SASC Blog Piece: Have yourself…an Anti-Capitalist Little Christmas

I wrote an article titled 'Have yourself... an Anti-Capitalist Little Christmas...' for UBC's Sexual Assault Support Centre blog. December 7th, 2018

Have yourself… an Anti-Capitalist Little Christmas…

Have yourself an anti-capitalist little Christmas
Let your carbon footprint be light…

Admittedly, that doesn’t really roll off the tongue the same way ‘merry little Christmas’ does but I’m here to tell you that an anti-capitalist Christmas CAN be merry despite what stores may want you to think.

Historically, “Christmas” has meant many things to different cultures- most Pagan religions have some holiday based around the time of the winter solstice.[1] The common thread across cultures is that Christmas is a joyous celebration with friends and family. For many people, however, it can be a time of great anxiety, mourning, financial hardship, and material burden. This can mean going home to a dysfunctional or abusive family, a place where a loved one has died, or to a generally unpleasant environment that negatively impacts your mental wellbeing. The holiday season is also the time of year that brings by far the most financial stress.

Christmas today is highly commercialized. It’s a boom time for retail businesses. With modern expectations to spend hundreds of dollars on clothes, technology, toys, and other consumer goods to appease friends and family, many people go into literal debt. According to a U.S survey done by financial budgeting website MagnifyMoney, 44% of American holiday shoppers went $1,000 in debt and 5% went over 5,000 dollars into debt.[2] Canada’s holiday spending is also cause for concern. In 2017, a CIBC survey found that participants on average expected to spend over $900 dollars during the holiday season.[3] According to a 2017 OECD report[4], Canadians have the highest household debt in the world, and surely holiday spending is a contributing factor. A report from Statistics Canada in September of this year found that Canadians owe “$1.69 in credit market debt for every dollar of household disposable income.”[5]

So when did this start? When did Christmas become tied to mass consumerism and major debt for millions of Americans and Canadians? What happened to simple gifts, like oranges in stockings, candy, and homemade crafts?

Christmas has a long history, but the focus on gift giving we see now began in New York City during the first half of the 18th century.[6] New York City saw a great increase in population from 1800-1850, which made wealthier citizens nervous about being outnumbered by working-class people. During the holiday season, this fear was heightened with so-called “social-inversion” where the people of the working class demanded food and other goods from the elites while celebrating in the streets. The elites worried that such collective demands would eventually lead to protests when bosses didn’t give their workers time off for Christmas.[7]

To prevent this, a group of rich men formed a group called the “Knickerbockers” to intentionally popularize winter-time holiday traditions that would be celebrated in the home instead of the street, separating working class people from one another. Member William Irving penned the now famous poem The Night Before Christmas and delivered gifts to children, contributing to the tradition of gift-giving as a core part of the holiday.[8]

And here we are now: thousands of dollars in debt, hyperfocused on material goods, and miserable about how much we’re spending on things that often don’t have much use or meaning. But hope is not all lost! Despite the persistence of the gift-centering tradition of the holidays, you can choose to opt out. Here are some anti-capitalist alternatives to traditional holiday gifts:

  • If you’re going to buy things at all, shop local
    • Support local artists!
  • Make your own gifts!
    • Food! Art!
  • Gift-Swap: Trade Things
  • Trade Tasks
    • Offer to make a meal for someone who in turn will walk your dog
  • One Gift Policy/ White Elephant
  • Trade used items such as clothes and books
  • Redistribute the Wealth
    • Organize or participate in clothing, toy, or supply drives
    • Donate to local organizations and charities
    • Plan a community potluck
    • A boy in England[9] hangs winter coats on trees for people who can’t afford one
  • If you have extremely generous family members who insist on getting yousomething…
    • Ask for things you actually need or can do things with
    • Ask for money for experiences instead of objects
      • Money to put towards study abroad or savings in general
  • Don’t feel bad about refusing gifts
    • Your family may be a bit confused, but also probably a bit relieved and even impressed

Talk to your friends and family about Christmas and what it means to you, and try to start conversations about how you can have a happy holiday not centered around material mass consumption. The only thing I recommend you consuming during the holidays is your favorite holiday foods!

[1] Which Came First: Christmas or Consumerism?

[2] Market Watch: Here’s how long it will take Americans to pay off their Christmas debt

[3] CBC: CIBC Holiday Spending Survey Results

[4] OECD: Resilience in a Time of HIgh Debt

[5] CBC: Key Canadian Household Debt Ratio

[6] The Atlantic: Why Do People Give Gifts on Christmas?

[7] The Atlantic: Why Do People Give Gifts on Christmas?

[8] The Atlantic: Why Do People Give Gifts on Christmas?

[9] Boy Hangs Coats on Trees to Help Homeless

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