Thursday, November 24, 2011

Occupy Christmas! Just Say No to Shopping!

                                                   Billy and Martha, Jacksonville, Florida, circa 1931

Yesterday I had the occasion to use my battle cry again: "Just say no to shopping!" A friend invited me to go shopping on Black Friday.  I think it's fine for her to enjoy bargain-hunting on Black Friday. I just don't want to.

For years now, I've been trying to scale back the Christmas Machine, as Jo Robinson and Jean Staeheli call the orgy of shopping  that happens at this time of year.  One of my friends  succeeded in doing it years ago: he just stopped celebrating Christmas or giving presents, and eventually, over many years, people stopped giving him presents too. At first he couldn't stop them, he said, but eventually, when they saw he was serious, they stopped giving him stuff at Christmas.

I don't want to stop celebrating Christmas altogether: I like Christmas music and some of the food. I like Christmas dances a lot. I like seeing my family at Christmas, and I love the deep quiet and long, dark, winter nights at my farm. When you are out in the country, and you go to bed early on Christmas Eve, and you lie in bed with absolute silence all around you in the cold air, it really is a silent night, a holy night. I love to have some rest at that time of year.

I read once that in the Upper Cumberland, where I live (most of the time), there used to be a long winter holiday. There wasn't much work to be done on the farms and in the woodlots, because it was cold. People had to bring in wood to burn, and cook, and feed and water animals, but that was about it. Men went rabbit hunting; maybe women visited each other and played with their needlework. It was a real rest period, and a long one, before the frenetic farm work of the spring began. It went on for a month or more. In medieval times, there were the twelve days of Christmas, a long rest period that ended on January 7th, at least for women, who went back to their spinning on that day. That day was called Rock Day. "Spinnrocken" is an old word for a spinning tool called the distaff, which holds the fibers to be spun. Spinners nowadays sometimes have group spinning parties on that day.

Of course, we've lost this leisurely approach to the solstice holiday. Most people only get one or two days off from work, and the days before Christmas are spent in a flurry of frantic shopping for presents and food. It's especially hard on women, who feel under a great deal of pressure to "make Christmas," and to make it special for their children and families. For many grownups, Christmas just adds to their already intolerable and unhealthy stress load. And for children, the day of Christmas itself is sort of disappointing sometimes: there's a big build-up to a few hours of frantic consumption, and then it's over.

I have nothing against small presents for children. I think everybody under the age of 12 should get at least one present. When my son was little, I bought several little, inexpensive presents, and gave him one each day for the 12 days. This went over really well. He would play with a $2 puzzle all day sometimes. And then the next day there was another cheap little trinket, which seemed very special that day too! I did this when my nephews and niece were little too. They liked it, but there were some amusing snafus: once Jack found my present stash in the closet, and he came and found me and said, "When are you going to give me that little man on the parachute?"

My compromise these days is to find some universal present, usually involving family photographs, that I give to everybody on my list. I can't yet divulge what that present is this year, but it's very affordable, and it's personal, and it involves photographs. I also usually make some knitted things, mainly just to spend down my yarn stash and try some new knitting techniques. That, too, costs very little.  I make jam in the summer to give away in winter. (For birthdays, which are spread out around the year and are thus easier, I go "all out." Or what seems like "all out" to me.)

Bill McKibben and his friends in Vermont now celebrate what they call the Hundred Dollar Holiday, where they pledge to limit their spending to $100 for Christmas, per family. I set a limit like that too. This time it went a little over $100, but not by much. (I don't count travel expenses, but you could: your presence could be the present.) At that level, you might buy a big feast (my choice some years!), or a fancy Christmas tree, or a trip out of town, or a few presents, but you can't buy all those things, and that's the point.  Some sort of limit on spending also actually limits your stress. You can't do everything, so you just do one or two things, and that's easier and better, and you enjoy those one or two things more.

Another resource for scaling back Christmas is the wonderful book already mentioned above, Unplug the Christmas Machine. (Bill McKibben has a book too called Hundred Dollar Holiday.)  I have to re-read that book every year. The authors explain that the idea of presents for adults only began about eighty years ago, in the aftermath of World War I. Economists were worried that since the American economy was no longer bouyed by war, it might sink!  Demand might fall off for goods and services! What to do? They came up with the idea of convincing Americans that they must buy a lot of Christmas presents for each other every year!  Genius!

Before the 1920s, adults just got little notions in their stockings: needlework stuff for women, tobacco for men. Kids got presents, though. I can see that in my grandfather's photographs from the 1930s: there are a few toys under the rather bedraggled, definitely home-made Christmas tree, but no presents for the grown-ups. It was after all the Depression, but more than that, the habit of massive spending before Christmas had not yet been entrenched in American culture.

Fast forward to the 1950s, and the rising tide of consumerism generally. Now the idea that grownups should buy big presents for each other for Christmas was thoroughly "traditional," people thought. Nobody could remember it being otherwise. Suggesting that the present-giving should be scaled back was tantamount to being a Grinch.

McKibben makes some interesting comments in his essay, "Hundred Dollar Holiday," about this Grinch character. In fact, the bad guy in the story--the Grinch--is the one who believes that Christmas comes from a store. He thinks that if you take away all the toys and store-bought food, Christmas won't exist. He is proved wrong: by singing.  This is the most beautiful and insightful part of Dr. Seuss's story: that the real essence of Christmas is people singing together. This is the part that has been crowded out of our American Christmas: holding hands in a circle singing "wahoo, dores."

Ok, I have no idea what "wahoo, dores" means. But Christmas songs are wonderful, as long as they are not played ad nauseam for weeks leading up to Christmas.  You don't have to be a Christian to love these songs, like "Oh Little Town of Bethlehem" and "Silent Night." I remember Garrison Keillor talking about the tears streaming down the faces of old Norwegian Lutherans as they sing "Silent Night" in Norwegian every Christmas Eve in their church. The same thing happens to me; I don't know why.

We used to go caroling in our neighborhood in Nashville for years; now nobody seems to do it. That was my favorite part of Christmas, but it was often shoved aside on Christmas Eve by some people because they "had too much wrapping to do." This is how it starts: the really good parts are sort of gradually phased out until all that remains is the shopping, wrapping, and opening of presents. One Mexican person in Unplug the Christmas Machine describes her village's elaborate, days-long round of parties, dancing, fireworks, and feasting, and she says, "You Americans just have presents. We have Christmas!"

Now that nobody can afford much of anything any more, we have a big opportunity: we can get Christmas back. The banks and corporations took it away from us decades ago, way before the present Crash, or even the one before that. Occupy Christmas! You can start now by not shopping for "bargains" tomorrow, and you can start talking to people in your family about scaling back the solstice holiday, at least the presents part. As McKibben says, it may take years of gradual change to get where you want to be, but the effort is worth it. As Fuzzy demonstrated, sometimes it requires one person to unilaterally withdraw before the Christmas truce can really happen.

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