Christmas: The Assumption of Consumption

The other day I saw a Christmas card which read, “The faster we destroy the planet, the sooner Jesus will be here.”

First it made me laugh; then it made me think. At a time when the world’s most respected scientists affirm that ordinary Western consumption habits are indeed destroying the planet, what attitudes should we have toward the corporate event known as Christmas? Should we still be seeking salvation through over-consumption? Or is it high time to embrace some form of enlightened material restraint?

The materialistic orgy that is Christmas, of course, is but an exaggerated normality for Western societies. In everyday life we often do not notice ‘materialism’ because, like fish that do not know they are in water, it is all around us – it is the very stuff of the world.

Furthermore, the idea of being taken out of these surroundings is frightening. How could we survive? We are so entrenched in consumer culture that an alternative is almost unthinkable and largely unspeakable. And yet, as our fragile ecosystems tremble under the strain of over-consumption, it is becoming increasingly obvious that we need to explore alternative ways to live.

Fortunately, there is a promising alternative in the living strategy known as ‘voluntary simplicity.’ Voluntary simplicity, or ‘downshifting,’ is a quietly emerging social movement that rejects the materialistic values of consumer culture and voluntarily embraces a simpler, greener life of reduced consumption.

The rejection of consumerism arises out of the belief that the meaning of life does not and cannot consist in the consumption and accumulation of material things. The affirmation of simplicity arises out of the recognition that very little is needed to live well – that abundance is a state of mind, not a quantity of consumer products.

Sometimes called ‘the quiet revolution,’ this approach to life involves providing for material needs as simply and directly as possible, minimising expenditure on consumer goods and services, and directing progressively more time and energy towards pursuing non-materialistic sources of satisfaction and meaning. This generally means accepting a lower income and a lower level of consumption, in exchange for more time and freedom to pursue other life goals. Ancient but ever-new, the message is that those who know they have enough are rich.

This is the message of the Christmas Grinch, and thus it should come as no surprise that he is green – the Grinch is an environmentalist.

He knows that the inane jumping alarm clocks which we will receive this Christmas are made from materials taken from nature. He would have preferred nature, and suggests that we might too. He even has a few ideas about how we can celebrate a simpler, greener, non-consumerist Christmas.

The first thing the Grinch advises is to quietly suggest to your family and friends that they do not buy you any presents this Christmas. This need not sound so depressing, however. Happiness, after all, does not consist in the consumption and accumulation of material things, and you do not need another jumping alarm clock. Who knows, perhaps your actions might even wake others up?

The second thing the Grinch advises is limit the number of presents you buy for others (or even consider having a ‘Buy Nothing Christmas’) – not because you are a cheapskate and hate giving or because you do not like to celebrate, but because you are exploring ways to step more lightly on the planet. If you are involved in ‘Kris Kringle’, give a packet of vegetable seeds rather than a plastic gun.

The third thing the Grinch advises is to think ‘green’ when purchasing those presents which you believe are necessary and important. He is not talking about those products labelled green by clever marketers riding the bandwagon, and he is certainly not talking about emeralds. He is talking about those simple gifts which genuinely function to improve the health of the planet. The Grinch got his lady a pear tree, but he trusts that you can think for yourself. Vote with your money.

The fourth thing the Grinch advises is to use your imagination. There is no silver-bullet cure for consumerism. A thousand aspects of our lives need rethinking and the Grinch certainly does not have all the answers. But he has faith that human beings can imagine better, simpler, and greener ways to celebrate Christmas (and, indeed, their lives more generally). The problem is not so much how to live more simply; the problem is daring to make the leap of faith.

This leads to the Grinch’s final piece of advice: Be brave!

When a whole society is based on the assumption that more consumption is always better, it can be very difficult to live and think differently, even for those of us who want to. It is much easier to assimilate, to go with the flow, to conform to social expectations.

But the Grinch urges us not to let consumer culture define us. With a little courage and some imaginative effort we can all find ways to live more simply. Start with a few small steps, enjoy the adventure, and soon enough your life has changed.

So this Christmas, why not be a thoughtful non-conformist? Revolutionaries are needed.

3 Responses to “Christmas: The Assumption of Consumption”

  1. kim says:

    Christmas does not have to be a challenge on the environment or our values.
    This year my family is doing a second hand/handmade christmas. We have decided that we will all buy items that are either second hand from op shops or vintage stores or handmade by either ourselves or others. This is super simple way to bless each other, to enjoy the heart of christmas and not go crazy on consumption.
    We have been blogging a bit about our eco christmas, so check out our blog if your interested on more.

  2. Simon says:

    Excellent article – who would have thought Christmas could be so revolutionary?

  3. […] don’t want to be the Christmas Grinch again this year – see here for my Grinch article, “Christmas: The Assumption of Consumption.” But I do wish to counter some of the uber-consumerist messages that we all receive this time of […]

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  7. Pamela says:

    We are seeking to have a family Christmas experience this year. Visiting Longwood Gardens in PA. Giving Grandmother a year’s worth of minutes for her Trac-phone, and enjoying lots of home-made good food. We might enjoy one Christmas dinner out at a restaurant. The rest of family was told years ago that if you were over the age of 16, unless you were grandma or grandpa you would not receive gift. We stressed
    experiences, time together, good food shared, and giving to those with less in the community.

  8. […] values of consumer culture and voluntarily embraces a simpler, greener life of reduced consumption. The Simplicity Collective explains that the rejection of consumerism arises out of the belief that the meaning of life does […]

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