Too many things?

Christmas commercialism has some saying 'Bah, Humbug!'

Shopping time, young teenage girl with shopping bags at shopping mall (CDC photo cou
Shopping time, young teenage girl with shopping bags at shopping mall (CDC photo courtesy of the US Army)

While thousands of shoppers prepared to converge this Friday on discount retailers and big box stores to stock up on merchandise for Christmas, Becca DuBey of rural Sauk County made other plans.

“I find it is usually a great day to share with a good book, watch birds and squirrels, and enjoy my home,” DuBey told friends on Facebook. Saturday she devotes to cleaning, “and on Sunday, I repeat Friday’s itinerary.”

Ann Savagian of Antigo agreed. “[I] don’t shop on Black Friday, and if I can, I avoid taking to the roads altogether on that day,” wrote Savagian in the same conversation. “I hate the crowds, the less-than-attentive drivers. The big push for consumerism, and the frenzy that the stores and on-line merchants try to drum up at this time of year, makes me very grumbly, and that’s not the person that I want to be, especially at this time of year.”

The annual December gift-buying binge is upon us once again, and along with it, the almost perennial lament that the holiday season has become excessively commercialized — a dissonant counterpoint to what, for Christians, is supposed to mark the birth some 2,000 years ago of a baby to a refugee homeless family whose only obstetrics ward was an old stable.

But some people do more than wring their hands in nostalgia for simpler times, including inverting the whole idea of Black Friday by boycotting stores in the name of “Buy Nothing Day.”

“We have this holiday that’s all about gratitude and thanks,” says Devi Reynolds, a resident of southeastern Wisconsin. “However, in order to celebrate we are encouraged to eat in excess and then the next day buy in excess.”

Black Friday “seems so odd,” she continues. “The behavior of people at stores is often reported to be the exact opposite of the grace and gratitude of the day before! The greed and selfishness (that probably go back to the pilgrims taking land from the Natives) is accepted and encouraged. People trampling over one another to get a deal on the latest toy or TV. That’s not something I want to celebrate so I just avoid it like the plague.”

Pocketbook pressure

Slightly more than half of the people — 51% — responding in a Bankrate.com survey said they felt pressure to spend more than they are comfortable with on gifts during the holidays.

Cutting back on materialism doesn’t have to mean spending nothing, says Christine Whelan, a consumer science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She advises people when buying gifts to be more deliberate in their choices and to consciously tap into their own values, the activities “that bring you joy,” and the causes or people they support when they make choices about gift-giving — instead of just going out and racking up big bills with impulsive purchases.

“If we take a moment to think about how to be conscious consumers and spend in keeping with our values, we can maximize our happiness and still participate in the gift-giving tradition of the holiday season,” Whelan says.

Looking around, one can find ways to mark the season that offer a direct counter-programming to the celebration that makes it all about spending and getting.

On the Sunday before Thanksgiving, Orchard Ridge United Church of Christ in Madison hosts an annual Fair Trade Fair, a tradition that goes back three decades or more.

“One of the tenets of our congregation is that we are committed to justice,” says Angie Schoeneck, a former organizer for the program. “This is one of the ways that we live that.”

More than a marketplace

The church deliberately calls it “a fair” instead of a sale, she says, because the experience is more than simply a marketplace.

Immanuel Pres-Alt Christmas
The Interchange Food Pantry gets donation gifts at the Alternative Christmas Market sponsored by Immanuel Presbyterian Church in Milwaukee. (Photo courtesy of Immanuel Presbyterian Church.)

Products are sold, such as the pastry mixes and jams that come from Porchlight Products, an operation of the Madison nonprofit agency Porchlight Inc., which offers job training and other services for homeless and formerly homeless people.

There are other locally made goods and some imported by local vendors. “It is not mass manufactured products,” Schoeneck says. “Everything is made by hand. It also makes a difference about where the money goes — you’re not paying stockholders, you’re paying a person.”

She has a favorite scarf made by a woman from Iran that she purchased at the fair. “We’re helping people build a better life,” she says.

The vendors are not charged a fee but asked to pay a voluntary 1% of their sales. “It’s been a very consistent group of exhibitors over the years,” Schoeneck says. “They like the event because the people who attend it want to hear their stories. People have relationships with them.”

