The lights are going up. The decorations are coming out. And the stores are playing an increasing assortment of the holiday classics for their helpless shoppers.
It is that time of year again, once more.
A few days ago, while working, a question crossed my mind. A question of which I can not recall ever considering before. That question being, is perpetuation of the Santa Clause fairy tale harmful?
First, the obvious.
In terms of fairytales, that involving Santa Clause is about as benign as you can get (for a great contrast, pick ANY religion). I know that the Santa story is not likely to spawn any negative reaction within its believers. However, my question is less concerned with content than it is with the underlying behaviour that is required for such a belief. Faith.
I could be arriving late to this debate (if such exists). If not, then this really seems an important thing for secularists (particularly secular parents) to consider.If I were to take the harmless side, I could say that this belief will eventually become obviously untrue for anyone, no intervention required. Sure, a search around the world would likely yeild some anecdotal cases of adults of all ages still believing in the Santa Myth. Genuine flat-earthers do exist after all. But it’s certainly not the rule.
On the harmful side, I can’t help but think that this fairytale could pose some harm due to its justification of blind faith. Even if it’s a temporary belief, is that a good lesson for a child? Then again, given an upbringing with parents that highlight the importance of logic and reason, many of these children may well see though the ploy early anyway.
Secular parents will raise children that will be equipped early on to recognize the trickery of the faith pedlar. And theistic parents will never question (or see any need to question) the Santa fairytale. Thus, this whole topic is rendered pretty much moot.
Despite that seemingly incompatible disagreement between the secular and the theistic cohorts however, there is fertile ground for discussion about the holidays to be had. Different stripes on the theistic side like to lay claim to the holidays to the point of intolerance and bigotry (“The War On Christmas!”, “Put The Christ Back In CHRISTmas!), but really, the way most first worlder’s celebrate (or more, behave) is not all that different.
For many, it all starts on Black Friday. The official commercial start to the Christmas shopping season. Otherwise known as, hell on earth for any poor bastard working in the retail sector. My biased analysis aside however, I don’t think it is a stretch to say that the holidays can be a quite stressful and expensive time of year for many people. It certainly was the case for me.
Like most people, I have warm memories of the holidays going back to when I was a child. Even after Santa transitioned from an existing figure to a seasonal symbol, I still enjoyed the time of year. When I was young, it was mostly for the gifts. But later, it became more about the visiting with family. Things did get a bit awkward in my teen closet atheist years. Openly and overtly so for a couple years after I was accidentally wrenched out of that closet by Facebook in late 2008 (due to a comment on a choice photo and more lenient privacy settings than I realized). But since, things have stabilized.
Up until (I think) Christmas 2009, I used to go through many of the same common issues that plague most of us did at this time of year. Worrying about Christmas shopping, that dreaded end of year expense. Usually I just ended up spending 2 or 3 hundred on gift cards, sparing one year when I paid a high school friend to make different beaded necklaces for the family.
Being in retail and customer service for my whole working career thus far, I have never really associated the holidays with anything positive. Merry Christmas? Happy Holidays? Ha! But it wouldn’t be until around 2009 that I would truly realize that this whole holiday tradition was ridiculous. It may or may not have begun with the whole War on Christmas thing, perpetuated by every thoughtless idiot at around this time on both social media and VIA coat pins. Whatever the case, it eventually culminated in me realizing that SOMEONE had indeed hijacked the season (and really, every other holiday!). However, contrary to the biased media hosts and intolerant social media dwellers, the majority of this hijacking didn’t come from the secular community. It’s more rooted in capitalism itself.
In a consumer and consumption based econamy, everything rides on sales. Buying shit. Keeping the big wheel turning. Given this fact, it’s no surprise that decades of marketing has convinced a population to pursue a typical religious tradition (giving (to the needy!) ) as if on steroids. Whether or not many are guilty of deliberate misunderstanding of the tradition and it’s purpose is debatable, but ultimately meaningless. What matters more, is that this behavior has seemingly become mandatory. Not mandated by law of course. But non-partisipation is typically looked down upon in the social realm.
It’s even a big part of the popular culture Most of us grew up in. Most reading this (at least in North America) will instantly recognize the following characters from popular holiday childrens tales.
Just seeing the imagery brings me back to a different time. A time long before anything really mattered. Personal memberries, of sorts. Despite that aspect, I still have a positive view of both. They are just stories, after all. Not to mention that compared to the blatant marketing propaganda that have seen in modern television shows and (particularly) cartoons more recently, these little tales of old are nothing.
That said however, it’s hard now NOT to see the connection between the current holiday status quo of today, and these kid oriented cultural pillars. I have even heard people refer to themselves as Scrooge’s if they aren’t participating in gift exchanging for some reason or another.
As outlined before, I decided I would no longer participate in this commercialized tradition a few years ago. For a number of reasons that have been ironed out in the years since.
1.) Peace of mind.
First, was the stress aspect. Looking around at the world, I would see “holiday stress” regarded in the public discourse as just a normal occurrence. Like hearing about so called food coma’s, it‘s just part of the process. Working within various areas of the retail sector gives a person a whole new glimpse of this phenomenon. You see the at times total dehumanization (Black Friday sale, anyone?) that makes me call greetings like “Merry Christmas!” and “Happy Holidays!” a joke. And even funnier, are the Christmas Crusaders. Often balls deep in the commercial aspect, yet yelling at anyone that will listen about how people other than Christ worshipers are stealing the holiday. Their holiday. How DARE those intolerant commercial and societal tendencies give consideration to everyone’s beliefs (as opposed to just a single cohorts)! It’s OUR originally stolen holiday to dominate!
