5 Jan 2009
Why You Should Never Take Me Christmas Shopping
When viewed with detatchment, there is something profoundly sad about the annual deeply stressful and financially impoverishing orgy of Christmas consumerism, as distinct from the far more enjoyable aspect of it, the time at home, time off work, seeing friends and family and so on. My thinking this means that I must be a dreadful pain in the arse to take Christmas shopping. What follows is an account of my forays into the world of the Christmas shopper….
I didn’t do a great deal of Christmas shopping myself this year. For my family I bought, as part of my attempt to give as low carbon gifts as I could, a land dedication at Summerhill Organic Farm in Devon, as part of the Soil Association Land Trusts scheme. Most of the rest my wife did (bless her cotton socks), but Christmas did require me to occasionally dash to the shops, which I did on two very different occasions. I thought I would share my observations from these immersions into consumer culture.
Friday November 20th 2008, London.
While visiting London and doing some early Christmas shopping, we found ourselves passing Harrods, and realised that we had actually never set foot in the place previously. Felt like a cultural experience one should have at least once in a lifetime, so we ventured in, intrigued. Taking me to Harrods is an experience in dragging a curmugeonly git around somewhere which happens to have many hundreds of things for him to grumble about.
Regular readers will know of my anthropological fascination with designer handbags. Well, in Harrods I actually saw £4,500 handbags (they were appallingly vile objects), alongside £65,000 fossils (amazing things!) and £10,000 televisions. I was struck with the parallels between walking around Harrods with its opulence and lavish consumerism, and the Titanic. Indeed, I even had to take a photo on my phone of the staircase (see left), which looked just like my mental picture of what they looked like on the Titanic itself (see below right). Felt particularly appropriate somehow, as the economy was just, at that time, starting its downward plummet to the bottom of the economic seabed.
Walking through the food hall and the fish counter, I found myself moaning on about how you would never know that the seas are becoming near deserts through over-fishing such was the smorgasbord of marine biodiversity on display. Hearing John Lennon’s ‘War is Over’ over the tannoy lead to my ranting on about how actually most of the wars waging in the world are to maintain the flow of oil and other resources that makes most of the crap for sale in Harrods possible in the first place. So you see, do avoid going Christmas shopping with me if you can avoid it…
At one point, feeling somewhat weary, we thought it might be an idea to go and have a cup of tea (Harrods contains various cafes and teashops). We went in, sat down and looked at the menu. How much for a hot chocolate? £5.50! Good gracious. Well in that case I’ll just have a peppermint tea. £3.90! For a couple of leaves of mint I get out of my garden for free and some hot water?! Forget it… . So we left. I’m not paying anyone £5.50 for a hot chocolate….
December 20th 2008, Exeter.
My main bit of Christmas shopping was a trip to Exeter, my nearest city, a few days before Christmas. It left me wondering whether in the last days of the Roman Empire, when the Germanic hoards were massing and the silver mines of Spain were running dry leading to the army moving towards mutiny, there were great hoards of people running around Rome going “ooh look, there’s 50% off that!”, and “hey look, 2 amphoras for the price of one!”, oblivious to what lay, metaphorically speaking, around the corner.
There is something about a city full of people Christmas shopping that is profoundly depressing. It is like a mass affirmative response to the Government’s ‘Buy Crap for Britain’ campaign. In one of the shopping centres, I started seeing people walking around with what looked a little bit like snow in their hair. As I came out into an open square, there, in a small area was what at first glance, looked like falling snow, although it was isolated to one particular spot. On closer examination it turned out to be some kind of frothy bubbles being blown all over the assembled shoppers by a guy on the roof with a blowing machine of some kind.
As the film below, from 1898 shows, the whole ‘Christmas=snow’ thing really started with the Victorians and the early days of the commercialisation of Christmas, but to have degenerated to a point where feeling ‘Christmassy’ necessitates some bloke covering you in detergent from a shopping centre rooftop is a bizarre cultural development. Fact is it is rarely cold enough for snow anymore, due, in part, to the carbon emissions caused by our obsession with consumerism, a collective illess of which Christmas is the most extreme manifestation…
When it all got too much, I took refuge in Waterstones. Now, I hate Waterstones, mostly for the fact that they are now pretty much the only bookshop you ever see, but it does at least offer a refuge from the shopping maelstrom taking place outside. I retreat there for a little while when it all gets too much, and although I rarely buy anything, I use it in the same way one might use a library. The only thing lacking in Waterstones is comfy chairs to sit in and browse the books, but I imagine that if they had them, they would be full of snoozing blokes hiding from the realities of Christmas shopping.
