Lured by limited quantities of reduced items, 147 million Americans shopped over the Thanksgiving weekend, spending an average of $347.44 each, much of it borrowed, fighting traffic on the roads and throwing elbows in checkout lines so they could brag to their friends about the items they bought and the deals they got.
I watched the spectacle sitting in the quietness of home, on my TV screen. I gazed at frenzied shoppers with overflowing shopping carts lining up at cash registers. I saw mobs of stressed out shoppers trudging through busy malls with pained expressions, searching for presents while wishing they were somewhere else.
So begins the annual buying season, the four weeks that account for almost a quarter or U.S. retailers’ annual sales and half their yearly profits. In comparison to previous sales that follow the day we give thanks for our blessings, it was relatively calm. I remember newscasts in the late 1980s of people knocking over displays and sobbing over cabbage patch dolls. In 2005 in Orlando, several men tackled one shopper to the ground in an apparent fight over a bargain item. A few years back, shoppers rushing for a sale on DVD players trampled the first woman in line. Is your life really worth a $29.95 DVD player?
Custom tells us we must spend hard-earned money on gifts for family and friends. But what are we buying? We are pushed to buy useless, over-priced trinkets no one wants or needs. The annual exchange of gloves, hats, and crock-pots from those who can't afford them to those who don't want them clutters our homes and puts us in debt. Most people don’t like what you get them, but will put on a show and lie about it. Then you lie because you don’t like the ugly sweater Aunt Susie got you for Christmas. For many, the pressure of not being able to afford expensive gifts - or not being able to keep up with the giving of the Jones’s next door - leads to debilitating depressive illness. Others go deep into debt: Debt advisers' busiest period comes after Christmas, when the credit spree is over and the bills begin to arrive. More than one in two people borrowed to cover the cost of last Christmas, and many are still paying those credit card bills a year later, according to research from the finance firm Zopa.
Is the frenzy, the stress, the debts really worth it? When we feel such intense pressure to find the right gift that it prevents us from feeling the celebration of joy, it is time to examine our priorities. Beanie babies, pound puppies, iPods, or Xbox 360 are just toys. And battering an elderly woman at Wal-Mart over an X-Box really isn't the reason for the season.
Christmas has lost its spirit. It's no longer a season of giving, but a time to buy. Kids reel off all the expensive things they want from Santa, and parents feel pressured to ensure their children have a vast number of presents to open on Christmas morning - most of which will be abandoned long before they finish paying for them. Whether a toy costs $5 or $50, most kids ignore it and instead get hours of fun playing with the box the present came in.
We live in a land whose national religion is capitalism, money is our god, and shopping malls are our churches. We are encouraged to buy, buy, buy, and told that our shopping creates jobs and boosts the lagging economy. Following the tragedy of September 11, 2001, President Bush didn’t ask us to find love in our hearts and work together to change a troubled world. Instead, he urged mericans to go shopping as an act of patriotism. Is it truly our patriotic duty to support corporations and line the pockets of their billionaire executives with our hard-earned pittance?
Our reverence for shopping has taken over this festival of joy and peace. Our insatiable appetite for goodies and our culture of greed overshadow the true spirit of Christmas. Originally a pagan festival celebrating the winter solstice, Christmas was taken over by the Christians. Today the pagans, in the form of big business, have hijacked it back. We can all celebrate it anew as a festival of unchecked commercialism.
A poster I saw a long time ago says it best. It defines prosperity: To spend money you didn’t earn, to buy things you don’t need, in order to impress people you don’t like.” Do we really need to buy just for the sake of buying? This seems to me a strange ritual to celebrate the birth of someone who came into a broken, politically oppressed world as an outcast.
The spirit of Christmas is giving. We celebrate God's gift of His Son to save a dysfunctional world. But what would Jesus think of how we celebrate His birthday? Where would He shop? What would He buy? I don’t think Jesus would partake of our annual madness.
What would He say about our reverence for shopping? Or about this culture of greed? Or our insatiable appetite for things that don't satisfy? What has happened to the festival of peace and joy?
This Christmas, consider the meaning of the holiday. Enjoy the simple traditions, good food and beautiful music. Spend time with friends and family. It's not how much you spend, but the love you put into your gifts that matters.
Christmas will fade after December 25th, and the sought-after toys will lie in the dust. Be creative. Share the joy. Give of your time instead of your money. Lend a hand to a neighbor in need, or help a favorite charity. It's not how much you spend, but the love you put into your gifts that matters.