Associated with peace of mind, is financials. How the holidays hinder the chequebook.
Another quite normalized and accepted quirk of the holidays, is the financial hangover that often comes with it. There is even a day (or a week) in January that is noted as being quite depressing (since it coincides with the arrival of December’s credit card bills). I used to be quite Willy nilly in this regard, in terms of spending. Even though I often settled for gift cards towards the end (it’s just easier), it still adds up when your borrowing the money. Particularly when the lender charges at a 19% or more interest rate.
But fortunately, my departure from the tradition of which I was raised begun with a quite simple question . . . Why? What is this all for?
I made the realization that most (if not ALL of) the money that I had ever spent on holiday gifts, was almost always wasted. I don’t think its a stretch to think that most others may come to a similar conclusion, either.
Like other participants in this expensive yearly trade of items, I am not really struggling (in terms of getting by). I am low on the economic ladder by first world standards, but my cupboards are never bare. The phrase “no food in the house” for me typically means the freezer is devoid of meat (till payday), even though the cupboards have pasta, rice, Kraft dinner, canned stuff . . . I’m not a begger. Though some things would be nice (like a computer to compose this stuff), I am self sufficient. As are most in the gift game.
I also took into consideration what had happened with most of the gifts I had ever received. Aside from clothing (though possibly with clothing, if it’s an item you won’t wear), items you don’t have much use for often end up shelved after a few months, if not immediately. It ends up serving no purpose despite the money spent on it. Which becomes a net negative if the item is thrown into the trash slightly used (or unused) at a future date. Not just a waste of money, but also a waste of resources.
3.) The Big Picture
Much like the problem of food waste world wide, the tradition of thoughtless gifting has consequences that stretch from the individual household, right on up to the macro of whole civilizations.
Let’s start with the overt holiday staple that is wrapping paper.
Made in all manor of designs and concepts, most is not recyclable. A terrible use of virgin paper, an inefficient use of recycled paper. And even if you do choose a wrapping paper that is recyclable (or one that is just marketed as such, like flushable wipes), that is no gurentee. First off, is the lazy host (it’s often easier just to grab a large trash bag and fill, rather than sort anything (let alone sorting something that normally ISN’T recyclable to begin with!) ). Then there are the material sorters upstream from your household blue bin. Having to go through thousands of pounds of material daily and trained to pull and discard wrapping paper, do they really have the time to check each piece to make sure it’s the recyclable variety?
Highly doubtful. The ambiguity and ever evolving number of plastics on the market (many of which are not reclaimed for various reasons) is enough of a headache.
Then comes energy usage.
The holidays brings all kinds of both inter and intra national traffic movement of both humans and boxes. Giant freight ships and semi’s move goods to brick and mortar stores world wide. Increased utilization of online shopping sources puts yet more boxes in the air. Some comes by surface to, but this is 2016 . . . I don’t want to wait 2 WEEKS! Enormous volumes of petroleum are used just for transportation, which directly transitions into greenhouse gas emissions. And this is not even considering the emissions from the manufacturing processes of all this stuff! Or the food aspect (since it’s typically a feast).
And when all is said and done after this gargantuan orgy of thoughtless consumption (typically ending at the landfill), who benefits?
3.) The Beneficiaries
When asked directly in different contexts, even secular sources often claimed that giving gifts often makes them feel good. Many Christians (somewhat hilariously) turned to Jesus and the scripture’s for justification. Apparently in the Western world, “give generously” and “help the needy” now means buying crap for friends and relatives. Even though most median incomes would seem to make these people the antithesis of needy.
But getting back to the question of who benefits . . . business. Smaller and localized businesses I have little issue with. But these days, it is not them that inherits the vast majority of the holiday cash (be it online, or brick and mortar). Its the big guys that get the largest share. Entities that often thrive by undercutting regional competition. Entities that invest a little in materials and labour, but make enormous fortunes by way of slick marketing (particularly with childrens items). Is it possible that the single biggest yearly boost to the 1% of many nations is Christmas?
4.) The Response
Of course, once I had identified these things, I had to come up with an alternative. One would have been to drop out of all the seasonal festivities altogether. But that was not considered for long. Even if I choose to NOT participate, one would be faced with it pretty much every time you walk out the door after October 31st. Which is a recipe for 3 agonizing months of frustration (as if its not bad enough as it is!).
Instead, I decided to take a page from Jesus’s book. The whole “Give generously!” and “Give to the needy!” thing is sound advice for anyone. Which is why rather than throwing my money at some corporation or another for crap to pass around, I started supporting charitable causes of my choosing. I feel no obligation to do so. I just do it because I want to.
As for everything else that goes along with the holiday season, rather than fight it, I’ve tried to put my own twist to it. It’s not a celebration of anything, for me. It’s more, a time of togetherness. A time to enjoy yourself in the companionship of good friends. Or, a well deserved (and much needed!) Day or 2 off after a crazy 3 months of hell.
That’s the best part of a secular existence. The blueprint is yours to make whatever you want of it.
I used to spend a fair amount of time arguing (particularly in atheist-type forums, with mostly atheists) the benefits and logic of my decision. But it was harder to get people to give up crap than I had anticipated. Which should have been obvious, really. But I am naïve.
Indeed, we do make our own choices. It is not up to me to dictate an individual’s (or families) tradition’s. But in these days of mass consumption, overpopulation and looming resource limitations, it is in our childrens interests to give up the easy and make some hard choices.
To quote the brilliant Family Guy Christmas episode from (I believe) 2010, Christmas is killing Us .