shopping

by John Colgan-Davis

“God gave us memory so that we might have roses in December.” — James M. Barrie, author of “Peter Pan”

December is upon us, and the season of shopping is definitely here. It has always struck me as funny how quickly we go from the feel of family closeness and gratitude of Thanksgiving to the all-out commercial craziness of the holiday shopping season.

They seem to be opposing entities, but we whiz from one right to the other. And the shopping madness is happening earlier than ever, with stores having their Black Friday sales on or even before Thanksgiving.

Holiday commercials and decorations are appearing shortly after Halloween now, and we are constantly bombarded with pleas to buy, buy, buy. We are, of course, a capitalist society, and sales and business are a huge part of what makes us who we are.

But it can still feel a little overwhelming and impersonal, as if we are being raised — or rather, “trained” — to be nothing more than consumers and pursuers of “stuff.” It is as if we are seen as little more than open wallets, blank checkbooks and flashing credit cards. And the Black Friday “Doorbusters” slide easily into Cyber Monday specials, and on we go. We buy; therefore we are.

This all had its roots in the Great Depression. Merchants put pressure on President Roosevelt to move Thanksgiving back from the last week in November to the third week. They wanted another week of shopping between Thanksgiving and Christmas to try to boost falling sales.

So in 1939 Roosevelt moved the holiday back one week to the next-to-last Thursday of the month. (Some Novembers have five Thursdays, so in those cases Roosevelt and Congress moved Thanksgiving back to the fourth Thursday of November.)

But American citizens revolted, and millions continued to celebrate Thanksgiving on the last Thursday of the month. Several states even refused to recognize the new date, and confusion reigned since some states were celebrating Thanksgiving on one Thursday and some a week later.

Finally, in 1941 Roosevelt gave in and moved the federal holiday back to the last week of November. So the merchants responded for the first time with special discounts, offers and sales for that Friday after Thanksgiving to lure customers into the stores.

Eventually they started calling those specials “Black Friday” sales because for many of the merchants that was the first time they went into the black (turned a profit) for the entire year. The sales caught on with consumers, the merchants kept doing it, and the rest is history.

Lately, though, more and more people have become concerned about excessive commercialism and the effect of overconsumption on our culture. This has led to some interesting, and to me, healthy alternatives to the mad commercial push.

There are the “Shop Small” and the “3/50” Projects. Yes, they want people to shop, but these efforts encourage people to shop in small, locally owned shops instead of chain stores, malls or online.

The argument goes that every $100 spent in an independently owned brick and mortar store returns $68 back to the community in terms of payroll, taxes, and other expenditures. That leads to more economic investment in the local economy.

Spending $100 in a mall or chain store returns only $43, and online sales return $0 to the community. Another idea is “Giving Tuesday,” which calls for people to give money directly and/or in people’s names to non-profits working for social change.

Often on Giving Tuesday people can generate matching gifts from companies and go in with other individuals to support a given effort or raise money for a particular project. This makes gift giving tied to ideas and causes, and not just to “things.”

Of course, one can do this at any time, but doing it the Tuesday after Cyber Monday calls more attention to it and places the idea of dedicated giving in stark contrast to simple consumption. There is also the idea of “joint funding” of ideas and causes.

I know of several families who have a “no-gift-giving agreement” for the holidays, but each member donates a certain amount of money to give as a family to a micro-lending organization or to a museum or to a social justice organization or community group.

There are also family members who have joined in to support a crowd-sourced project or idea. Again, it is spending and giving, but the purpose and effects are quite different. It is not about getting more stuff.

So while the airwaves, websites, magazines and other media are all filled with the call to mindlessly spend, spend, spend, we do have some real options. We can say just what these holidays mean to us by allowing our spending and giving to say some important things about who we are and what we believe. We can speak with how we spend. And that is a powerful idea. Have great holidays!

John Colgan-Davis is a long-time Mt. Airy resident, teacher and harmonica player for the rockin’ blues band, Dukes of Destiny.

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