by Rachel Cardone
We’re a few days from achieving the end of year hat trick of American holiday season: we binge on candy at Halloween, then food at Thanksgiving, and Christmas, oh! Sweet Christmas! When we binge on stuff.
A quick Google query reveals that Americans spend an estimated $465 billion during the Christmas season. That means retailers can count on Seattle to spend around US$463 million. Yes, retailers count on us to spend money to stay in business; our economy and social order is premised on consumption. And yes, I like to give and receive gifts. But the numbers still make me a bit queasy.
Consider what US$463 million could do to bridge Seattle Public Schools’ budget gap. Or to improve school lunches: imagine the possibilities to ramp up integration of locally grown, organic produce into kids’ diets, while strengthening our local food economy. It could buy affordable housing units for over 8,000 Seattle-based homeless and low-income people, including families, so that they could celebrate the season at home.
I realize that these numbers are useful but not realistic. Homelessness, after all, is not merely a function of lack of housing. And I also realize that it’s dark outside. Very, very dark. Which makes me want to eat carbs and be inside somewhere, whether in my house or meandering in a shopping center somewhere. It makes me want to put lights all over the place, which is what I’ve been doing for several years until this one, when my eldest daughter became savvy.
The first request was a tree. “I want a huge tree just like the one (our friend) has.” Most of our friends have sizeable living rooms that can accommodate large trees. Unless we eliminate our couch, there’s no room in ours. And anyway, around 33 million Christmas trees are cut down every year – 9 million in Cascadia. We don’t want an artificial tree – leaving aside the unnecessary waste of plastic, we don’t have storage space for it during the other 50 weeks of the year. To the nursery we went, and I gave my daughter a choice between two living trees. To her credit she picked one, and said in the sweetest voice that it was the most wonderful, perfect tree ever. It is also living, in a pot, and we will return it after the holidays for salmon restoration. I count that as a huge win.
Then came Santa. “Santa Claus is real,” she insists, “because he’s everywhere.” She is so earnest about it, she’s already convinced her 2-year old sister, and some days I imagine them as present-demanding zombies. And suddenly I understand why parents buy into the idea. Why not? It keeps kids excited and promises to carry us through to the other side of January. Still, I’m tepid about it, not explaining it to her, but not hyping it, either. For example, to dilute her expectations of Christmas morning, we opened a few presents on the solstice – the real reason for the season. And you know what? She flashed from giddy to disappointed because what was under the wrapping paper didn’t meet her expectation. She quickly composed herself. “Can we open more?” We’re hard-wired to be consumers, I suppose.
My sister suggested we introduce the concept of Krampus or Elf on the Shelf, but why create more work for myself when I’d prefer to slow down and reflect on my life? Enforceability is also a challenge: I can’t quite call the monster with claws to take them away. No, we’re not doing Krampus or Elf.
Santa also leaves a lot of room for gift inequality among groups of friends and neighbors. The average US family spends $700 per year, which is far more than I spend, or even want to spend. A friend suggested Santa-lite: he can exist but can’t give the “best” gifts. If widely adopted, it would resolve the challenge of inequality and, one hopes, increase gratitude and appreciation for the gift-giving people who actually exist. Because let’s face it: one day, my kids will see what others kids get and wonder why Santa stiffed them. And other kids will look at my kids and think the same damn thing. If my kids are going to resent someone, I’d prefer they resent me, not some mythical creature on whom they’ve placed their hopes and dreams (for stuff).
Before I had kids, it seemed cut and dry to focus on the solstice, and not much more. This year the girls got on board with a living tree without much fuss, but it hasn’t even been a full Santa season and it’s clear he’s not going away quietly. I want my kids to appreciate the magic that I see and feel in the winter solstice, and I hope some day to reconcile all that is beautiful about lighting up the dark with cultural practices that can get ugly. I want to celebrate the shift towards the season of the Sun, not celebrate the birth of a Son. I’m learning that’s easier said than done, even in our non-religious household. I suppose the good news is, I’ll get another chance to figure it out next year.