Monday, December 5, 2011

The Shopping Season

by Conroy

Tis the -- shopping -- season
We’re in early December and for Americans that means we’re smack in the middle of the holiday season. It also means we’re in the full register-ka-ching-ing focus of the shopping season. Indeed if you were to list the most obvious manifestations of approaching Christmas [1] you would probably include the tiny many-colored glowing lights adorning neighborhood houses, or the Christmas trees and other seasonally related decorations inside the homes of you, your family, and friends [2], but also the inescapable, omnipresent, overwhelming seasonal advertising.

From the radio spots you suffer through when driving to work in the morning, the bright, glossy ads in newspapers and magazines, the loud television commercials, annoying internet popups, and in-your-face billboards…it’s everywhere. It’s Christmastime, and it’s time to shop. Best Buy, Walmart, and Target have, as usual, put out their heavy dosage of ads, but all major retailers are in on the game. I’m especially confounded by those ridiculous "December to Remember" Lexus commercials aimed at whatever infinitesimal fraction of the population chooses to buy luxury cars for Christmas [3]. And I guess it’s working, given the record sales on the super-hyped Black Friday and Cyber Monday shopping days. And surely many people, like my mom and aunts, really enjoy shopping; zeroing in on sales, mingling with the crowds, and wrapping gifts [4]. Why else would hordes of people stay up through the night of Thanksgiving jostling with other midnight shoppers? It can’t be just for the money-saving sales.

This year I’ve been struck by the tone of the advertisements, almost as if it’s your duty to shop, something along the lines of voting or obeying traffic laws. If you don’t participate, then it’s somehow antisocial and un-American. If you’re like me, you probably find this commercialization of Christmas unsettling in a somewhat-hard-to-define way. I’m not religious, but I was raised Catholic and went to Catholic school, and so, of course, it’s still worth noting that Christmas is a religious holiday, deeply special to Christians because it marks the birth of Jesus. In its evolved modern context, the holiday has wider significance than its religious foundations. It’s a time of celebration of the year completed, a time to spend with family a friends, and yes, even a time of giving. It’s this aspect of Christmas, the time spent with family and friends, that makes the Christmas season meaningful to me, and I’m guessing (or hoping), it is the largest reason Christmas is “the most wonderful time of the year” for most of you as well.

A part of what unsettles me about the commercial side of Christmas is the often cited fact that the holiday retail season is an essential feature of the consumer-driven American economy. You’ve probably heard the misleading statistic that two-thirds of the U.S. gross domestic product is derived from consumption – people buying things, but regardless of the real value, shopping is a major part of the modern economy. And about 20% of all retail sales come during the Christmas shopping season (November to December). This explains why businesses are so forceful with Christmas ads – they must make their money before the end of the year, or risk red-ink and failure. (I may be off base, but it seems a little alarming that a major prop of the world’s largest economy is the buying of Christmas gifts.) That’s also why we’re subjected annually to the phenomenon that Gregg Easterbrook has termed “Christmas Creep”: Seasonal advertisements appearing ever earlier in the year. Now it’s common to come across Christmas-themed store displays and print advertisements before Halloween, sometimes well before. How long before Christmas advertisements start in the summer? It sucks a lot of the specialness out of the season when Christmas is exploited throughout the non-Christmas-time of the year.

Gifts under the Christmas tree
But that’s an external issue. What really bothers me the most is the expectations that come along with gift-giving. I’m an embodiment of the cliché that it is better to give than receive. When I was a child I loved to get gifts, and I was fortunate that my parents and other relatives lavished me and my brother and sister with a lot of them. But now with maturity, I much prefer giving gifts to my family (girlfriend included), especially when I know they can use or want what I’ve gotten for them. It’s a rewarding feeling and genuinely selfless, I give for the enjoyment of others and not for my own satisfaction of giving (although I guess I can’t deny the presence of some selfish gratification I get from being perceived as generous and thoughtful). But unfortunately, too often gift giving is not a bonus of Christmas but a requirement, a burden.

You have to get gifts for your boss, or for a friends’ gift exchange, or for a distant relative, or because a coworker got you a gift. And so you have to go out to the mall, and fight traffic, and find an open space in a massive parking lot, and push through huge crowds at the stores, and talk with rude overworked salespeople, and wait in long lines listening to that terrible mall loudspeaker music, and all-in-all spend your valuable time and money getting gifts that you don’t even care to give just so you can feel you’ve done your part to earn a gift that you probably won’t like from someone you didn’t want to get a gift from in the first place. And this is a part of Christmas, and for all the reasons listed above, it’s likely to stay a part of Christmas.

And it’s this internal conflict, this insidious product of consumerism, which gets under my skin. I can ignore the ads, I can wait until December to put up my decorations, and I can buy all of my gifts (or almost all) on-line. But what I can’t brush off is the disappointment, resentment, and general bad feelings that come when you fail to get someone a gift, or when they don’t give one to you. When the behind-the-back complaints are aired about what a thoughtless, cheap, inappropriate, miserable gift so-and-so got for the complainer. You've certainly heard these types of gripes, you may even be guilty of some yourself. And they suck. A gift by obligation is no gift at all. Gift giving should be a pleasure not a burden. That’s the real spirit of the season. Ask yourself what gift your brother or mother, cousin or friend got for you in say, 2002? Can you even remember? I can’t, but I remember the time spent with them, the season shared. And that’s all I hope for and want from Christmas. We’re in the shopping season, but that won't be what Christmas is all about. This might come across as an well-worn platitude, and that's okay. The thoughts might be widespread (I hope they are), but they're worth repeating.



[1] I always spell out “Christmas,” never using the abbreviation “X-mas.” This is for aesthetic reasons mostly, I like to avoid abbreviations where possible. Why use an abbreviation when spelling out the word is an option? Not only does an abbreviation reek of laziness, it also somehow takes the magic away from the word (and in this case, if you’re a religious person, the real meaning of the day).

[2] I can't help but recall comedian Jim Gaffigan's bit about the oddity of hanging lights outside and decorating a tree inside…here's the skit.

The somewhat odd, but very appealing tradition of decorating for Christmas
[3] The buyers are always beautiful, mostly young – even when they are parents – and live in immaculate luxury. Like the flawless families of fancy magazine spreads come to life. Really, people buy super-expensive cars based on these advertisements? I'd link to one of the commercials, but I don't want to even tangentially participate in these ads.

[4] Really, some of the wrapping on my family’s Christmas gifts is too elaborate and ornate to be anything other than a product of love.


  1. Those Lexus commercials always make me laugh too! How many of us really expect to wake up to a brand new luxury car in our driveway, well probably garage, if buying a Lexus!?

  2. Going to put up decorations this weekend, and I always wait until the second weekend in December. No early Christmas in my family. I love putting up lights and the tree, but I guess it is a strange thing to do. But our neighborhood really looks great with lights and snow (hope we get some soon).