Stream of Consciousness I 15-12-2011

I think that a lot of families, mine included to perhaps a smaller extent (I'd like to believe), have given in to this commercialization of Christmas, and ultimately of every holiday. I can only speak from an American perspective, but it seems to me that Christmas has been flipped upside down by corporatism and over-zealous marketing and the willing apathy and malaise of the average mom, dad or teenager. If it was once actually about togetherness, family, celebration of spirit and of life, those days have been wiped from existence. People pick out their gifts, creating wish lists, essentially dictating to loved ones what material possessions and items they would like to own. It's a swap meet now. The old saying that "giving is better than receiving" has no meaning when the receiver tells the giver how to proceed. It's about gain now, not about showing some one how you feel about them, what you think of them, how you perceive them. It's not about sharing. Giving something to some one with the hopes that they will give you something that you like in return is not sharing: it's bartering. It's pure commerce.

Sure people try to wrap it up in a variety of ways and try to mask the process but it's all a farce. Coy hints and wink-nudges about what you might like are traded ad nauseum, even though both giver and receiver know that the person receiving the gift is going to be disappointed if their little hints do not land properly. It is now like some sort of distorted social contract: you know what you have to give some one because they told you and that's pretty much just how it works. You can always relent and go rogue, trying to find meaning in the process of gift giving, but so few actually do it because of the overwhelming force exerted by corporations through every commercial ever aired and every advertisement ever been impressed between November and January, not to mention the enormous pressure on the giver to give something that is genuinely liked. And if you know just what the recipient would like (how convenient of them to have hinted at it back on Black Friday, perhaps the greatest monetary scam ever perpetrated on the American people), then you might as well go along with it. It's too tempting.

So now you see entire families dictating to siblings, parents, children, cousins, aunts and uncles and, of course, wealthy grandparents precisely what they want for Christmas. They know what they will receive beforehand; they know how it will play out. The progression is the same every year: right around Thanksgiving, a call for wish lists goes out like a call for papers at a conference, people try to capitalize on sales to minimize the cost of their "Christmas Shopping" (a phrase that has become so pervasive and so singular that it speaks for this whole ordeal singlehandedly), they wrap the gifts up and put them under a tree so that on December 25th every one can wake up, meet next to the tree, open the gifts that they can probably guess at by shape, size, sound and weight distribution and smile when they get precisely what they want.

And for those of us who are too rushed, too apathetic, too whatever, there is always the handy-dandy gift card. That was turned into the Visa gift card, so that the recipient is not limited to a single store, though they are still limited to some set of stores: the money has to go somewhere that is not your savings account. Of course, some people forego even that convenience and just hand out straight cash. But really, that's the most honest gift that can be given at this point. It's a statement: "You know what this is about, and I know what this is about: the ritualistic gift exchange that we were delivered into by virtue of birth in this society we share. I don't exactly know what you want, for some combination of reasons, and I am not willing or able to try to come up with a gift idea of my own, so I'm just giving you liquid assets. We could both be sad, or we can recognize that this is just the stark reality."

I've been there. I have been so completely unsure of what to get a family member, a friend, a special friend, a co-worker, whomever, that I just gave in and copped out. I have also simply not cared enough at times, sadly. But some time in the past few years I have realized how much I detest the perceptions that I have of the modern holiday and I have consciously tried to create some sort of meaning in it all. I've tried to pick out gifts without any dictation, suggestion or hint of any kind. Don't tell me: let me pick it out myself. That's the whole point, really. I get a modicum of enjoyment out of receiving gifts that I love, of course. But to pick something out, give it to her, see her eyes light up and watch her smile metamorphose is such an incredible sensation. It validates so much that we tell ourselves that Christmas is about. Giving, sharing, smiling, laughing, loving. When we decide not to let Macy's, Visa and UPS dictate how we celebrate each other, when we decide to instead reach inside for our mechanism of expression, we do something special.

But we've been convinced not to. Go into any store after Halloween and the fake ghosts and spiders have been replaced by fake reindeer and fat men in red suits and white beards. Orange and black yield to red and green and the next big push for the dollar begins. Every one knows that they have to go along with it so as not to be ostracized by their social circles (it's a wonderful thing when you don't care about those, by the way: liberating) so they hop in. Once critical mass was reached at some point in the past few decades, the war was won. Christmas was now about cash flow and gratification and Walmart, et. al. found record profits buried beneath our ideals and archetypes.

And that's the thing that makes much of this so frustrating to me: I know that many people really do want Christmas and the holidays to be special times. They want them to be exactly how we always see them play out on the silver screen: loved ones next to a roaring fire, cozy and warm, with gifts being unwrapped at breakneck paces, little kids shouting with joy, couples kissing and smiles abound. But it's a vicious circle: our idealizations of what Christmas should be are capitalized upon by companies looking to push product who know how to expertly exploit our humanistic weakness while Paramount and Universal continue to make movies and shows that further fuel that burning desire for closeness to fellow Man, making sure that next year we go out and buy even more. Because if it did not work the year before it is probably because we did not spend enough, and if it did work the year before it must have been because we did go out and get plasma screens and diamond earrings, so we should do it again but on even larger scale this time. We're trapped unless we consciously choose to transcend the environment that we've constructed around commercial Christmas. And most people like the system as it is, or are not conscious of what they might find horrific if they could just see. So here we are.

And I know deep down that people are not bad because they relent to this. I know that most people have good intentions and really do just want to make those around them happy with amazing gifts and are going about it in the most pragmatic way that they can muster. I know that this is my idealism talking. But I wish that this did not spell out, to me, just another example of corporate triumph in the face of what could be beautiful. I find this mass commercialism disgusting and I feel sad when I look around and see that it is everywhere. But I feel great joy when I realize that it can be destroyed so easily: just make the choice. Let Christmas be what it means to you, and you alone, whatever that may be, and you've escaped. If you are like a lot of people and you want Christmas to be magical, then make it magical on your own terms. If you are like me and you just want private time with that special some one, then let nothing stop you. If you want December 25th to just be another day on the calendar, then make it so! Fantastic! Just don't let the onslaught of advertising and commercial pressure make those decisions for you. That's what I really want. Autonomy. In times like the holidays when the possibility for gain is so high, business will exert itself upon that autonomy and attempt to leverage more money out of your wallet. There is nothing wrong with spending sums of money on loved ones, but don't do it because you feel compelled to by the circus around you. Do it because you want to make some one happy and try to make it personal.

Or if you really do not care about any of this and none of this matters to you at all, then ignore everything that has just passed through my fingertips. It's all subjective anyway.