sane considerations

Posted by on December 19, 2007


I know this sudden impulse to vocalize my distress at Christmas consumerism is almost cliche, but I think that I’m going to have to express some disgust, because frankly, it’s disgusting out there. Last night I went to Toys R’ Us in search of a specific item, which they didn’t have, but what I saw had a depressing effect. It was a maze of high metal shelves beneath the glare of flourescent lights, stocked with grotesquely packaged, molded plastic things on hormones–lots of them pink, purple, and glittery for girls. Even the baby dolls looked creepy and strange to me, with their bulkily packaged, cheaply made accessories, not charming in the least–nevermind the toys designed to appeal to little boys. Parents shuffled along in the shadow of their portable cardboard box mountain-of-a-shopping-cart. Good thing that the parking lot contained plenty of souped up trucks and SUVs.

I think what bothers me most about the spending habits at large is that no one ever, ever, asks the question: where will this item be in ten years? Well the obvious answer is: a dumping ground. If everyone asked that question before they bought everything, well, I can’t imagine how things would be different. I’m not really one to speak because I don’t always ask this question, and I’m too often lured in by cuteness accompanied by low price. Perhaps our economy would come to a halt if everyone asked this question. Or maybe it would just have to adapt to an ethic of less–but higher quality– stuff. I know that our apartment would be less cluttered, but more full of meaningful, important things, whose presence I would not wind up resenting.

This is not something I would have known before I had a child, but I think there really are only a few little companies that produce quality wooden toys–the kind you might consider saving for the child of your child. The rest are peddling a lot of plastic bulk that no one is going to want to keep around in storage after it’s reached the faded, dingy, permanently sticky, and possibly busted stage. And can I just say that I really hate the company that goes by the name “Baby Einstein.” Can the conspiracy against the good intentions of parents be any more obvious?

Before last night, I hadn’t really done any Christmas shopping besides one trip to Ten Thousand Villages, which is probably my favorite store. It was crowded and crazy there, yes, but somehow it didn’t bother me in that context. I felt a kinship, not a competition or annoyance with the other customers; it felt like a Christmas party was going on. Everything there is fair trade, which makes me feel a sense of confidence and dignity that I don’t usually feel when standing in front of a cash register. All the workers are volunteers, and each thing they sell–from the little wooden bird whistles to the large clay vases– embody a little spark of human will and creativity. These things weren’t designed by market analysts for a target consumer group, and you can feel the difference.

I have been listening to NPR this morning and learned about how the limit on the hourly shift of truck drivers is interfering with their ability to deliver all the goods that people want, when they want them. Everyone is trying to get stuff by a deadline, the Deadline that Is Christmas. So, there is a push to extend the hours that truckers are allowed to drive, despite the fact that these extended hours are shown to be unsafe and produce more fatalities on the highway. Somehow the image of all of those trucks barreling through the highways of America seems like an apt metaphor for the way Americans do Christmas–preoccupation and obsession with having things a certain way–a childish fantasy of Christmas–all the more grotesque because it makes its home in the minds of adults– that refuses to entertain any interfering, sane considerations.

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  1. Manuela
    December 19, 2007

    I couldn’t agree more.

  2. Ser
    December 20, 2007

    Oh, Julia, I know exactly how you feel. This year I did my Christmas shopping gradually, a little here and there, so it didn’t feel so yuck–and I did buy a lot from the local winter farmers market and Ten Thousand Villages–but it still all adds up. And what complicates this even more is having an older child who really, really wants plastic, made in China toys, and whose little face lights upon receipt of said toys and, sadly, who I cannot get away with giving play silks and wooden blocks to anymore.

    I was at the mall last night to meet some friends for dinner at an attached resturant and it was truly disturbing, all of the people and the chaos and the spending. But now I have no need to go to another single store (save the grocery) before Christmas, so I intend to settle in and try to cultivate a real Christmas with my family, albeit with a few plastic toys.

    And since I, too, failed to send out Christmas cards this year: Merry Christmas! Christ is Born! Glorify Him!

  3. Julia
    December 20, 2007

    Thanks for such a sympathetic comment, Ser and Manuela. I was feeling sort of bad for throwing all of this negativity out there right before Christmas.

  4. Nostalgia
    December 20, 2007

    Julia, thank you, as always for your thoughtful post.

    This year I’m very joyous while driving in my car, listing to the Christmas Carols. It’s something I missed a lot my last year in Russia: cheerful garland of songs about snow, family, spirit of Christmas… I used to be tired and annoyed at them, and see them as part of tricking us into consumerism, and I still do think it’s partially so…

    Last Saturday Robyn and I went Christmas shopping in NYC. Walking up the avenues, pondering into stores, and fighting crowds of people, I finally said out loud something that bothered me:
    “If I ever have children, is there a way to make sure that people won’t give them all these kinds of presents? How will I protect a child from the tasteless disposable toys?” I was really horrified when I saw what and in what amounts people were collecting into their carts.

    Merry Christmas!

  5. Alishia
    December 20, 2007

    I think people should more aptly ask, “Where will this item be next week?” Knowing what I know about my child’s toy consumption, this question seems more fitting.

  6. Julia
    December 20, 2007

    Veronika– yes, it’s true that Americans are also wonderful at creating a magical Christmas atmosphere. I remember this warmly from my childhood and I hope I can create something like this for Esme–minus the greed.

    Alishia– that’s a good point. Kids get bored of toys so quickly and toss them aside.

  7. Molly Sabourin
    December 20, 2007

    I am seriously not kidding,here, or being overly dramatic:

    Small plastic toys with even smaller plastic pieces are my arch enemy!

    Just say no to Polly Pockets!

    Great and relevant post! Not a downer at all.

  8. anna j
    December 30, 2007

    No, definitely not a downer . . . I find a strange feeling of relief that Christmas is over. Odd, since I have always been so excited about it all. But in my old age I am more prone to get sucked in, and wearied by, the societally-induced stress of expectations. At any rate, I did manage to remove myself from much of it, with the notable exception of one insane trip to the mall on the Saturday before Christmas. It was a necessary trip, but it served to remind me well of why I do everything in my power to avoid such moments of insanity.

  9. JT
    January 2, 2008

    Don’t apologize for being “negative.” I actually feel comforted by knowing there is a shared feeling of repulsion when confronted with the tide of meaningless, disposable, glitzy junk. (And this from a “tech guy”!)

    It was such a relief to have the holiday be over so I could spend time with those I love- my knitting wife and three small boys.

    There are so many products (such as the hated “Baby Einstein” products) designed to replace parents with gadgets. I think the brainwashing is almost complete- most parents seem to genuinely believe that buying products for their children is actually better than spending time with them, and that electronic “learning toys” are better than simply experiencing the wonderful natural world.

    May you enjoy the natural experience of the world in this Happy New Year.