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Spirit of the Holidays vs. Spirit of Capitalism

December 29, 2012

So Christmas is over and the holiday season is coming to a close.  I just wanted to post some thoughts on Christmas and giving and Capitalism. I came across an old essay I wrote for my History of Capitalism class and it got me thinking about some things. Yesterday I was shopping in the Christmas clearance aisle at Target and it just brought it all back to me about how commercialized Christmas is.

I love Christmas. It’s never been my favorite Holiday, but I really like it. However, as an adult who works, not a student with a Christmas break, it’s harder to get into the Christmas Spirit. One thing that has changed though, is that now I have money and I absolutely LOVE getting everyone in my family a gift. This year I was able to give gifts to a lot of people and choosing the gifts and seeing them opened and appreciated made Christmas a lot of fun. I started buying Nathan’s gifts in November, because I couldn’t wait any longer, I was so excited. I have always tried to give gifts, but in the past, I have given little homemade gifts. I am not saying anything against homemade gifts, but it is definitely more fun to get things people want but can’t get themselves for Christmas. Especially because I don’t make a lot of time for myself to make homemade gifts. I told Nathan that I wanted to crochet us a tree skirt for our tree next year. Good luck to me.

One year, my family was low on money, so we made a big deal about everyone doing homemade gifts for everyone else. It was a lot of fun and very moving. Taking the money and the neediness and the commercial hunger out of Christmas was really great. It was one of the best Christmases. The next year, we tried to do the same thing, but it didn’t really work out the same way. Not everyone was able to give gifts and there was no Christmas cereal, so it was a sad Christmas. Was it sad because there weren’t enough gifts? I don’t know.

Obviously, for me, Christmas is about the birth of Christ. I didn’t do a very good job this year focusing on that directly. Instead, Christmas was about family and togetherness and Christmas hymns and most importantly, the spirit of giving. I didn’t read the Luke 2 Christmas story or watch the First Presidency Christmas message, like I usually do. But I did give a lot of people gifts and it filled my heart with joy. I hope I would have kept that joy in giving even if I had gotten nothing in return. Sometimes it’s easy to give with the expectation of getting an equal exchange. Selfish giving seems to be built into our programming sometimes. Economists or whomever say that humans are incapable of selflessness. Even doing service for others is for the sake of how good good we feel while doing it, or what other people will think of us. I don’t really look at it like that. Every action has consequences, good or bad. We give selflessly (sometimes we don’t, like when we are trying to impress people or make our selves feel better about ourselves) but a lot of times we give selflessly and it does feel good. I don’t know if Christmas time is a good example of selfless giving, because we do receive gifts back.

One year I participated in a giving tree thing and I bought a gift for a girl in a less fortunate family. It was an awesome present and I didn’t even get to see her open it or know if she liked it. But It felt good to know she would be getting something. So I guess what I’m trying to say is selfless giving is possible and it does happen at Christmas time. The Spirit of capitalism can be defeated, perhaps just by giving. Or at least, Christmas can be less commercialized with giving. One idea I had about how to make Christmas less commercialized has to do with Christmas wishlists.

I’ve never liked telling people what I want for Christmas. I want it to be a surprise. But everyone likes writing wishlists and kids love sending letters to Santa. I was thinking this year, that I don’t really like that practice: kids writing every single thing they want in a super long list for Santa and if they don’t’ get everything on the list, they’ll be sad. Well some kids will be happy with anything they get, and other kids just want one big thing which you already know anyway, so what’s the point of the big long list. It just encourages commercialism. When I have kids I don’t want it to be like that. My kids will get socks and books and small things from mom and dad and one big awesome meaningful thing from Santa. But their Christmas lists will be something else. A list of every person they want to give a gift to and what that gift will be. Gift-giving will help get them into the Christmas spirit. I hope.

Anyway, I hope everyone had a grand Christmas and has a very merry New Year!