This year, Immanuel Presbyterian Church in Milwaukee celebrates the 25th anniversary of what it calls the “Alternative Christmas Market.” The twist is that the gifts people buy aren’t objects to give to their family and friends, but donations made on their behalf to benefit a wide range of social service organizations.

The Alternative Christmas Market, launched in 1995, was first suggested by a long-time congregant “to be an alternative to the consumer-driven culture — as a way for people to give gifts to family members or friends who might not need more stuff but would value or appreciate a gift given in their name to a local or national nonprofit,” says the Rev. Robert Ater, an associate pastor at Immanuel.

Each year 12 to 15 local and national organizations take part. “We try to have a variety of groups that address varying degrees of social issues and concerns — things that reflect our concerns for people in the community and in the world,” Ater says.

The church’s mission committee works with participating charities to identify concrete items at various price points that those charities would need or provide to their clients. Those go on a list from which people participating as “buyers” make their purchase. For instance, a donation to Habitat for Humanity, one of this year’s groups, could be $25 for a deadbolt lock or $50 for a bathroom vanity counter top. The participating donors “buy” the item in the name of a friend, relative or other loved one.

“When we put together the list we help develop gifts that we think will fit different demographics,” Ater says, such as items for children, items for older adults, items for women or teenagers, and so on.

At the annual market — this year, held at the church on Dec. 8 — the prospective donors circulate among displays of participating charities, checking off items as they go and then writing an overall check for the total.

In recent years the market has collected between $20,000 and $30,000 annually. “We’ve collected over $500,000 in the last 25 years,” Ater says.

“It’s particularly at a time and a season where people are thinking about those that they care about most in their own lives,” he says. “This is  a way to connect something meaningful for someone they care about” — the honorary recipient — “and someone they don’t even know” — the charity client who may benefit from the actual item that a donation can purchase for them.

Retailers rethinking

Replacing Black Friday with “Buy Nothing Day” seems unlikely to catch on in a big way anytime soon, but some retailers are embracing the concept. Cosmetics maker and retailer Deciem is closing its retail stores and also its website today, Huffpost reports, while outdoor gear company REI has been closed the day after Thanksgiving for five years running. Other retailers have, at least, opted out of the growing Black Friday-to-Thanksgiving creep that saw retailers opening the day before, making workers get back on the job when people are still digesting their turkey and stuffing.

For Rob Bundy of Milwaukee, the contradictions are just too much. He and his family have found their own way to opt out.

 “Thanksgiving is all about gratitude and sharing with those less fortunate than you,” says Bundy. “I can’t think of anything more dissonant than to follow it up the next day by fighting crowds of strangers in a materialistic frenzy” — unless, he adds sardonically, it might be “a real-world, all-Pilgrim Hunger Games run by vengeful turkeys.”

So the Bundy family spends Black Friday going for walks in the woods or visiting a museum. Or they might just hang out with friends and family, “or settle in to read in front of the fire.” 

This Friday, he says, they plan a visit to the Milwaukee Public Museum, where the refurbished Streets of Old Milwaukee exhibit is decorated for the Christmas season. A stroll to other downtown attractions — the Christkindlmarket, decorations at Milwaukee’s Pfister Hotel, and a walk through “the forest of Christmas trees at Cathedral Square,” are also on the list.

“That sounds wonderful to me,” Bundy says. “We have too many things. What we don’t have enough of is time together.

Erik Gunn
Erik Gunn reports and writes on work, the economy, health care & policy, and related subjects for the Wisconsin Examiner. He spent 24 years as a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine, Isthmus, The Progressive, and other publications, winning awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, beat coverage, business writing, and commentary. An East Coast native, he previously covered labor for The Milwaukee Journal after reporting for newspapers in upstate New York and northern Illinois. He's a graduate of Beloit College (English Comp.) and the Columbia School of Journalism. At the Examiner office first thing in the morning, he's the one with YoutTube on streaming Springsteen concerts, 1970s Americana rock and the occasional British Progressive music cuts in between model railroad how-to clips. So far his campaign to build an HO layout in the our office conference space has produced only pats on the head and eyerolls from his colleagues, but he loves them anyway.