Christmas Consumerism

Published in Shetland Life magazine, Dec 2018

Until around the mid-1800s, Christmas gifts were traditionally modest, handmade objects and hospitality offered to friends, family and neighbours. But with the rise of mass manufacturing, consumerism and increasingly sophisticated marketing techniques Christmas presents have become very big business indeed, and are part of the annual cycle of western capitalism.

Our expectation to give and receive Christmas presents is reinforced with an avalanche of nostalgia tinged marketing and media messaging that cynically portrays mass consumption as traditional and core to the ‘Christmas spirit’. TVs carry increasingly high budget festive advertising campaigns and high streets pump out Christmas music ad nausea to get us into the spending mindset. 

UK retailers recently conspired to bring ‘Black Friday’ over from America, a day in late November which heralds a month of consumption. People queuing overnight, fighting in shop aisles and assaulting staff is common. It is perhaps the most obscene and manipulative example of festive consumerism. 

There’s another market factor at play, which economics professor Joel Waldfogel in 2005 called “The Deadweight Loss of Christmas”. If someone has money to spend on themselves, they decide what they want and find the best value way to buy it. If someone has money to spend on someone else and is up against a deadline (i.e. Christmas) there’s a good chance they’ll pay over the odds for something the other person may not want in the first place – a healthier profit to the retailer but a net loss of value between the present giver and recipient. 

We shouldn’t let these consumerist forces make us feel obliged to buy unnecessary ‘stuff’ that results in black bags full of discarded packaging and a national spike in stress and personal debt. 

We can be generous with our time and empathy. Make someone a meal, offer to babysit for them, help them with a task we’re skilled at, offer to teach them something, or donate to a charity they support. 

We can give presents that result in shared experiences. Take someone to a concert or a film, give them a book or album we recommend, join a night-class together, or take them on a weekend break. These types of gifts have value well beyond a price tag. 

(If any of my family are reading this, I’ll still be needing socks and shower gel).