Below I have included my original essay. I had to talk about three different schools of economic thought to shape the topic of Commercialism over the holidays. Warning, I read through it and it’s a tad bit cynical. It’s kind of fun to read my past self’s writing…

The Spirit of the Holidays vs. The Spirit of Capitalism

I walked into the bank the other day and found that they were selling money. I thought to myself ‘what is the world coming to when your means of currency is up for sale. This line of thought led to another of disillusionment, with this being the so-called holiday season. Ideally the holidays are supposed to be a time of love, service and family togetherness. However, the competitive spirit of capitalism has overcome the holidays. It’s just like the renewing of religion around the holidays. People who stay at home on Sundays all year, end up going to church on Christmas and Easter. Meanwhile, people who do go to church are reminded of everyone who does not have as much as they do. Every year around the holidays, religions place a strong emphasis on service. People collect canned goods to give to the less fortunate. However,  people don’t consider that the less fortunate are poor all year long. Marx, Weber, and Smith would each have a field day discussing the state of the holidays today.

Christmas is a time when Christians celebrate the birth of Christ by buying each other crap. It is capitalist fetishism at its height. People of other religions have their own gift giving holidays. People of no religion celebrate Christmas sans religion in order to still give gifts. I have a cousin who is a devout atheist. He does not celebrate Christmas, but he still takes the holiday to give and receive gifts. I’m still a bit mystified by this. Is it okay to support the symbol of a religion you in no way support by spending money? It’s a lot like selling out, like the vegetarians who don’t eat meat because they don’t want to hurt the poor animals, but still eat fish. Do fish not have animal rights?

In the world of Karl Marx, if everyone could do what they wanted, they would be living in a peaceful idyllic world where they could be self-sufficient. There they would do whatever work they wanted and all in all be a more creative people. According to Marx, the capitalist fat cat has corrupted the people by addicting them to material wealth, for which they have to work at jobs they hate for low pay and crappy conditions. Is this actually true? Look at Christmas. It definitely seems like the people are being corrupted and controlled. Before Christmas, corporations play extra commercials enticing people to buy stuff. Stores have more sales. In stores like Wal-Mart, cheap goods are moved to the front of the store. There is an entire aisle full of gift packages right where people can see them. People are baited into spending money on gifts. Children get in on the action too. They write up massive wishlists and make parents feel guilty if they don’t get everything on their lists. But on Christmas itself most people make it their priority to spend the day with their families. In fact, people have to be enticed to work with time and a half pay to work on the holidays.

That very time and a half pay, however brings Marxist theories under scrutiny. People don’t cling very hard to to their family ideals when extra money is being waved in their faces. Perhaps it is as Adam Smith says, that we are all motivated by economic rationality. It is certainly more economically rational to work for time and a half pay on a holiday than to stay home. Christmas brings out the economic rationality in us all. The very basic desire for things and a means to get those things is intrinsic human nature. Take those people who make a living solely due to Christmas, the Christmas tree farmers. People could just either grow their own trees or go to the woods and randomly cut down a tree, but no. Most people buy their trees that at one point in time were supplied by a Christmas tree farmer.

Who was the first person to say ‘The Christmas tree? Oh yes, that is the ultimate symbol of Christmas; I think I’ll sell Christmas trees and make a ton of cash.’ Who decided that Christmas trees were merchandise? It goes to show that people can consider anything capital, up to and including the trees in their backyard. What’s next? Are people going to try to sell dead leaves? I can see the signs now, “Great for Jumping Into.” Perhaps people buy Christmas trees because it is more economically rational to buy good Christmas trees than to try to find a nice one. Time is money after all. Also, there is also the issue of supply and demand to consider. It is not going to be easy for people who live in Midsuburbia to find woods available for Christmas tree hunting. And trees are just one example of innocent things that are capitalized upon during Christmas time for a profit. Christmas tree farmers just want to make a profit and have found their niche. Christmas tree farming is the only economically rational way for them to make the money that motivates them.

