: Spending money on material goods brings far less happiness than spending money on experiences like concerts, dining out and sports games.
That’s in large part because experiences happen with other people — they foster connection, get a person excited in anticipation and make memories that sustain us.
Covid should have driven this home: When the pandemic cut off many avenues for normal interaction and stuck most of us at home surrounded by our things, were we happier isolated with our belongings? Or did we miss experiences (eating a meal with friends, traveling, going to the movies, even just working side by side with colleagues) and the stuff that money can’t buy: The alchemy of a great dinner party, the thrill of charged eye contact with an attractive stranger, the warmth of a loved one’s embrace, the moment a new grandparent meets their new grandbaby?
For more than a year, many of us have wanted for affection and connection; many have lost friends, neighbors and family members to a disease that has killed more than 5 million people worldwide. And as we head into our second Covid winter, a lot of us are exhausted, overwhelmed and broke. So why not get each other what we actually value instead of spending money we don’t have on things we don’t need?
When we think about the best and most meaningful moments of our lives, we know intuitively that our greatest happiness isn’t made by stuff. You don’t have to leave the space under the tree totally barren or the stockings hanging empty.
But instead of acting as though you can quantify joy by tallying up the number of boxes and bows from Santa, and instead of spending the next six weeks stressing about supply chains, mounting costs and late deliveries, we could all shift our attention to what actually fills us up and warms our hearts: The people we love, and the time we spend with them.