Each year, I cannot help but be disturbed by the holiday season and the demands for donations of gifts from all over. It’s as if “not getting something” was akin to having a fatal disease with the fervor expressed by the campaigns for gift donations. From toy drives to “adopt a family” programs, we seem to collectively view not having presents as sacrilege. Why this time of the year? What about birthdays or other milestones? What about doing something radical about poverty, hunger and need in our country to eradicate them entirely?
I have complex feelings about how we perpetuate a consumerist culture and society through the importance placed on gifts. I am also perplexed at having children from poverty-stricken families ask for video games—that are typically $60 each—when that clearly means the family not only has the $300+ gaming system, but also obviously a television and electricity. The ages of the children involved, and including parents is equally perplexing to me. I can see if someone would be without a winter jacket, yet cannot see the possible “benefit” of frivolous things like more-expensive-than-regular-soap bath products that seem to be popular requests.
It’s not that I believe people should “go without” or that we cannot feel “poor” by the standards of our specific community. For a good portion of my children’s lives, we rented a home in an affluent town in Massachusetts. An example of what I mean about feeling poor by community standards is this: one holiday season, my husband and I had saved enough money to purchase iPods for our children rather than having them share the Shuffle we won at a holiday party several years before. We got them a few other small gifts like books and some candy for their stockings. The iPods were their “big” gift and something they were definitely not expecting given our financial situation. They were both thrilled with their iPod Touches, which were the lower memory versions as they cost less. When my daughter went to school after the holidays, she found that most of her classmates and friends received iPod Touches as stocking stuffers and the first generation of iPad or a laptop or another extravagant gift as their “big” gifts. So, by community standards, our children were definitely “lacking.” At the same time, we by no means felt our lives were lacking.
I realize that living in a particular community one may feel less privileged or underprivileged by comparison. At the same time, I believe we must always keep this in perspective, and be aware of what true poverty means and how fortunate we are by worldwide standards of living. This year, with me enrolled in full time graduate school, thus working fewer hours at my three part-time jobs, and with one child in college, expenses have increased while income has decreased. We face a very limited budget this year for the holidays. In fact, we rely on the hope that my husband will receive a holiday bonus, and this is what will be used to purchase anything we decide we will do for the holidays. I know what our income level is in relation to the poverty level. We would likely “qualify” to participate in these gift programs ourselves this year. Yet, instead of asking for luxury items from others, we discussed with our children the riches we feel we do have: health, education, heat, housing, food and one another. We talked about not contributing to the debt cycle like those who charge gifts only to be burdened by bills long after the shine has worn off something new. We talked about how not opening a gift in December is not the end of the world, regardless of the Mayan calendar! (So, there was another thing we have that money cannot buy: a sense of humor and shared laughter.)
We also talked about other cultures and religions and how the gift drives, toy drives and adopt-a-family-once-a-year programs all negate anything outside of Christianity. There are no programs for Jewish families who may be struggling to provide eight nights of gifts. And, what of faiths and cultures in our country and our towns and cities that do not have a holiday in December? This, of course, brings us full circle to the needs of families and individuals the whole year round.
How is this rant part of feminist critique? Well, if feminism is really about equality for all, then we cannot look past and not consider the larger context for holiday gifting programs and how they promote consumerism or how they exclude everyone who is not of the Christian religion. We cannot, on a daily basis, look past the overstuffed vehicle in a parking lot that clearly houses at least one person, or the often invisible needs of families for food and heat. We must sustain presence of mind about issues of inequality and oppression in all arenas and refrain from making ourselves feel good about giving presents once a year.