It seems to be the same thing every year – a race to outdo one another, no one wants to be left out and you can’t be seen giving less or fewer items than you did the year before.
“You’d better watch out, you’d better not cry; You’d better not pout, I’m telling you why…”
Santa’s quizzical look is perhaps a little reminder to ask ourselves if we still know what the festive season is all about? And do we really need a new mobile as a stocking filler or is that a bit over the top (I absolutely think it is by the way!)?
The phenomenon of feasting and material display of wealth is quite possibly as old as the human race and is often referred to as “Conspicuous consumption”, a term first introduced by the Norwegian economist Thorstein Veblen in 1899. It refers to the distinctive behaviour of buying expensive items as a means to display our social status rather than our actual needs. And it does make sense – the wealthier we are, the more money we have got to spare for “things” that go beyond our mere subsistence level. But even though Thorstein Veblen mainly had the industrial revolution in mind and the large-scale production of goods that came along with it, equating material wealth with political power or perhaps even spiritual influence is nothing new – we need it as a substitute for something we cannot see.
In ethnological terms this is known as the “Potlatch“, originally observed amongst the native tribes in the North-west of the United States such as the Haida.
Orca totem, Haida carving
This has also been used as a heuristic model in archaeology in order to make sense of some of the opulent grave goods in tombs of ancient chieftains as for example Sutton Hoo in Suffolk or Hochdorf in Southern Germany. Perhaps some of this can be traced back to a similar way of making sure that the power wasn’t completely eclipsed and in this sense, a powerful forebear could be of use for his successors (just think of North Korea). So opulent feasting and consuming goods on a large scale certainly isn’t something alien to human nature. The emphasis is on “a lot”.
Sutton Hoo burial, chieftain’s helmet
But as it is, there is a very significant difference, as the feasting was still meaningful and not just done for its own sake. There was always something more in these practices, something that put the community in touch with the ancestors of the past and also reaching out into the future, i.e. to leave something immaterial behind while looking for a material substitute. Thereby, a chief established his position by displaying his material wealth, in a mystical way.
But how did we get to a stage where we own so much and value so little?
The economy relies on people needing new things or suggesting that they do in order to grow. And yet, there is ample proof that this model has become very much obsolete. Or as George Monbiot put it: the impossibility of growth.
The main problem, as I see it, is being forced to buy more than we need even if we wanted to. Throwing “stuff” away is part of the whole process, such as too much food, too much packaging and, quite frankly, items that deliberately are not made to last such as a lot of children’s toys. If you can afford to buy things and not care about them very much at all you are something like a high achiever.
So, before we binge buy, consider a few facts and then decide if we want to go along with it or if we could perhaps consume a little bit more meaningful things. Two toys can become more meaningful and therefore more valuable if we haven’t got another 15 to distract ourselves from them.
# 1 Buy fewer toys this Christmas and choose those that are sustainable and ethically produced.
How much money is spent on toys per child? Statistics reveal a surprising result, where Australia ranks highest with average money spent per year per child, followed by the UK and the US.
I chose not to buy toys that are about to break in five minutes and decided to pay some more money for good value and went for brands such as PlanToys and Hape. And in case the baby gets fed up, rotate toys and use your imagination. When they are very young, simple boxes and saucepans are often even more attractive than the expensive toy. I do appreciate that this is about to change due to peer pressure once they go to school, which is something I will still need to find out myself. For this, a major change in our societal outlook might be necessary so it is best to start early 😉
Would I be happy with just the box?
# 2 Try and think of something else instead of perfume just for a change
Let’s be honest, a lot of this is bought because we simply cannot think of anything else, a fact which is mightily exploited by adverts – and sex sells. Perfume ranks amongst the best selling items around this time of year. Of course, we all want to smell nice, but the amount of money spent on artificial fragrances is staggering. These are very often not good for you as they contain phthalates to make them longer lasting. And there is a very good reason that you are asked not to use any when you are going for IVF treatment.
So, isn’t there anything else you can think of, really?
#3 Reduce the amount of food thrown away
It is estimated that a staggering 74 million mince pies are thrown away each Christmas and 4.2 million plates of turkeys and trimmings are also going straight in the bin.
Now, that doesn’t make you feel sick, what does?
First of all, is there really no alternative to turkey and all the trimmings? Yes, perhaps you have been looking forward to it all year, then go for it. And yet it really depends on how much is needed and giving it a bit of thought what can be used on Boxing day and even after that. It seems that it is a lost art these days, as we simply have too much of everything. I can hear people ask: but do I need to make another extra effort, it is far too stressful anyway already. Well, precisely my point!
Because there is only two of us and a 10-month old baby, we are having chicken. How bland? It need not be.
Ready for the bin?
# 4 Recycle wrapping paper or do away with it altogether (depending on the person receiving the gift).
To put this into perspective, just consider that an extra £15 to £16 pounds are spent by the average family every year on just wrapping paper.
That is money that is literally just thrown away and the way these things are handled by children it is really quite pointless. I decided not to go down that route and use either recycled paper or make some nice wraps myself. Just use plain paper and crayons and put them on an uneven surface to create a pattern or anything else you can come up with. That way, it still looks pretty wrapped and the surprise effect is still preserved.
#5 Try and join in the effort to reduce plastic packaging
I couldn’t really believe it and yet…Are you ready for this?
We need to avoid all of this ending up in the ocean, on beaches or simply in the landfill. If you think “out of sight out of mind” and “landfill is where it belongs”, just consider that some of the old sites are beginning to leak out old plastics and other toxic materials like asbestos and even radioactive ones into the environment. We need to at least reduce the packaging and hold the big companies to ransom. Start or sign petitions at Change.org and spread the word.
It is very well if we decide to make some of our gifts and wrapping paper ourselves, but that is not always possible. But the first step is to consume less and choose recyclable plastics.
We all have our addictions and buy things we don’t actually need (for me it is books), and of course, this time of year when it is cold and dreary is about treating yourself to something special. My point is, people possibly knew much better how to feast in Tudor times, in fact, they celebrated for 12 days (or nights), all the way through from Christmas eve until the 5th of January (12th night). Eating red meat was something special and so it should be.
It is feasting rather than consumption we should return to. Which makes a big difference – just think about it.
A very happy Christmas and lots of reading and writing in the New year!