A Less-Than Wonderful Time of the Year

Autumn Lloyd, Reporter

We made it through the familial passive aggression that only Thanksgiving can inspire, and now we are in the annual limbo period of advent calendars and frantic shopping in preparation for the chieftain of all holidays: Christmas.  Ah, the holiday season. It’s the time of year during which many Americans- and others, but I can speak best to Americans- force themselves to feign merriment as they unload their pocketbooks in exchange for Christmas candles destined to be regifted and toys that their sister’s kids will be sure to forget under the couch in four weeks. It’s the time of phone calls with cousins you haven’t thought about since a year ago and that singularly will-to-live destroying phenomenon known as Christmas carols. The most wonderful time of the year indeed. 

December is indisputably an expensive month to be an American. Gallup reports that in 2019 the average holiday shopper planned to spend $942 on gifts alone, and that doesn’t even include the $227.26 spent on non-gift purchases like decorations that Alliant Credit Union reported. That comes to $1,169.26 in total that the average shopper spent in the 2019 holiday season. Over a thousand US dollars for what? A plastic tree and some fuzzy socks to give to your least favorite uncle? Meanwhile, at the same time that we were dropping hundreds of dollars on gifts for colleagues and distant relations, the average American household had $6,124 in revolving credit card debt according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. Call me Scrooge, but maybe our bank accounts would look a bit healthier if we used that thousand dollars to shrink the interest accruing on our outstanding payments. 

Furthermore, many people don’t have the freedom to drop hundreds of dollars on something as frivolous as holiday gifts. The Census Bureau reports that in 2019 nearly 14% of all school aged children lived below the poverty line. With the COVID recession this year that number is bound to be even higher. The cultural pressure on these families to sacrifice scarce resources on Christmas gifts is enormous and leads to stress and shame in those that have to tell their children that they can’t afford both a present and food on Christmas day. Yes, there are charities that focus on getting donated gifts to children in need, but wouldn’t it be better if those charities could spend their time and money helping families rise out of poverty? What is it about the holiday season that forces usually rational people to equate giving a teddy bear to Toys for Tots with helping food banks provide nutritious food? I’m going to hazard a guess and say that a hot meal is a bit more important to a child’s well being than a stuffed animal. After all, Christmas is the season to be jolly, but only if you can afford to be. 

On a different note, holiday traditions bring to the fore some tough moral dilemmas. Take the idea of Santa Claus, for example. Our society has somehow decided that it’s festive to lie to our children for the express purpose of manipulating them into good behavior. When we could be teaching kids that being “nice” is necessary because of the inherent virtues of kindness and its role in formulating a healthy and productive community, we are encouraging them to expect external rewards for good behavior.  The idea that a child should be well behaved because she is being rated either “naughty” or “nice” by an omniscient man in the North Pole is not the one that we wish to embed in her ethical framework. We want to teach our offspring to be intrinsically motivated to be kind to each other simply because it’s the right thing to do, and Santa Claus is directly contrary to that objective. In the spirit of Christmas, we deceive our children for the majority of their formative years while simultaneously demonstrating to them that good behavior is a product of surveillance rather than character. Perhaps it would be better if Santa Claus stayed out of town. 

As I conclude, I would like to make it clear that this article is not a criticism of Christianity or Christmas itself, but of the ways in which we celebrate it (the same points can also be attributed to analogous holidays associated with their respective religions). I would also like to note that the unique circumstances of 2020’s holiday season make celebrating even less wise. This year the safest option is to stay home with your immediate family and ensure that the rest of our relations are still alive when Christmas 2021 comes around, but I chose not to focus on the pandemic because I wished this piece to address more than just COVID precautions.

I am not opposed to the idea of happiness and generosity, but a close look at the ways in which Americans celebrate reveals some valid concerns. Is the immaterial concept of “tradition” a strong enough force to stop us from changing for the better? I think not. We can change what Santa stands for to better reflect our ideals, we can put our time and effort to actually helping the needy, and we can recognize that the holiday season can also be about responsible financial decisions. I believe that we can make the holiday season a little better for all of us if only we have the backbone to decide to truly make it the most wonderful time of the year.