by Lynne Westmoreland
This is the time of year set aside to celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, the winter solstice, and Kwanzaa. The themes of the season are the return of hope, abundance, and protection, the return of the light, and a reminder to return to our spirituality and personal transformation as well.
But in the last few decades this season has become about consumption.
Our natural tendency, if we were aware of it, is to turn inward as the days grow shorter; to become introspective, to hibernate and let ourselves rest; to be quiet, and enjoy the great gifts of darkness, the thinner quality of light, and to be inside with our families and loved ones. But rather than turning inward and toward quiet satisfaction, hope, and gratitude, we have been trained to look outside of ourselves for fulfillment, love, and meaning.
The shopping frenzy that has come to symbolize this season is contrary to our more natural connection to the seasons of the year and the seasons of our inner lives.
This holiday season I have become even more aware of the toll our consumption takes on us.
For many years I have opted out of most of what is now considered normal behavior for this time of year.
When people ask me if I’m ready for Christmas (they don’t often ask if I’m ready for Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, or the solstice) I smile and tell them I AM ready because I don’t participate. After the very real look of astonishment and perplexity, I explain that I only take part in those things that fill me up spiritually, such as music or having a few friends over, or attending a solstice celebration, which celebrates the earth’s rhythms and gifts.
I don’t shop for gifts, don’t have to go near a mall, have lost that frantic and breathless anxiety that I used to feel around this time of year.
I can almost hear some people thinking how awful this is and wondering, “Don’t you love your family?”
Those who would have us buy more and more things have convinced us that love is best expressed by how much we buy for each other.
If we don’t buy gifts, that translates into meaning we don’t love as much as someone who buys lots of presents.
But in looking back over my life I can remember only one specific present in all of those years. It was the gift of the book Charlotte’s Web when I was a child. I had wanted that book so badly, and I was so happy when I unwrapped it. I read and re-read it, and it remains one of my favorite stories even now.
But in the 20th century, our holiday season morphed into one of conspicuous consumption and has become a contest of who loves whom better.
The anxiety produced by not buying “as good” a present for our sibling as they got for us or of being given a “better” gift by our spouse than we got for them has caused us to completely lose sight of the meaning of the celebration.
Instead of being uplifted and spiritually fed by the holidays, many of us come out of the season feeling depleted, depressed, and wrung out. We are surrounded by things but feel somehow lost and abandoned internally.
But the issue of what we are teaching our children about celebration and memory is what concerns me the most.
We are modeling overconsumption as the norm.
We are teaching our children that excess is the way to frame our care for each other. We are leading them to believe that their value to us can only be expressed by what we give them in material possessions, rather than what we give them of ourselves.
We are telling them by our continued participation in a system based on resource depletion, overconsumption, and waste production that we have nothing better to offer them.
And perhaps most disturbing, we are teaching them to over-consume their most precious resources of all: their time, their energy, their spirits, and their attention.
The more time we spend shopping the less we have to spend at home with our families.
The more energy we expend running from here to there “collecting” our gifts, the less we have for lovingly preparing something truly special for each person. The more depleted our spirits become, the less fertile ground we have internally to receive the most important seeds of the season: hope, light, spiritual generosity and our presence with those we love.
If we look ahead to the new year can we imagine how we will feel? Will there be relief that we “survived” another holiday and we don’t have to do that again for another year?
Or will we feel filled up and restored because we have celebrated the more meaningful parts of what this season has to offer?
It is our choice.