In seventh grade I wrote a journal entry on what motivates me. At twelve years old I wrote ‘I am motivated because I want to do better than everyone else.’ While Smith believes that everyone is motivated by an internal desire to succeed fiscally or ultimately to be the richest, Weber believes that we are motivated by a learned protestant work ethic. According to Weber, religion plays a part in how react to economic changes and are in fact motivated by religious stimuli, or put simply our desire to attain salvation motivates us to work towards success in our earthly careers. Now where does this put all the people who don’t believe in God and Heaven? Like my cousin who celebrates a Christmas, but doesn’t believe in Christ, non-protestants can be affected by the protestant work ethic. Christians have had the work ethic for so long, that it has been integrated into our society.

Christmas, along with the other holidays, gives us a great example of how religion affects capitalism. People give away stuff to other people more during Christmas, than any other time. Sometimes groceries stories will sponsor canned food drives, placing receptacle bins by the exit so that people can drop in canned goods they’ve already bought. People feel so giving over the holidays because of their guilt. They become guilty over all the things they’re buying for themselves, and in turn feel the need to spend money on other people, which is what they learned at church is the right thing to do. Places like the groceries stores capitalize on this guilt, making it possible, even easy for people to buy extra in order to give away what they don’t need.

The idea of giving to the poor is the whole basis for giving gifts on Christmas. Good old Saint Nick would go door to door giving gifts to the poor children. Today all that’s left of this idea is a fat man in a red suit who we lie to our children about in order to enable the giving and receiving of gifts. Some parents, like mine for instance, go to great lengths to convince their children of the reality of this figment. My dad once put a boot in the fireplace leaving a shoe print. Maybe this is why my view on the holidays is so cynical. Santa Claus is reminiscent of the old capitalist fat cat. Fat is a sign of wealth and so is red. Although, he could also be reminiscent of Papa Marx, but Communism is of course against anything like Christmas.

Not every holiday is religious. Thanksgiving is not a holiday based on religion and surprise surprise, it is the least commercialized. Thanksgiving used to be considered a religious holiday. People would even exchange small gifts. But as it became commercialized, due to football, and the Macy’s Day parade, it became less religious. People don’t buy gifts for each other and very few Thanksgiving decorations. It is however, one of the largest grossing times for the grocers. Thanksgiving is a time when everyone spends the day with their family. But the day after Thanksgiving, the Christmas rush begins with the so-called BLACK FRIDAY. Perhaps people don’t do anything on Thanksgiving because they are saving up their energy for the shopping madness and mayhem. Some would argue that because of Black Friday, Thanksgiving is super commercialized, but the day in and of itself isn’t. It just has unfortunate timing. Thanksgiving used to be in October. But the date was moved to November to spread out the holiday cheer. Thanksgiving is just a placeholder holiday between the gift giving spree of Christmas and the candy consuming, costume buying rush of Halloween. Thanksgiving weekend gives everyone a day off to go shopping.

And what’s up with Halloween costumes? Wal-mart sells cheap, crappy costumes for $40 dollars. The material is cheap looking and uncomfortable. Putting together something from your closet looks much better and saves you money. Yet people insist on buying the crappy costumes because they’re too lazy to make their own. Also they’re afraid to look dumb.

We as Americans have been conditioned to buy things, specific things. Just as women have to shave their legs, because society has decided that hairy legs on women are gross, people have to have certain things to function in society. You have to have the best-looking (and sluttiest) costume on Halloween because that’s what people on television do. You have to have the biggest turkey; you have to have the best Christmas tree. All these things are not because the capitalists are controlling us, or winning big time, even though they are. It is because we as capitalists want the best. We want to be better than everyone else. Most of the Christmas presents given are new models of old crap you already have, but better. There are so many movies and TV shows with it, that I suppose somewhere out there, there are actually neighbors who compete over whose house looks the best with holiday decorations. Well, this competitiveness shows the true spirit of the holidays. People compete. People buy stuff. They have to have the best. That’s the spirit of capitalism.

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