There’s a lot about Christmas that I love. The twinkly lights in the darkness; the sense of restoration and retreat; valuing and celebrating togetherness; the increase in volunteering and charitable activity it engenders. And there’s a lot that I don’t like …mostly the consumerism and in particular the mindless gifting.
The environmental impact
For the first, there is the impact of all the consumerism on our beautiful planet. For a powerful and compelling argument for why we must stop trashing the planet in the name of Christmas I recommend George Monbiot’s article “The Gift of Death.” In it he references Annie Leonard’s research for her film The Story of Stuff, and the discovery that only 1% of what we buy remains in use six months after sale. A statistic I find utterly shocking. What then, of the other 99%? As Monbiot puts it “For thirty seconds of dubious entertainment, or a hedonic stimulus that lasts no longer than a nicotine hit, we commission the use of materials whose impacts will ramify for generations.” “We have come to associate consumption with prosperity and happiness” at the expense of the planet.
Alongside Monbiot, there are plenty of others who speak eloquently to the environmental agenda for curbing the consumerism associated with Christmas, so what I’m going to explore in this article is not the impact on the planet, but, through the lens of my personal experience, the psychological and relational impact.
What is the effect of this excessive gifting on our human connections and relationships?
In my family, we didn’t write letters to Santa. Actually, I grew up with a sense that Christmas wish lists were something to be frowned upon. And whilst this could be interpreted as an indication that my parents were actively trying to encourage their children to lead less materialistic lifestyles, this was sadly not the case. Christmas was, in fact, a time when large quantities of gifts were exchanged.
I remember, as a small child, the excitement of a deep pile of presents in shiny wrapping under the tree. But what I also remember, and still with a sense of shame, was the disappointment when the wrapping paper came off. You see, not only was Christmas characterised by excessive present buying, but I had internalised an expectation that I should be grateful for what I received. Rarely were the contents of the gifts something that I really wanted or enjoyed, but without exception, I felt an obligation to gratefully receive them. A message reinforced by the dreaded thank you letter writing that had to take place before the end of the Christmas holiday. To this day I still find it painfully shameful to ask for a receipt to exchange a gift or to take it to a charity shop – I guess in some way it feels like I am injuring the giver. As a consequence, I am still, as a full-grown adult, wearing items of clothing I really don’t like!
Over time, through my own inner work, I’ve understood that repeatedly receiving gifts that just weren’t ‘me’ left me with a sense of my wishes not being important; that the people giving the gifts didn’t really care about me enough to ‘see’ or ‘know’ what I might enjoy. No wonder, even 40 years later, my amygdala is on red alert when unwrapping the presents time approaches on Christmas Day.
Is it possible, then, that mindless gifting can actually undermine the quality of our relationships? Have the values of our market driven growth economy led us to believe that the bigger and more expensive the gift, the more the recipient will think we care? Whereas, actually, it conveys a message that we don’t? And, if so, what does a less insidious form of gifting look like? Is our impulse to reciprocate arising from the receipt of a gift, by definition damaging to relationships?
Lessons from gift economies
For insight into these questions, it’s useful to remember that human society successfully functioned on gift economic principles for thousands of years before money came along. And there are rare pockets of indigenous community still operating in this way. In these communities gratitude and reciprocity are what maintain the necessary circulation of giving to others for the economy to work. Gifts flow to where they are needed, and everyone flourishes because all needs are met. Reciprocity springs from the joy and genuine gratitude experienced when our needs are fulfilled.
Contrast this with my experience: I repeatedly received gifts that did not fulfil my needs. I’m not talking about material needs here, but the psychological needs to have my preferences and interests acknowledged and to be seen for who I was. These were left unmet. Gratitude and reciprocity then, became a ‘should’ and a burden, and were certainly not naturally arising joyful impulses. The only needs that were truly met were those of the hungry market-driven growth economy machine.
The problem with money
I’ll save a more thorough dissection of the needs of the growth economy for another time (or for a deep dive try Charles Eisenstein’s seminal work, “Sacred Economics”) but I will offer one last reflection about the part that money has played in the breakdown of healthy feelings of reciprocity: As soon as we put a price on a product or a service, we isolate it from the web of inter-connectedness that exists in a gift economy. Once I have paid for what you have sold to me, there is no expectation of further contribution or connection between us. The human element of reciprocity in the exchange is lost. Our relationships of exchange therefore become ‘transactions’ and, most significantly to this discussion, we stem the flow of gifts through society. Gift Based Coaching is an experiment in stimulating this flow again.
So, before you rush out to do your last minute Christmas shopping in mindless slavery to the market-driven growth economy monster, perhaps you can ask yourself what needs you are meeting? What is the message that you REALLY want to convey? And which of YOUR gifts – the gifts of humanity – might you draw on to show you really care?