Updated: Jan 10
Theme: Critical analysis of the holiday season
About: Tracing different axes of a consumerism-driven holiday season, highlighting how big corporations make profits off of a toxic gift-giving cycle that entails unethical practices, affects lower-income classes, and is environmentally unsound.
Goal: To make people question and challenge the hyper-capitalist nature of the holidays. To reflect on their personal relationships with the gift-giving culture.
Under the shimmering lights of Christmas decorations lies a much darker reality driven by profit-seeking corporations. Indeed, the wave of consumerism has become a defining feature of the holiday season… And of a hyper-capitalistic society. Christmas brings together in conversation axes of religion, capitalism, social class, consumerism and environmentalism; and marks an urgency in dismantling the nuances behind this all.
Millions of people buy hundreds of gifts that people often do not even need, and can scarcely afford. And without this frenetic consumerism, the ‘capitalist dream’ would die. Thus, the holiday season brings enormous profits to corporations, while much of the work that goes on behind the scenes of these companies culminates in environmental destruction and often fails to meet basic human rights.
Bombarded with advertisements during November and December – coincidence? Jolly not! The typical visual is of smiling (usually rich and white) families in matching sweaters surrounding a Christmas tree and opening presents. This picture typically includes a rich white heteronormative family ideal, but a commodification of diversity and inclusivity now extends its arms to people of colour. These happily portrayed images bring comfort to consumers and even relegate concerns regarding the unethical and unnecessary practices behind consumerism.
With advertisement techniques often encouraging consumption to promote social change and finding happiness, our money often fuels an unsustainable system. The world continues to emit billions of tonnes of Carbon Dioxide. And while this is a daunting scenario for humanity, big corporations dramatically benefit from it – the fast-fashion industry lives by the unspoken motto – money from your pocket, straight into the big corporation’s wallet.
How are standards for gifts created?
Marcel Mauss’s book ‘The Gift’ discusses how gift-giving is based on (the expectation) of reciprocity. This leads to judging the value of a gift and matching it, so that the ‘levels’ of gifts within a circle remain balanced. For instance, someone gifts you a shiny name-brand pair of shoes that cost a hundred euros, and your gift for them was a ten euro scarf you found in a street market. Would that make you uncomfortable? Would that influence your gift-buying choices for them next year in any way? A latent pressure of gift-giving rules and standards create a cyclical system of gift exchange, which forms the perfect basis for corporations to jump on and make profit off of.
The commercialised and publicised need to buy ‘the perfect’ holiday gift put a pressure on lower-income families to buy gifts for their loved ones. One of the three plausible things happen – Option A, splurge on more expensive gifts to give in to the marketed happiness of Christmas. Option B becomes to buy cheaper mass-produced items whose production conditions were unethical. Option C, not engage in gift-buying and be a victim of a capitalism-driven Christmas-induced guilt and shame. With option A, they break their bank. With option B, they break ethical rules. And with option C, they break ‘the holiday spirit’.
Within this toxic cycle of holiday gift-giving, lower-income families are forced to become complicit in unethical and environmentally unsound choices within oppressive mechanisms of capitalism.
Ending this consumer lifestyle necessitates a change in the system. The holiday season serves as an eye-opener to the need for shifting our system away from the unsustainable economic growth of capitalism and a shift of power. While the problem is systemic, conversations do start at home. Having open conversations with loved ones about the importance of gift-giving helps understand how we can have a happy holiday season in accordance with our situations and needs, rather than what is dictated by marketing companies.
And until then, with gift-giving still in place as a significant marker of holiday happiness, one step is to normalise different kinds of gifts — second-hand gifts, presents that are more practical, consumable gifts. All towards the working goal of systemically destabilising the importance presents hold within the (mostly colonial) holiday season!
Mauss, M. (2002). The gift: The form and reason for exchange in archaic societies. Routledge.
Mitchell, D. (2014, November 23). Don’t prick the Christmas spending bubble – it’s keeping capitalism alive. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/nov/23/dont-prick-christmas-bubble-keeping-capitalism-alive
Aruwa, M. (2017, December 03). Finally, proof that Christmas songs really do your head in The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/dec/03/christmas-songs-materialism-emotional-damage
Williams, E., Werner, K., Carter, K. A. (Hosts). (2020, December). Christmas, Consumerism, and Intersectionality (No. 16) [Audio podcast episode]. In Woman Being. https://open.spotify.com/episode/64uTns4GgcMPgPle2K4Qtt?si=6d6cea5bc8214fce