If you’re reading this, it’s most likely because you feel like you could be doing more with the life you’ve been given. Whether you have an interest in helping people, animals or the living environment, you – like us – feel compelled to make a contribution to the betterment of our world.
Having just survived another Christmas season, I felt compelled to wonder what it’s all about. Because lord knows for most people it’s not about the Virgin Mary, three wise men and little Jesus in a manger.
So what is it about?
No, for most of us, since we were born, Christmas has been about two main things; a holiday to get together with family and the ritual of exchanging gifts.
For some, Christmas provides an opportunity to enjoy the company of those we love and express our mutual appreciation through giving a thoughtful, heartfelt present. But for most, if we’re honest, this isn’t really the case.
Christmas is a stressful time. Even for the most well-functioning families, the logistics of Christmas can be a lot to handle. But the truth is most families are not well-functioning. Most families experience some latent discontent and dislike of each other, simmering below the surface. But December is the time everyone sweeps their lingering feelings of disdain, discomfort and general dissatisfaction under the rug and soldiers on – because hey, it’s Christmas.
So we participate in the repetitious farce that is the ‘family’ Christmas even though, in many cases, our families contain individuals we’d least like to spend any time with, let alone the most ‘wonderful’ time of the year. Because nobody wants to be ‘that guy’ – you know, the one who RUINS Christmas by merely being honest and pointing out the absurdity of it all. Nobody, indeed.
And nowhere is the farcical nature of this holiday more evident than in the ‘tradition’ of gift giving.
The Crazy Tradition of Gift-Giving
I only studied relatively basic economics, but it doesn’t take an expert to realise that Christmas is the single least efficient economic exercise we engage in as a population. In 2014, Americans spent a total of $781 billion (with a B) on Christmas gifts. I’ll write that out in figures: $781,000,000,000.
Seven hundred and eighty-one billion dollars- That’s larger than the US’ defence budget and more than 25 times the annual cost of ending world hunger for good ($30 billion, according to the UN’s latest estimate).
In addition, Americans spent $29.14 billion on their Christmas cards this year. So if, instead, they had decided to make their own or send an email, enough money would have been saved to solve world hunger. Now if that’s not absurd, I don’t know what is. Actually, I’d like to expand on that thought – the truly absurd thing here isn’t that we could have solved world hunger with the amount of money the US spends on its Christmas cards every year. Truly, it’s not. What’s absurd is the fact that we couldn’t find just that much money to solve an issue as important to humanity as world hunger.
I’m probably coming across as a Grinch right now – it’s Christmas, and you’ve worked hard all year and should be able to enjoy your holiday guilt free. I get it – and I agree.
But why continue the ridiculous farce of buying presents for people you don’t always like, calibrating yours to anticipate how much money that person spent on you in this eternal crab-dance or reciprocity that we call ‘joy’?
How Big is the Problem?
According to a recent industry survey, 54% of people will return one or more gifts this year; indeed, in 2011, the total value of presents returned following Christmas was an astounding $46 billion. Add to this the 18% of people who would donate gifts to charity, 15% who would re-gift, 11% who would simply throw the gift out and 6% who would resell gifts and you’ve got to ask yourself – how is this a game anyone would voluntarily play? Well, the answer to that is pretty obvious – as a species, we’ve simply reached a frenzy of collective denial.
So the odds are good that some of your gifts are going back to the store. For this reason, 84% of respondents to the same survey indicated they’d prefer to receive gift certificates – how thoughtful! (and yet, how practical).
How is asking for a gift certificate any less ‘Grinchy’ than saying: “You know what, let’s just call it quits with the presents and enjoy each other’s company this year”? Or indeed, “please make a donation to this charity for me, since I know I’m going to hate what you get me anyway”? How liberating it must be to hear someone say that to you! To be free of the burden of implied consideration, when in reality you just want to get the hell out of the shopping centre!
When you looked at the haul you received this Christmas, did you think “I’m really glad I’ve got people who care enough to buy things for me that I want”, or was it more: “if I had spent this money on myself, I’d be a lot happier right now”? (Or even, “I wish so much money hadn’t been wasted on this crap”?)
I think we’re all familiar with the feeling of smiling and pretending, over and over, as we receive another waffle iron or chocolate fondue machine or pair of cheap acrylic socks (damnit don’t they KNOW acrylic makes you sweat?), only to end the day thinking “what the hell am I going to DO with all this junk?”
For those of us who believe in minimising our footprint on the earth and perhaps even leaving this place better than how we found it, it’s an altogether galling experience.
Some elements of Christmas have endured, and for that we can be grateful. Many observe the religious elements of Christmas – it is Jesus’ birthday after all (though the date may be in dispute) and it’s great that the old traditions endure to this day. And some people actually and honestly enjoy getting together with their families (though I don’t know any of them).
The modern Christmas is an outdated joke. The idea that the year’s biggest holiday can be based around a bastardised parable, co-opted by a major corporation to sell more soda and indoctrinate the world’s population into a cult of spending and expectation, distresses me to the core. But alas, here we are.
781 billion dollars. 781 billion dollars of junk we don’t need. 781 billion dollars that we could spend saving the world, or saving for our kids’ educations, or taking a holiday that will give us a lifetime of memories. 781 billion dollars, for one day of synthesised happiness and keeping up with the Joneses.