On Boxing Day (St. Stephen’s Day for our Irish readers) I turned on the radio, BBC FiveLive (there was, after all, football on Boxing Day). There was a report about the Boxing Day sales at the Trafford Centre in Manchester. Turned out that sales at Debenhams and Selfridges had opened at 5am, and that people had started queuing at 2am to be sure of being first in.
This meant, I realised, that there are thousands of people out there who had shopped prolifically in the run up to Christmas, had just had Christmas day, where people had given them things, they had done the whole Christmas thing, but had spent a significant part of that day planning where their sleeping bag and camping chair was, and how they were going to get to the Trafford Centre. While the rest of their family were settling down, stuffed and faintly sozzled to watch Wallace and Gromit, they were heading off to get ready for more shopping.
Indeed the next day, most of the traffic bulletins on the radio were about out of town shopping centres, Bluewater, Cribbs Causeway etc. Oliver James has it right. Affluenza is a distinct illness, deeply prevalent in our culture, with observable symptoms. None of us are free from it entirely. It is just a matter of degree. Certainly my two forays into the world of Christmas consumerism led me to think that rather than spend the many billions of pounds we have on stuff that will mostly be landfill in 3 months, it may well have been better spent on buying up every available copy of Slade’s ‘Merry Chrismas Everybody’ and shooting them all off into space. Perhaps that, and somehow buying up all available advertising space in the weeks before Christmas and just leaving it blank, might go some way towards beginning to tackle this dreadful condition.
5 Jan 9:14am
Thought you might like to know that Oxfam Books is now the largest second hand book dealer in Europe and has a higher turnover than Waterstones!
So next time you need to escape the Christmas frenzy in Exeter – or hundrds of other towns – try an Oxfam Bookshop. Great examples of recycling, community involvement and in Totnes we now have a section of ‘Transition’ books. The money helps offset at least a little of the damage done by affluenza.
Best wishes for 2009
5 Jan 11:23am
Following a year of harking on to friends & relatives about transition related stuff – we received greener minded xmas presents, eg; a kitchen compost bin, book on natural cleaning for the home, book on 50 ways to be a greener shopper, organic gardening book. Following this I’m quite looking forwards to next xmas!
Something we have wanted for a while – our toaster caught on fire in the damp summer of 2008 and we’ve been hanging out for an eco toaster to come on the market. To our pleasant surprise Morphy Richards released their ‘Ecolectric’ toaster which claims to use 34% less energy. Naturally, I got a bit green consumer excited.
Posh looking video of the toaster here:
hmmmm…and found a review:
I’m not sure why Morphy Richards think greenies like us are not capable of manually pressing a lever to lower the bread? ..and why the bleedin heck does a toaster have to use power on standby? !!
…so we wrote to Morphy Richards with lots of other carbon questions, and await an answer.
I’ve been sneezing, coughing, sinusitis, dizzy and feverish all through xmas and new year.
Lucky me got to stay at home and avoid the shops!
5 Jan 11:25am
sorry, toaster video here!…
5 Jan 4:18pm
We buy all our Christmas gifts at Oxfam Books, or local charity shops.
This year (‘credit crunch’ bigtime for us) we even went through our own bookcases and gave away some books to friends and relatives we thought might enjoy them. They were all happy.
Our lovely neighbours, with whom we’re always chatting about gardening, made us a very pretty mini basket of veggies and flowers out of salt dough, painted by their kids. It’s now hanging on the kitchen wall, under the clock they painted for us last year!
Keep up your great work!
5 Jan 6:48pm
We celebrate the solstice and therefore avoid the Christmas thing on the whole…we had a yummy roast dinner, a bottle of port and a bottle of champagne…and a happy solstice card from our neighbour, my sister gave us an apple tree and I do my very best to make presents or buy useful things. Keeping bees gives us honey and candles as a s tarting point. No one is disappointed with those.
6 Jan 1:07am
Next year just go here http://extraethical.com 🙂
6 Jan 6:05pm
I agree entirely with your sentiments. However I couldn’t help noticing the connection between “Now, I hate Waterstones, mostly for the fact that they are now pretty much the only bookshop you ever see” and “although I rarely buy anything, I use it in the same way one might use a library”!
