Advice column: “Does liking stuff run counter to Slow Christmas?”

Greetings all. I’d like to take a moment to answer this note from a loyal reader. I’ve never used Slow Christmas as an advice column before, and there’s a distinct possibility I have no idea what I’m talking about. But when has that ever stopped me before? Here goes…

Dear Slow Christmas,

I like this idea, but I feel torn by the “#buynothing” part. I like doing non-material things (e.g. my annual cookie bake), but I get a lot of joy out of giving people things. I like the idea of making handmade gifts, but my crafty abilities only go so far. Plus, sometimes people want something that I cannot make. This taps into a larger issue I have of whether liking “things” (i.e., material goods) is necessarily bad. I, for instance, love spending time with my family. But I also really like cool shoes. Does liking “stuff” run counter to the idea of Slow Christmas? Is it OK so long as the stuff doesn’t replace/outweigh the “non-stuff” (e.g., non-material goods)?

- Seeking the OK to Spend

Dear SOS,

I don’t think it’s wrong to get joy out of things. If anything, it’s the sheer amount of things at Christmas that gets in the way of the joy. The average American will spend $854 on Christmas presents this year, and buy 23 presents. With this much stuff, you can’t appreciate any single thing well. Recently, when I see kids plow through the enormous pile of presents under the tree and finish opening it all, they just look bored and disappointed. This is a terrible thing to do to a  child. And it’s not great for us grownups either. Each year, we’re less responsive, so the haul has to be bigger and better, which usually means more expensive and impressive. Selfishly, we’ve got to start putting our relationships first, not stuff, because the stuff isn’t making us happier.

But there’s another principle that’s harder: on a practical level, we simply can’t keep buying as many gifts as we have been. We have to consume less. Why? For starters, often excessive gifting doesn’t actually make the receiver happy. When the present is not what the receiver wants, they feel touched by the thought we put into it and guilty that it’s not what they want, so they either display it somewhere prominent or hide it in a closet until the next spring cleaning. Our friends and relatives gladly do this because they love us, but make no mistake, it is a burden.

We’ve always thought of this as fairly harmless (who doesn’t make a Goodwill run after Christmas?)  But the trouble is, the planet has stopped being able to absorb our trash. And stuff becomes trash at a frightening pace: only 1% of all the stuff in the consumer market is still being used six months after it’s bought. And if you think about it, how many of our errands are basically carting new stuff in and old stuff out? Or repairing, insuring and protecting the stuff we have? We have got to find a way to celebrate the holidays that’s not so Fall of Rome.

This doesn’t mean you have to stop exchanging gifts. But it does mean being more deliberate about what kind of gift. Don’t give one that you’re not sure they’ll like, or that may not last, or that has a really specialized purpose they won’t use often, or is an upgrade of an old thing that the receiver still thinks is perfectly serviceable.  Like it or not, these things have a higher chance of ending up in a closet, then Goodwill, and eventually the landfill.

Economists call this deadweight loss, which happens when people buying a product have more marginal cost than marginal benefit in doing so. Christmas gifts are like bridesmaids dresses: most brides think their bridesmaid dresses are the exception to the unflattering rule, and most bridesmaids ditch their bridesmaids dresses pretty quickly. You do the math. Good intentions are important, but they don’t let us off the hook.

If you get someone an experience gift or a donation, or cook their favorite food, there’s still a possibility that won’t like it. But you won’t have consumed so much in the process. I call it the Landfill Rule. If it’s something that could end up in the trash some day, make damn sure it’s exactly what they need, and if you can’t without blowing the surprise, don’t get it. Or if there’s something else they might like just as much that won’t end up in a landfill, like taking them bowling, train yourself to start giving that gift instead. If you miss the element of surprise, give them a surprise experience gift, or a Christmas scavenger hunt complete with cleverly-hidden clues.

If you need to explain yourself to family members who’ve noticed a change in your gift-giving patterns, here are some fun resources. I wouldn’t buy them as Christmas presents for reluctant family members, but they are helpful for borrowing arguments:

  • For the spiritually inclined or nature-lovers, Bill McKibben’s Hundred Dollar Holiday is a great little book. In it, he talks about his congregation in the Adirondacks, and their effort to reduce spending at Christmas while building meaningful giving traditions, from singing carols to dropping boxes of cookies at friends’ doorsteps. McKibben’s own family has a practice, borrowed from St. Francis of Assisi, of scattering seeds and nuts in a field on Christmas day, so hungry winter wildlife can enjoy a feast day just as we do.
  • For the rationalists in your family, check out Joel Waldfogel’s Scroogenomics: Why you shouldn’t buy presents for the holidays. He estimates that US holiday gift-giving destroys about $13 billion worth of value each year:  basically, all that stuff that goes into the closet. Last year, NPR’s Planet Money did an interesting experiment with children to demonstrate the concept: they gave each student in a classroom some candy. Even though the candy was free, the kid who got the Mike ‘n Ikes rated them a zero in value because he doesn’t like them. He rated it equal to not having any candy at all, but somebody still had to produce it and buy it. Two kids told stories from their real lives about getting a Power Ranger or a Barbie for Christmas from their parents, which they felt too old for or didn’t like, but they didn’t want to be ungrateful.

Good luck, SOS. Just keep reminding yourself what Christmas is all about: spending time with family and friends, being generous in our judgments when they make us crazy, and slowing down our lives for just a little bit. Let me know how it goes!

Whos down in Whoville

“But this…this sound wasn’t sad. Why…this sound sounded glad. Every Who down in Whoville, the tall and the small, was singing, without any presents at all! He hadn’t stopped Christmas from coming, it came! Somehow or other… it came just the same.”    – How the Grinch Stole Christmas, 1966

One thought on “Advice column: “Does liking stuff run counter to Slow Christmas?”

  1. Pingback: A word on window shopping | Slow Christmas

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