by Margaret Dilloway
The other day, I told my 6-year-old daughter that she had a playdate the day after Thanksgiving.
“On Black Friday?” she asked.
Doh. How did she know about Black Friday? How can she not? Even if she couldn’t read, there are Black Friday commercials on all the time. Spend, save, spend.
I have mixed feelings about Black Friday.
My father worked in retail. Christmas season made us or broke us as a family. If people were willing to spend money on jewelry, our Christmas and a part of the year would be comfortable. If the retail season tanked, so did we. So one part of me, remembering this, hopes that people will spend money on gifts to support all the people in retail.
But another part of me thinks Christmas is a black hole of consumerism. After all, I am now a (admittedly kind of sporadic) church-attending Catholic. Christmas is supposed to be a time to reflect on the birth of Christ and all that this means. To spend time with beloved family and friends. Not to run out and buy essentially useless consumer goods.
What good does stuff do you in the end? In the past ten years, we have helped move three elderly relatives out of their homes. This involved having estate sales and garage sales and getting rid of every accoutrement they have accumulated throughout their lives. Boxes of collectibles, years unseen in garages, now had to be disposed of. While I went through innumerable vases and tea cups and assigned price tags, I thought about how much time it had taken to accumulate these possessions, and how, near the end of their lives’ journeys, these objects that seemed so precious were just dust-collectors. How all those hours of collecting and purchasing didn’t matter now.
In 2009, my husband lost his job, due to the trickle-down effect of a mini-Madoff criminal. The only job he could find was in Honolulu. But the move required that we get rid of almost everything. All the possessions that we had acquired through more than a decade (and three children) together. The very idea almost crippled the plan. I considered not moving to Hawaii because it required so much sacrifice, but I felt it would be stupid to not move just because I was overly attached to material possessions. Plus, as anyone in this position can tell you, a job is a job, and you go where you have to.
One of the toys we got rid of was a pink wooden Costco play kitchen set we had bought for our youngest daughter for Christmas one year. My husband had driven to Indio, out in the desert, to get the very last set they had in stock. At the time, it seemed important that she get the kitchen set for Christmas. She did enjoy playing with it. But eventually she ignored it. And then, when we moved to Hawaii, we had to get rid of that kitchen set, and I wondered why I had been so worried about buying it in the first place.
What I’m trying to say is, all Christmas season long, we spin on this hamster wheel of consumerism. Driving like madmen from one place to another, searching for the gift that will make our kids immeasurably happy, save the relationship, show our love. Spending money that is often theoretical, put on credit cards. Does the end justify the means?
I am beginning to think it does not.
Whether we have to move into assisted living, have to move across an ocean, or have a house burn down, all those things we slaved to get become all they are meant to be: inanimate objects without meaning. Junk that needs to be given away.
Not that having material things is useless.. When we moved to Hawaii (and then back, eighteen months later) not having the basics of creature comforts sucked, to put it inelegantly. Sleeping on the floor, eating off paper plates, spending every bit of extra money to buy the essentials while forgoing grocery items like milk, wasn’t a fun time.
But now that this is more than a year in the past, I remember that discomfort less than the fact that we went through a bad time together, bereft of material possessions, and came through it okay. I like to think that this experience taught the kids we don’t need to have a lot of stuff, a lot of things, to be happy and creative.
You know that movie, A Christmas Story? It’s one of my favorites. In the film, young Ralphie wants a Red Rider BB gun. But the movie’s not just about the big moment on Christmas morning. It’s about all the other stuff that happens around Christmas. Visiting crazy Santa. Fighting a bully. Getting a Christmas tree. The leg lamp. The dogs eating the turkey. Eating out at a Chinese place.
It’s not about the stuff, it’s about all the other events. The people, the funny stories. The experiences.
It only took me about 35 years to learn this. As a kid, I don’t remember much about my family’s Christmases, beyond what I got. We didn’t go to church, or out to look at lights, have friends over, go to parties or play games. It was all about the gifts and the decorations. So when those material things didn’t happen, Christmas lost its luster.
But when I remember the Christmas we spent in Hawaii, I can’t tell you what the kids got. It was modest. What we all remember is going to the uber-crowded Honolulu lights parade, eating Christmas Eve dinner sandwiches on the beach, driving up a big hill to look at newspaper-advertised lights that turned out to be pitiful.
My intent isn’t to tell people not to go shopping on Black Friday (like I could change anyone’s mind anyway). It’s to say this: if you don’t go shopping, if you don’t stand in line for eight hours to get your child a reduced-price scooter or your husband a big-screen TV, it won’t matter. Build the memories more than the objects, and you’ll never have a bad holiday, no matter how much the economy collapses.