Mark Shayler, The Great Recovery’s workshop facilitator extraordinaire, argues that our consumption of ‘tat’ in a resource constrained world is spiralling out of control. And Christmas represents the zenith of our excesses.
We all have our own little family “things” at Christmas. When I grew up it was coal, a nut and a tangerine in my stocking. I know, I don’t get it either. It may be that you don’t open your presents until after lunch – extending anticipation. For us it’s an afternoon of board games and charades. We hold off putting the TV on for as long as possible. We also ban screens, but the temptation of Instagramming my goose (not a euphemism) is often too great.
These little rituals, foibles even, are the things that we all remember as we age. What we won’t remember is the mountains of tat that we buy each other. Try it, try and remember what you had for Christmas last year. Tough isn’t it. The thing is that we now own twice as much stuff as we did 30 years ago and are no happier. Indeed, there is an increasing proportion of us on anti-depressants: up 24.6% between 2010 and 2014; there is a growing dissatisfaction with consumerism in some sections of the population: witness the growth in gifting experiences over “things” (up 10 fold in 2013 alone), whilst the rise of the wellbeing movement also speaks of a dissatisfaction with consumer trinkets and baubles. Yet the mainstream, the norm, is to buy loads of stuff.
We have created a culture where giving is expected. But the thought (which is the thing that counts, right, kids?) behind that giving is often missing. Indeed, there’s a point where desperation takes over. Where giving something is better than avoiding giving a pile of tat. Witness the unwanted Christmas presents that appeared on ebay just hours into Christmas morning: there were an estimated 594 million unwanted Christmas presents in 2014 alone! The peak time for listing unwanted gifts is during the Queen’s Speech, apparently.
This is crazy. Christmas is a concentration of consumption like no other. This year it was worsened by the importing of the US “tradition” of Black Friday. This is the day of the year that the retailers move from debit to credit – out of the red and into the black. But the scenes of greed and hysterical consumption that we witnessed here in the UK were at best ugly and at worst irresponsible. The motto “I shop therefore I am” has never been more accurate. Our self-worth is bound up tightly with what and how we consume. We are consumers, we are not citizens. This can’t be right, can it? The idea that we spend years in development cycles designing products; we use materials that have financial, environmental and ethical impacts; we save up hard-earned cash or go into debt to buy them; and then a great chunk are unwanted (32% of us receive presents we don’t want). In a resource and cash-constrained world, surely we need to have a word with ourselves?
Now, I’m not going to bleat on about the true meaning of Christmas being forgotten, as the 25th December is widely acknowledged not to be the birth of Jesus. Rather, Christians took over the old pagan festivals to encourage a greater take-up of Christianity. Indeed the 25th December was the end of a seven-day period of Roman lawlessness called Saturnalia. This festival of lawlessness was marked by huge over-consumption of food and alcohol and little human sacrifice. So maybe we haven’t drifted too far from the origins of Christmas. Just swapped human sacrifice with the dispatching of millions of turkeys!