8 Jan 1:27am
As Peter Kay says, “I wish it could be Christmas every year”. My bizarre Christmas shopping experience this year was at our local op-shop where they were having a half price sale. Two volunteers started arguing about whether to charge a dollar (40 pence) for a brand new dinosaur quiz game that was perfect for my eight year old son. “Why don’t we look at the price label?” one of them eventually suggested, triumphantly. It said 50 cents. The two agreed I should pay 25 cents (12 pence), it being half-price day and all. Total cost of all presents: $20 (actually it was $18 but I felt embarrassed asking for change). The moral of this story? Egalitarians in a culture of plenty have endless opportunities to freeload.
11 Jan 6:11am
Why buy at all? I gave my spouse one full day of my time, for whatever purpose whatsoever. I was her “slave for a day;” it was a pure “honey do” day. She made a list of many of the things she’d been bugging me about for months, and I went down the list and did them. She said it was the best Christmas ever!
There’s also crafts, music and poetry, massages — you get the idea. The gift of oneself is beyond value, and costs nothing!
Starve the beast! Spend nothing on Christmas next year!
11 Jan 3:21pm
Avoid giving any material “stuff” that doesn’t help prepare the people you care about for our slide down the peak oil curve (and the myriad other feedback reality checks our dear earth needs to pay us in response to how we’ve treated it). Give a garden shovel, organic seeds, how-to books, a solar panel (system) that can power a laptop or recharge batteries, a solar cooker, a bicycle or bike trailer, a (used) copy of Catton’s “Overshoot” or Diamond’s “Collapse”, or fifty dollars to spend at the local farmer’s market. I suspect one reason why people with affluenza balk at ecological “alternatives” (ecology is not alter to nature) is that they have little to no experience with a farmer’s market, for instance, or never tried to do something they regularly do using solar energy instead. So if one feels a need to buy something material, I’d say go this route. But if “it’s the thought that counts,” then put your money away and give thought (in the form of spending time with others or, as Jan shows, volunteering to DO something for them). Oh, and please, extend the same ethic to other so-called “celebrations” that have been coopted by corporate industrial commerce, such as Halloween, Valentine’s Day, and Easter. (It would be nice to have a webpage that lists various ways, other than feeling apologetic, to respond to the “Don’t be such a Scrooge (or Grinch)” indictments one receives as a result of wanting to actively do something about the diabolical side of what would otherwise be an altogether special occasion.
11 Jan 3:59pm
I agree with Jan and personally never buy anyone any presents (ok so sometimes my girlfriend and young nieces get something small).
Jan: if you’re around in London on Feb 14th you (and anyone ready this, actually) should head down to Reclaim Love in Piccadilly Circus where we gather to remind people that you don’t have to buy stuff for people to show them you love them, you just have to love them!
We do a hippy holdy-handy send love out to the world ritual thing, then have a street party. Its always really great fun, come along! 🙂
Watch the videos (which I helped to film) and you’ll get a sense of what it is like 🙂
11 Jan 11:16pm
Josef, won’t be anywhere near London on Valentine’s Day, but will be listening for those vibes…
If you’re ever in south west British Columbia, arrange for a visit. We can’t promise anything as spectacular as what you’re planning, but we do hold hands and express gratitude before meals. 🙂
11 Jan 11:54pm
Rob, your anthropologist will appreciate these song lyrics, from Native American bard Jack Gladstone. Jack has degrees in Philosophy and Anthro, besides being a great singer. One of his takes on the demise of the Native Americans- they were killed by shopping.
13 Jan 2:01am
While I am as curmudgeonly as the next guy when it comes to shopping of any kind (but particularly “X-mas” shopping), I have to be equally curmudgeonly about references to the fall of Rome. The ‘fall of Rome’ was not a hitting-the-wall type collapse with people going about obliviously shopping for baubles one day and starving the next. It was a long, relatively slow decline, and most people didn’t suffer a catastrophic change to their lives. Not that I am arguing that most people today could be in for a catastrophic change to their lives, just that the fall of Rome might not be the best or most accurate example.
But on to Christmas commercialism…. Every year I tell people (friends, family….) that I DO NOT WANT ANY GIFTS and that I WILL NOT BE GIVING ANY GIFTS. Within our extended family we always agree there will be no gifts, just plenty of food and drink and social time. But someone always cheats, and usually lets it be known that they are going to cheat well before Christmas, thus toppling dominoes of guilt whereby (most) everyone ends up buying some (thankfully small) gift for everyone else because no one wants to be the person who got a gift and didn’t give one. Its maddening.
13 Jan 2:02am
above should’ve read-
“Not that I’m arguing that most people today COULDN’T be in for a catastrophic change to their lives…….”