Sunday, December 4, 2011

The Materialistic Season

December is always a busy time. There is Christmas and Hanukah as well as other seasonal celebrations. A season that is supposed to be about peace, goodwill and spending time with the people we care about.

Somewhere along the line, that peace and goodwill has all too often been replaced by materialism, over spending and over scheduling.

Once upon a time, Christmas used to be about spending time with the people who were most important to us. Sure we’d get small presents but they didn’t cost a lot. Certainly not enough to put consumers in debt for the next few months.

There would be one gift from Santa for each of the kids. A stocking with some peanuts, a mandarin orange, a candy cane and maybe some socks or a small toy. Parents would also give each child a gift. Depending on the income of a family, kids may or may not exchange gifts. The kids usually made something in school for the parents. With or without religious beliefs, it was more about spending time together than exchanging gifts.

Some families have tried very hard to stick to those goals. I know of a few families, where Santa leaves a stocking full of necessities such as new toothbrushes, combs, deodorant, socks etc. Yes, the kids also get an orange and a bit of candy but it isn’t excessive.

Merchants and manufacturers want us to believe that giving more is better. Their message is to buy, buy, buy! They want us to believe that the value of the gift is directly equal to how you feel about the other person. The more you spend the more you care.

Stores and advertisements are filled with the supposed “must haves” of the season. The things that they feel the customers never knew they always wanted and needed. They push their merchandise at unwitting shoppers, desperate to find the perfect gift. Our homes fill up with things we didn’t need, didn’t want or can’t use.

It’s hard to resist many of those sales pitches when it is all presented in a neat little ad or a 30 second pitch. People have gradually been conditioned to expect big and expensive gifts. You are made to feel like a cheapskate or you don’t really care if you don’t buy the expensive (fill in the blank) item that everyone wants!!

I’ve never bought that logic. My friends and family are in my life because we care about each other and love each other – not how much we spend on each other’s gifts. I refuse to measure a friends worth by how much they spend on me. I’d rather have something from a dollar store that was given with love than something that cost a lot of money and given out of obligation.

Many years ago, when one of my nieces was about 6 or 7, she gave me a plain white note pad for Christmas. Nothing fancy – just one of the ones you’d write a letter on. I asked her what made her decide to give me a note pad. She said that since I was always making lists on scrap paper, she figured this would be something I’d like! It was the best gift I got that year!

If consumers were to be perfectly honest, does anyone really NEED multi hundred dollar gifts such as shoes, purses, shirts/blouses, sweaters or jewellery? $50 pens or paperweights?

You can find lots of great deals at second hand shops, craft sales and discount retailers. I’m not talking kitsch either. There are gently used books, music, movies, clothes, toys, jewellery and any number of other items to be found in nearly new shops.

Consumers work extra hours to pay for the extra gifts and the extra entertaining of the obligatory gatherings. The extra hours mean less time with the people we want to be with so we compensate with bigger gifts we can’t afford. It’s a vicious circle.

Some recent surveys have shown that the average consumer here in Manitoba will spend close to $700 on gifts this holiday season. That isn’t counting the extra foods and decorations they may also buy!

In many ways I am lucky. I can’t afford to spend a lot on gifts but what I do spend goes a long way. Most of my Christmas gifts are my homemade chocolates and baking. This year I spent about $130 on supplies – including packaging. From that, I made up 37 gift bags and 3 trays in varying sizes. I donated 2 gift bags to a friend to auction as part of a fundraiser for “Movember” – a cause that has guys growing a moustache for the month of November to help raise awareness and money for prostate cancer research. The remaining will go to family, friends and the wonderful people who make my life easier throughout the year.

I spent about $125 on nine other gifts. Several of those were Christmas ornaments for the children in my life – the grandnieces and grandnephew and kids of friends. From the year they are born till they leave home they get a Christmas ornament every year (usually something handmade that I pick up at a craft sale in November). By the time they leave home, they have enough ornaments to decorate a small tree. They look forward to seeing what I get them every year and I love it because I don’t have to know what they have on their wish lists or the sizes they wear or what they already have.

Wish lists - done within reason - are a great way to make the shopping easier. Mine is generally quite detailed and even includes price estimates for many of the items. The most expensive item on it this year was about $60 but most were in the $5-$15 range.

Not everyone has the time or ability to bake or make their own gifts but that doesn’t mean that you have to spend a lot at this time of year either.

Spend what you can afford without putting yourself in debt. If you are lucky enough to have the extra money to spend, please consider a donation to your local food bank, a homeless shelter, a coats for kids program or a toy drive. Pay it forward - you never know what the future holds. Somewhere down the road you or someone you love may need that helping hand. Even a small donation can warm a lot of hearts.

Give from the heart – not the pocketbook. It isn’t about the cost. It really is the thought that counts.

Yes, that is a bit of a cliché but your real friends will understand and appreciate whatever you give them. And in the end, isn’t that what the season is all about? Goodwill, peace and spending time with the people who matter to us.


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