Tis the season for consumerism


It started over a month ago — even before Halloween. The television commercials, the flyers in the mail, the decorations in the mall. Christmas is now a two-month event — one long blowout sale.

But there’s also no shortage of people decrying the commercialization of the holidays. The criticism itself is nothing new. People have been complaining about it for decades. Every year, the Christmas season gets a little longer and every year people complain about it a little more.

It’s certainly a valid criticism, one that I can’t help but make myself. As the holiday hype escalates, so too does our accumulated waste. The roads become packed with anxious shoppers, driving from mall to mall in search of the right gifts. The malls become stuffed with Christmas goods and trinkets, all vying to catch the shopper’s eye. And the shoppers themselves become stuffed with holiday sweets and extra-large gingerbread lattes. The whole enterprise is a monument to excess.

For some, this excess typifies everything that is wrong with the developed world. We consume far more than our share of the world’s resources. We create huge amounts of waste. We obsess with fads and fancy while species die out, pollutants seep into the food chain and the climate changes. Christmas is the pinnacle of our hyper-consumptive lifestyles, so it’s easy to point a finger and condemn the whole stressful, chaotic, overindulgent experience.

But the real question is why? Why do people put themselves through all the stress and pressure? Why do they go into debt so they can give gifts that the receiver probably doesn’t even need? Why do they complain about the excesses of Christmas and then fall for it again every year?

I believe they are trying to fill a void. With fewer and fewer people taking part in the religious aspects of the holidays, many are looking for other rituals to take their place. Humans have an innate need to connect to their families, their communities and to the rhythms and cycles of nature. Throughout human history, we’ve done that with celebrations and rituals to reflect the changing seasons, the lunar cycles and important stages in our lives.

But today’s world is very different, very new and in many ways runs against millennia of the human experience. This new world runs 24/7. This world is built on consistency and uniformity, rather than reflecting natural rhythms, local cultural or geographic differences. This world has few rituals to reflect the stages of our lives, the changing of the seasons and the passage of time. It doesn’t matter if it’s dark outside. We just turn on a light. It doesn’t matter if it’s cold outside. We just turn up the heat. The seasons may change, but our work schedules stay the same. Fresh vegetables and fruits are available year-round regardless of whether or not they are in season or grown anywhere nearby. A Big Mac is a Big Mac, here or in Turkey.

This world we’ve created is hard on the planet and it’s hard on ourselves. We’ve tried to isolate the human experience from the rest of nature, but it’s an impossible task. Humans are a part of nature. Whether we like it or not, our bodies respond to changes in the natural world. The more we try to deny who we are, the less connected we will feel and the more damage we will do to the planet.

In the absence of God or spirituality, in the absence of a capacity to respond to seasonal patterns and natural rhythms, and in the absence of meaningful social rituals, people are grasping onto whatever they can to help ground them in their communities. If that means spending days at a time in a crowded mall, then that’s what we do. That becomes the ritual.

That becomes Christmas.

I think people are hungry for change, but feel trapped. We are yearning for meaning, but accepting baubles and trinkets instead. Until we stop denying our biological roots and embrace our humanity, we will never find the meaning we seek. It’s just not something you can pick up at the mall.