08 November, 2009

Christmas and Consumerism

[I wouldn't even be talking about Christmas this early (yes, it's still early), but for a certain somebody who allegedly decided to jump the gun. But since it allows me to talk briefly about zombies, being that it's only been a week since Halloween, I'll allow it.]

Previously I had stated (or did I?) that rampant consumerism was my primary complaint against the Holidays (with a capital 'H'). Watching George A. Romero's Dawn of the Dead ironically had an opposite effect on me to what I presume it intended. In the film, as everyone knows, a handful of people hole themselves up in an abandoned mall - well, not quite abandoned, as it's teeming with zombies. The brainless zombies shambling about the mall is supposed to be a statement about consumers - after all, cannibalism is the ultimate form of consumption, is it not? Meanwhile, the band of survivors make use of the mall's facilities, basking in the glory of an abundance of unclaimed merchandise, ultimately becoming bored and disgusted with their daily habit.

Perhaps I, too, would become bored after weeks, months, of unrestricted access to consumer goods. After all, "stuff" - as fun as it may be - can never hope to fulfill the deeper emotional needs of the human soul. But the fact remains that, in moderation, consumerism can be a component of happiness and fulfillment (if short term). (Imagine one of those beer commercials, but for shopping - "consume responsibly"). The problem is addiction; and I believe that this country has gone way past the limit of responsible consumerism, to the point that it obscures, rather than aids, that quest for those deeper needs previously mentioned.

So I re-evaluated my opinion of the Holidays, and while I still think there is too much "stuff" involved, I don't believe that it's inherently a bad thing, if kept in check. What hasn't changed, however, is my opinion on the rite of gift-giving. It's not "stuff" that I hate, it's surprises. I don't like the guesswork, and I don't like the pressure of needing to please, or even needing to be pleased.

When I give (and also shop for) a gift, it's a stressful matter of "will he/she like it?" And yet when I receive a gift, it's not a matter of "will he like it?", because I feel obligated to like it. It's not a question. Not liking it isn't an option, because I don't have it in me to knowingly disappoint another person. So I have to like it. And eliminating my ability to not like it also eliminates my ability to genuinely like it, since there's no longer a choice. So regardless of what my true feelings are, there's a pervasive sense of disingenuousness there, which I am particularly opposed to.

Of course, there's the concept of the "Christmas List". When I was a kid, Christmas was about writing up a list of all the "stuff" I wanted, and then waiting till Christmas when I would get a large portion of it. The dynamics have changed, and Christmas for me today is more responsibility and less basking in the spoils. It probably sounds selfish of me to complain about that, but I'm perfectly willing to give up the spoils in order for me to abdicate the responsibilities.

It's not that I'm against giving people things and thereby lighting up their lives, per se. It's, as I mentioned above, the guesswork, and the surprise, that bugs me. It's the "what if?" that haunts me. The Christmas List seeks to ameliorate that problem, but tragically it does an imperfect job. If one person writes up a list, then everyone buying for that person has to coordinate their plans to avoid duplicity - er, duplication. This can be a Herculean effort. Plus, it requires more interpersonal communication than I am comfortable with. And then there's the dangerous allure (for some people) of buying off the list, to increase the surprise, the risk, and the potential payoff in terms of the receiver's feelings. Some people enjoy gambling - I am not one of them.

But even in the straightforward case of buying off a list or, even better, "you, buy this, for me", there is this phony illusion of secrecy, and a sense of extraneous runaround. I think cash or gift certificates are great gifts because they put the power of purchase in the receiver's hands. Unfortunately, they don't make very impressive gifts, though, and are thus generally perceived as being "lazy" and "lacking in thought". Some people might even go so far as to argue, that a failed gift choice is better than cash because at least the person tried, to put some thought into it - and after all, "it's the thought that counts", right?

And lest you think I'm solely being selfish, I don't especially enjoy receiving gifts either. If it's something I like, I like having it, but I don't like the process of receiving it. As I mentioned above, it makes me feel obligated to like it, and if the gesture isn't already (or simultaneously, as is generally the case with the Holidays) reciprocated, then it also burdens me with the weight of debt.

As I've said in the past (like last year, for example), if it was up to me, the rite of gift-giving wouldn't be restricted to Christmas morning. The Holiday season would be a time for friends and family to go out shopping, together, buying things for each other, on the spot - things that the receiver expresses explicit interest in having. This would preserve the spirit of mutual charity as well as the excitement of spontaneity while eliminating the burden of calculated conspiracy (conspiracy to please is still conspiracy), and it would also replace the stressful shopping experience with one that is decidedly more enjoyable.

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