I just finished watching a documentary called What Would Jesus Buy? Produced by Morgan Spurlock (of Supersize Me and television’s 30 Days fame), the documentary follows an activist performance group on a cross-country (via biodiesel bus) odyssey on their quest to remind Americans the true meaning of Christmas.
While Jesus features prominently in the title, and the group’s “act” is cloaked in the tropes of Christianity (leader Billy is “Reverend Billy” and he is accompanied by his “choir”), the movie is far from religious. It’s really about all the things that folks like me say every year when Christmas rolls around (and is it just me or did Jingle Bells start at the stroke of midnight on Halloween?). It’s about ending our cultural worship of Mass Consumerism and embracing what is more important — relationships with each other, the environment and supporting ethical businesses.
Perhaps it was fateful coincidence that I went to a going-out-of-business sale today. A sign of the times, a chain, big-box store was emptying it’s everything-must-go guts. I was struck by the vastness of things available to buy. This business had failed, and yet money was changing hands. Looking at all the mark-downs I had this idea about the multitude of useless crap we buy all the time. But especially at Christmas. If this thing in my hand is marked down to $2, isn’t that what it’s value is all the time? Isn’t it just a game that we pay more so that giant corporations can get more? And even when they earn more of our fleeting money (especially these days), do they pass it on to their workers (US and foreign sweatshop workers)? Not a chance.
Why do we have this belief that the way to show our love for one another is intrinsically linked to the expense and expanse of gifts on Christmas morning?
Or put another way: In John Oliver’s comedy special Terrifying Times (hilarious, by the way), he talks about America’s perfection of Mass Consumerism by pointing out the existence of an “inflatable barbecue grill.” You can literally grill food from an inflatable grill while simultaneously swimming in your pool. Yowza!
A couple of things stood out for me in What Would Jesus Buy.
- 75 percent of Americans dread Christmas. A stat given in the film. They didn’t elaborate on why, but the next segment made the leap …
- People spend money they don’t have at Christmas (well, year-round really, but especially at Christmas). In one family profiled, the mom says that it takes her the rest of the year (at least until the fall) to pay off the debt she racks up at Christmas.
- One of the most poignant moments for me was an interview with a (real) pastor of a (real) church. He talked about how this orgy of spending and Mass Consumerism related to a deep-down dissatisfaction with our lives. The dissatisfaction in turn created a cycle of needing to buy more new things to replace the old new things that no longer filled that hole in our life where things of substance should be.
I’m no saint. And I sometimes wonder if Las Vegas is the hardest place in America to try and liberate yourself from Mass Consumerism. When a hotel-casino becomes too worn we implode it and build a new one! What greater symbol of decadent use of resources, money and time could there be than the Las Vegas Strip?
And Christmas is hard for other reasons. If you want to stop the tide buying-giving-receiving of useless crap you are often labeled a Scrooge, or a downer at the party. Why can’t you just have a good time? It’s fun! Don’t be so serious! I don’t think anyone doubts that it is easier to go along with what is all around you. It is harder to swim against the current. There is resistance to change.
Sometimes I wonder if our nation’s obesity epidemic goes hand-in-hand with our universal disease of over-spending, racking up debt on credit cards and just plain ridiculous consumerism. Let me ask you something: Do you remember what you got for Christmas last year?
But sometimes people surprise you. Last year I gave everyone a reusable shopping bag for Christmas. And they were a hit! In fact, while at my in-laws house my sister-in-law started to get bummed out that she didn’t get one until I handed her hers (others had opened their gifts first). So people can surprise you in their willingness to hear you out. Then again, my own husband routinely forgets his shopping bag in his car and opts for the more-cumbersome option of no bag at all.
So, how do you live by your ethics and morals this holiday season, without becoming a “Scrooge” or a preacher? Hey, I still want to have a nice holiday, too. I admit it. I just don’t think having a nice holiday includes copious amounts of gifts with no meaning.
This is a good time to mention that I’m working on the latest version of the Simple Gifts holiday shopping list (filled with charitable causes and ethical choices). It’s more work than you might think. I should have it out by Black Friday (or no-shopping-day at my house). Until then, you can still use the ideas on the current list.
I don’t know what the answer is. But I think having questions is a good place to start.