In Rob VanAlkemade’s 2007 documentary What Would Jesus Buy?, performance activist Reverend Billy and The Church of Stop Shopping Gospel Choir travel across America spreading the gospel of non-consumerism and urging people to return to a more genuine relationship with Christmas.
The movie examines the social norm of shopping as a leisure activity and shopping addiction, which culminates in consumer frenzy across the festive season, sadly leaving many people in long term debt. Reverend Billy has coined it the Shopocalypse.
A Celebration of Consumption and Materialism
Worldwide, Christmas is viewed more as a cultural holiday rather than a religious occasion. In America, eight in ten non-Christians celebrate Christmas.
The customs draw from pre-Christian, Christian and secular themes. Gift giving was common in the celebration of Saturnalia, an ancient Roman festival that took place in late December and may have influenced Christmas traditions.
Food and good fellowship, the Yule log and Yule cakes, greenery and fir trees, gifts and greetings all commemorated different aspects of this festive season. Fires and lights, symbols of warmth and lasting life, have always been associated with the winter festival, both pagan and Christian.
– Encyclopedia Britannica, 15th ed., vol. II, p. 903
In the months approaching Santa’s arrival, as cut-price festive sales abound, the message to over-consume is strong. There’s the stress of spending money on gifts, as well as the stress of finding ourselves on the receiving end of unnecessary stuff we now need to care for.
Incidentally, researchers have found a direct correlation between the amount of clutter in our homes and heightened levels of stress experienced by those living amongst it. At its worst, the modern Christmas is little more than a celebration of consumption and materialism to which very few are immune.
As more and more people are becoming concerned about the negative impact consumerism is having on our planet, making sustainable choices in exchanging gifts and year round purchases are crucial.
The Growth of Conscious Consuming
Conscious consuming is a growing social movement. The Center for a New American Dream describe conscious consumerism in the following way: we can all do our part in sharing existing resources and limiting new purchases, but the reality is that we are all still “consumers.” When we do need to buy something, we can make an effort to be the most “conscious” consumers we can; taking into account the impacts that our purchases have more broadly on people and the environment. Part of being a conscious consumer is educating ourselves about the hidden costs behind the things we buy. But it also means understanding how our purchases can help us shape more sustainable business practices and a more responsible economy as a whole.
Programs like these offer guides to shopping responsibly, by supporting the production of more socially and environmentally sound products including items certified as fair trade, organic, non-GMO, and sustainably harvested. Similarly, the Child Labor Free foundation has pioneered a global certification system that can accredit clothing brands that don’t use child labour to manufacture their garments, by giving information about their production methods and evidence that they don’t employ child workers.
Meaningful Giving during the Holidays
Time is the most valuable thing a person can spend
Giving the gift of your time. Charities like Community Christmas in the UK promote events that give older people a chance to enjoy Christmas rather than being lonely and isolated. “We believes that no elderly person in the UK should be alone on Christmas Day unless they want to be.”
Oxfam Charity Gifts: When you buy an Oxfam Unwrapped Gift your donation goes to those who need it most. The person you’re buying the gift for will receive a clever card explaining how their gift is helping others. Your gift will help fund the project described in your card, as well as other life-changing Oxfam projects around the world.
The Life You Can Save charity publishes a list of the world’s best charities that aid the global poor. Each of the charities has a demonstrated record of effectively combating the causes and the symptoms of global poverty. The more you know about extreme poverty and high impact interventions, the easier and more compelling it is to spread the word about effective giving. Read more about Effective Altruism here
Alternatives to Shopping for Christmas
Initiatives like Buy Nothing Christmas are about reducing consumption, and they provide excellent ideas and projects that you can join or start up in your city or town. For example, a group in Oregon holds an Abundance Swap, where you bring things that you don’t want any more and exchange them for other things. It’s a great idea if you have a group of people who want to buy less this Christmas.
Kids love getting gifts. Especially during Christmas, children are rewarded with gifts for being good boys and girls, which can prime them to expect and consume. Aggressive advertising campaigns aimed at children encourages materialistic aims, a message which is at odds with their own ability to make the choices required to live more sustainably. Receiving gifts are a huge part of the delight children feel at Christmas, but it needn’t be limited to this. Find ways to teach kids about giving to others and helping the less fortunate, as well as spending time with loved ones that don’t require shopping.
The living strategy known as Voluntary Simplicity is a quietly emerging social movement that rejects the materialistic values of consumer culture and voluntarily embraces a simpler, greener life of reduced consumption. The Simplicity Collective explains that the rejection of consumerism arises out of the belief that the meaning of life does not and cannot consist in the consumption and accumulation of material things. The affirmation of simplicity arises out of the recognition that very little is needed to live well – that abundance is a state of mind, not a quantity of consumer products.
Ancient but timeless, the message is that those who know they have enough are rich.