Rethinking the “Reason”

“Tis the reason…” quipped the cover of a shopping guide for a retail establishment that should have known better.

As if the insanity of Boxing Day shopping wasn’t enough in Canada, I’ve returned after 4 years living in Japan to discover the tendrils of America’s notorious Black Friday sales creeping north of the border as well. It is clear that regardless of which holiday tradition one hails as the “reason,” – be it the Christian/pagan origins of “Christ’s Mass,” various cultural reiterations involving a generous/terrifying old man with a beard, the generic/safe “happy holidays,” or otherwise – everyone bows at the altar of the shopping gods.

Christmas Zombies

So what’s wrong with a little bit of holiday spirit? Well, I guess that depends on what is meant by “spirit.” Christmastime was, in Japan, often one of the most difficult times to be away from “home.” It wasn’t really a big deal, culturally, and so my husband and I didn’t often give many gifts and didn’t expect much in return. Any hint of something familiarly Christmassy brought great joy. An inherited 3-dollar fake plastic tree livened up our living room, along with a string of Christmas cards from family and friends abroad. Our apartment – when we weren’t travelling – became a serial gathering place for others like us who needed some chili-chocolate mulled wine and basically just a place to belong for the holidays. No place like home base.

That’s what it boiled down to, really: A place to belong. We missed our families, and let’s be honest the food. We did not miss the frenzied shopping and the complicated lists and the crowded malls and the credit card debt and the worries about who would want what and where can I get it and why does no one use turn signals anymore?

This year Christmas will bring family and food, but I am reluctant to return to the shopping gods’ altar. Everywhere I go I feel the pressure to shop, to buy, to spend – never mind that I’ve nothing to spend this year due to various circumstances (my husband is a Master’s student, need I say more?). Just walking through my neighbourhood in downtown Ottawa, past frenzied shoppers and freezing panhandlers, is almost enough to send me spiralling into reverse culture shock and homesick-for-I-don’t-even-know-where-anymore despair.

Why, in this country that I longed for during the Christmas season for the past four years, have I suddenly come to feel as though a lack of something as stupid as money means I am somehow “missing out” on Christmas? That I have nothing of value to give? That if I can’t participate, I don’t really belong? As the founders of Advent Conspiracy wonder,

“The Christmas story is a story of love, hope, redemption and relationship. So, what happened? How did it turn into stuff, stress and debt?”

As the nativity story goes, Jesus was born in a manger – in the feeding trough of a dirty stable amidst farm animals – not because his mom was super into doing things unconventionally, but because there was “no room at the inn.” No place to belong. But they found a place anyways.

And so will I.

6 thoughts on “Rethinking the “Reason”

  1. One year, I went into a ridiculous amount of debt buying gifts for all seven of my siblings. (Which doesn’t sound that impressive after the TEN siblings mentioned above.) It was one of the worst Christmases on memory. I vowed to never do that again. Over the last few years, my husband and I have skipped out on the gift giving to each other altogether because traveling to see family bleeds the coffers dry. As my kids get older, I suppose it will be harder to resist the “altar of the shopping gods” – but this year, they’re 15 months old & the gifts they’ll be getting from their grandmas, aunts & uncles will be plenty. That said, this year they don’t know any better so it’s easy.

  2. My family swore off gift-giving after my brother filed for bankruptcy a few years back. I usually just make some extra spice rub and package it up. Easy, and appreciated.

  3. Living elsewhere is such a great way of distilling what’s important in your own culture, isn’t it? And it’s always so confronting to be faced with the distasteful bits of our cultures. I hope you’re able to find the connection to the less consumerist pleasures of Christmas this year, I’m sure you will.

  4. I think the value of festivals goes up once you move away. I see Indians in US or other countries celebrating our festivals with more depth and meaning than we do here in India. Maybe with the rapid commercialising of festivals… this is the norm?

  5. I have ten siblings and yes, I used to shop for each and every one of them. I also gave Christmas gifts to my many nieces and nephews and my parents as well. It was expensive, exhausting and silly.

    Several years ago, one of my sisters who worked in a domestic violence shelter said, “Wouldn’t it be nice to have a smaller family to give to? And as a matter of fact, I know such a family.”

    It was fabulous. Each of us shopped for a basic necessity of life. My task was to find sweats for a family of four. I was in and out of Target in fifteen minutes.

    It was the best and most appreciated Christmas ever.

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