buy nothing christmas '03
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The cost of Christmas: An Essay

By Kerry Williamson

From Calgary Herald, December 22, 2002

It is a world where your loved one can't share his emotions until you give him a flat-screen television on Christmas Day.

A world where the only way you can show your wife you love her at Christmas time is by spending a fortune on diamonds.

And a world where Santa misses Christmas because he gets caught up playing PlayStation with the kids downstairs.

It's a world of continuous television commercials using carols to sell CDs, gift-giving guilt to sell chocolates, and blow-out sales to lump old inventory on unsuspecting Christmas shoppers.

It's a world Aiden Enns and his ilk have had enough of.

Every day hundreds of people log onto Enns' Web site -- BuyNothingChristmas.org -- a site dedicated to replacing the spirit of Christmas shopping (also known as the spirit of getting) with that old but neglected favourite, the spirit of giving.

"People are feeling the pressures of over-consumerism, and now they are doing something about it," says Enns, on the phone from Vancouver.

"The retailers seem more desperate these days. They're not celebrating Christmas with the families, they are exploiting the families.

"And people are feeling exploited."

Enns, a journalist with Adbusters magazine and a Mennonite, started Buy Nothing Christmas last year, after he became fed up with the blight of consumer craziness at Christmas time, combined with the inability of the church to reclaim a celebration that is rightfully theirs.

It began as a personal protest verging on a joke, but has become a fully fledged international movement. Enns even had to replace his server earlier this year, after his initial one failed under the weight of daily hits.

The Vancouverite has been interviewed by reporters from around the world, and receives e-mailed suggestions for gift-giving from people of all or no religious denominations, from rich and poor, and from people of all cultures and backgrounds.

The aim of the movement is to diminish the role of the consumer culture so heavily involved in the modern Christmas, to replace the jingle jangle of the till with choruses of Jingle Bells, and to re- establish the thought -- and not the bought -- as being the thing that counts this time of year.

"I realized last year that the church is turning a blind eye, particularly at Christmas time, to such rampant consumerism," he says. "I decided to do a little culture jamming. People are feeling obliged to go out and spend money, and they want to have permission to stop.

"We're giving them that permission."

This has been a particularly tough year for Christmas.

The controversy over the slow death of its meaning, sparked by advertising campaigns such as the Canadian Mint's 12 Days of Giving, or political correctness, such as Toronto's Holiday Tree and the Gap's quasi-policy of not saying "Merry Christmas," has filled reams of newspaper pages, perhaps more so than ever.

There are even signs outside churches in Calgary asking Christians to put the Christ back in Christmas.

Enns knows he doesn't have the answer. But he does think the Buy Nothing Christmas movement can help ease the problem.

The movement urges people to stop visiting the malls in a pre- Dec. 25 panic, and instead think about other ways to give. Homemade cards; knitted jerseys; donations to charities in other people's names; babysitting coupons to parents; even used novels with messages scrawled inside.

The worth of the gifts doesn't matter. Nor does the number of gifts bought. Again, it's the thought.

"I think that consumerism, in itself, has become a form of religion," says Enns. "It has become a reason for living. Christmas has become a marketing tool. It's not at a breaking point yet, but if we continue to buy, buy, buy, we will reach it.

"But there are other things we can do."

Enns has his allies. From religious ministers to advertising executives, Buy Nothing Christmas and its ideals are supported by many.

Anne Moore, a professor of religious studies at the University of Calgary, says the true spirit of Christmas has been buried amid the bricks of retail stores and strip malls, and lost amid the bevy of Hallmark greetings.

"It's the taking over of the holidays strictly for commercial purposes, that's my concern," she says. "Christmas has become a holiday, pure and simple. It is consumerism to the hilt. It has gone out the window."

Moore says people do need to step back and think about what they are doing. It's not as though Calgarians are strangers to giving -- each household gives on average $1,860 to charities every year, making us the second best giving city in the country.

We volunteer more time than most, help more social agencies, and care more for the less privileged. During the year, we seem to put plenty of thought into giving.

But at Christmas, people go mad. They shop for the sake of buying more and more presents. They shop out of competition with others. And they shop because they feel they have to.

"It's supposed to be the thought that counts, but there doesn't seem to be much thought left in Christmas," Moore told the Herald.

Jim Carter, president of the Calgary office of the Canadian Marketing Association, said the Buy Nothing initiative has a point. Carter says Christmas has become far more commercial than in times past, but says the consumer too, must take the blame.

"There's no question there is significant investment by advertisers in the Christmas season. It's a huge retail season," says Carter. "Depending on what you're selling, it may very well be the biggest time of the year.

"But I think we have to remember that Christmas is about giving. It's not about buying. If you choose to buy, that's your choice, but first and foremost it is about giving."

Carter says advertisers and marketers must also remember what the season is about. And that doesn't mean just the bottom line.

"I think it is a balancing act between really celebrating the season and trying to make a profit at the same time," he says. "You have to remember that consumers are much more intelligent than they were, and they will react negatively if they feel insulted."

Debi Andrus, an assistant professor at the University of Calgary's Haskayne School of Business, agrees consumers must take a look in the mirror. Remember, one in five Canadians increased their Christmas shopping budget this year alone.

And according to a recent study by a credit card company, close to 20 per cent of women actually want a large pile of presents under the tree than a few premium surprises. We're hardly protesting the evils of advertising.

"They are out shopping anyway. You might as well give them opportunities, because they are spending money. The opportunity to sell is there, you either take it or you don't," says Andrus. "All advertisers and marketers do is encourage people to come to the shops. They can't force them to buy or pressure them to give gifts.

"Consumers get to make a choice. We get to vote at the till or not. As consumers, we can say no. Advertisers don't close a sale."

Andrus agrees the spirit of giving has taken a new life of its own, a life of painful trips to the malls, and hours of incessant Christmas advertisements urging us to buy, buy, buy under the guise of give, give, give.

"It is problematic, but I think the intent of Christmas isn't completely lost," she says.

For Aiden Enns, this Christmas will be different than most. He is making books to give as gifts, complete with screen-print covers. He won't be visiting the malls, and certainly won't be depending on advertisers' gift ideas.

"You've got to remember that Christmas is still a season of kind- heartedness, of generosity, of helping your neighbour. That's still all a part of it, and that's a good thing," he says. "Giving gifts is a good thing.

"Right now, I'm looking out of the window in my office, taking in the glow of the setting sun, and I know people down there are shopping like mad.

"I think it (Christmas) can make a comeback though. I have been overwhelmed. The response has been amazing. And I'm not going to just sit here and play dead. I'm going to live."

And give.

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Kerry Williamson can be reached at <williamsonk@theherald.southam.ca>

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