Consumerism and Christmas: Do they go hand in hand? 

The sense of consumerism associated with Christmas gets me down every year whenever I let myself think about it for long enough. This year, the feelings I had towards both receiving and buying bags’ worth of presents were negative enough for my family and I to agree to not do stockings for each other anymore.  

I think I have always been aware of the excessiveness of Christmas presents: when I was a child, I used to think ‘wow, I’m so lucky’. Even if I didn’t articulate it in this way, I knew that presents surrounding the tree were a bit of a mind-blowing privilege. But it was the way things were, so I let myself get excited about it all and simply be appreciative. In my mid-teens, however, the sight of a stocking as well as “main” presents started to repulse me. The negative environmental impact caused by the manufacturing of those gifts and the wrapping; the thought of the people who felt pressure to buy more than they could afford in order to meet standards set by others; the financial cost of the whole affair; the increasing pressure I felt to love everything. No one in my household overtly tried to make every Christmas at least as good or better than the last, but even I viewed it with the bigger-and-better mentality.

For me, Christmas is about family, celebrating each other and putting aside quality time to be together. I can see how presents fit into that, as they do birthdays and other special occasions, but not the sheer number of presents that Christmas generates. My mum and I concocted the idea of doing ‘second-hand stockings’ a couple of years ago. It wasn’t really any fewer presents than normal, but our December carbon footprints shot down, we spent a fraction of our previous budget and the money that we did spend almost all went to charity. I’ve always loved charity shopping but used to get a bit of flak from friends for it (friends who now join me on my excursions – perceptions can change!). Committing to doing second-hand stockings was the turning point for me feeling proud of shopping second-hand as all I felt was good about where our presents were coming from and who our money was going to. I wore our decision on my sleeve. 

Maybe the way that my feelings around Christmas presents first presented themselves was when I was a child and I started giving a present to Santa as an act of reciprocity. I used to make a little craft of some kind, write a thank you note and leave it next to the mince pies and carrot in the living room. Looking back on it, I guess that was me preventing any feelings of guilt I might have had around my family’s generosity. I don’t know what others’ experiences are, but I also started giving presents from myself, alongside my immediate family, to my grandparents and aunt (those we spent Christmas with every year) from around the age of 11. No one suggested I do, I just felt a desire to give back. These were homemade craft projects which I would start working on from August/September onwards. The homemade aspect of my presents for others ticked all the boxes of environmental friendliness, low cost and meaningfulness! Some of my favourites include a concertina book which illustrated different, amusing ways that people take pictures for my photography-obsessed dad, and a booklet of illustrated flowers with corresponding philosophical quotes for my botanist of a granny. These gifts were projects which I spent a long time designing, executing and personalising. They really felt that they reflected the meaning of Christmas. 

I still feel great about our choice to do second-hand stockings for the last few years, but it didn’t stop me from feeling like I was receiving a lot of stuff. Something that The Wellbeing Collective often asks itself is ‘just because we can, does it mean that we should?’. I found myself asking my family this question regarding Christmas presents. The thought of stockings only brought up feelings of excessiveness, guilt, misuse of privilege… The conclusion: we will not be doing stockings this year nor in future. I am not trying to convince anyone reading this to make the same decision as us, but it might be worth exploring the meaning behind our actions more often – particularly those routines or traditions which we mindlessly do verbatim. 

What makes your Christmas traditions special for you? How do you feel about consumerism at this time of year? Let me know in the comments! I’d love to hear your thoughts. 

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