Good riddance to the holiday spirit (for now)

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Next winter break, I am going to find a cave and hibernate. My cave, if nothing else, will be far away from the holiday season that has turned into a vicious and complicated frenzy. The wholesome holiday spirit does not exist anymore, for it has been exploited and tainted.

Thomas Carlyle once predicted the pre-eminence of a cash nexus that would debase man-to-man relations, removing the meaning from human relations. Friendship, community, and family would become insignificant as humankind fell under the all-powerful influence of monetary transactions.

A Gallup poll found that Americans in 2004 wanted to spend less. They aimed not to exhaust their wallets, but rather to rein in the yearly holiday spendfest. In fact, consumer spending over the holidays actually increased from 2003 to 2004. This came from more than inflation; our holiday cheer now derives from the material. We give, and we expect to get in return.

If the holiday season is supposed to reject that premise and embrace the transcendent values over the material, then why has the cash nexus found this seasonal niche? The markets are swarmed with rabid consumers, clawing, spending, biting, and buying, in the name of this perverted holiday spirit.

NPR humorist Brian Unger identified the symptom of “monkey see, monkey buy” that pervades the holiday season. Shoppers will see a potential gift on a shelf and buy it, sometimes causing trouble on the store floor as many attempt to fight for the same item. Unger humorously suggests this is a counter example to “intelligent design,” for the scene really does look like a pack of wild monkeys. We have clearly not progressed when gift-giving turns into a scene from Animal Planet.

In the end, we dread December because it means trip after trip to mall and market to find a good present. We dread the primal dashes for products; compounded with these often painful encounters comes wrapping paper and bows. The whole process has become needlessly complicated, but for some reason we cannot stop doing it.

Capitalists know that the holiday season is a good investment. Their advertising turns the holiday spirit into avarice every year so that the monkey scenes occur all over the nation. They deliberately pour money into making the most of the fundamentally pure and simple inclination to make people happy.

I don’t see the concept of gift-giving as flawed, but I lament the monster that it has become. When families get together after ads have flooded their brains, their thoughts now center on what they have bought and what others bought for them. The holiday spirit’s togetherness falls prey to materialism. What it has created is a lose-lose guilt situation. Guilt jumps in when not enough gifts are given, but also when too many gifts are given. Either you lament being a bad consumer or a good one. Where is the cheer in this?

The glee of tradition and togetherness, the true “magic” of the holidays, has fled. “Cheer up, Matt, it’s almost Christmas,” someone tells me while I somberly reflect on my shopping list. Somehow the concept that I must validate my love for another by buying seems skewed and misplaced. I cannot contribute to the cash nexus.

Instead, one of my favorite parts of the holidays is putting ornaments on our tree with siblings and sharing memories about each one. My family loves to have a story with each ornament, and even though I came home late from CMU, they waited for my return to christen the tree with its reminiscences. The tragedy comes from the consumerism that debases such joyful traditions.

Ultimately, my joy derived from the simple love of human relationships. This wholesomeness remains at the heart of my holiday spirit, and the superficiality created by simple jingles about bells and noses and mass-marketed holiday cheer makes the winter break a chore more than anything else. So, if you see me scouting for a good cave or log cabin come December, don’t be surprised.