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  • Robert Farago

Why Do We Spend So Much $ At Xmas?

And generally

Why do we spend so much money this time of year? Because it’s Christmas! Christ’s birthday. Back in the day, Three Wise Men set the stage, gifting Jesus’ mom and non-biological father gold, frankincense, and myrrh (a great name for a law firm).

Like most Biblical stories, there are conflicting and confabulated details about the event.

The gospel never mentions the number of Wise Men or when they parked their camels outside of Jesus’ crib. The born-in-a-manger thing? There’s no Biblical evidence for that – although the smell of frankincense would have been welcome if Jesus had been the ultimate barn find.


Fast forward 2023 years. Hundreds of millions of Americans are heading to the stores or clicking on retail websites to buy stuff.

Is it churlish of me to point out that none of them are buying anything for Jesus? In Jesus name, sure. But not for Jesus (assuming the Second Coming doesn’t come before December 25th).

In the main, we buy gifts as a physical manifestation of our love for family and friends. Which we do separately on their birthdays, coming of age, graduation, engagement, marriage, pregnancy and retirement. Christmas is different in that it’s an exchange of gifts.

It’s a Barney song: I love you, you love me, here’s a present under our tree, with a great big meal and a ton of paper waste, won’t you say you… got me what I wanted.

The Santa Claus

Let’s face it: there’s a lot unpleasant psychology under this tradition, starting with greed. Specifically, parents encouraging children to conflate Christ’s birth with getting stuff.

I blame Santa Claus. The original inspiration – Saint Nicholas – was a bishop who inherited a fortune, but chose to devote his life to helping others, famous for gift-giving to the poor.

Coca-Cola advertising reinvented St. Nick as a pre-death St. Peter, judging whether children have been “naughty or nice” to decide if they get presents. Maybe even which presents. Not rich or poor. Naughty or nice.

The lie that Santa Claus delivers presents removes the holiday’s religious and socio-economic context. The family context too. Which is why most parents say this one’s from us, that one’s from Santa. It’s a mixed message that fails to embrace “the true meaning of Christmas.”

Xmas gift giving also has a sinister competitive element: the desire to get children a present they can show off to their peers. Instilling a “keeping up with the Joneses” ethos from their earliest age.

Bah humbug!

I know: bah humbug. Who doesn’t want to see happy children tear into wrapped gifts on Christmas morning? Imagine not giving children toys for Christmas! Child Protective Services may want to have a word.

So let’s leave that and deal with adult consumerism.

While I’m happy to see Xmas gifts as an exchange of love tokens, I despair at the level of spending. According to the National Retail Federation, Americans spend an average of $1000 each Christmas.

In 2021 and 2022, Xmas spending rose by 13.5% and 5.5% respectively. At a time when inflation has made it hard to do so.

Far be it for me to tell anyone how or when to spend their money. I wish to all a good night, and congratulate capitalism for offering such a plentiful bounty from which to choose.

Meanwhile, Xmas spending raises a more general question: why do Americans buy so much stuff? There are several possible answers.

Consumerism Explained?

There’s the aforementioned impetus to keep up with the Joneses. Not to put too fine a point on it, life is a competition for resources. It’s no surprise, then, that society judges people on what they have more than who they are. Or that we internalize that calculus and become slaves to its demands.

There’s also the “why not?” argument. Life is short. Why not get the things that make life better: cars, boats, clothes, computers, TV’s, etc.? Better for ourselves and, especially, our families.

And then there’s a reason for our rampant consumerism that I hadn’t considered until my later years: buying stuff is a strategy for giving death the middle finger.

Ex-wife no. 2 awakened me to this idea with a simple statement. “Life is grieving process.” True story. We lose things throughout our entire life. Stuff, yes. Mostly but not exclusively people and our youth.

Buying things is the act of acquisition, adding things to our lives. Tangible things that say “I have more than I did before.” The things we get represent progress. They say “I’m still productive.” More importantly, “I’m still here.” And so you are. For now.

Time Out

I gave my father many gifts over many Christmases, beginning with hand-made items. By the end of his life, all of them were gone. The only gift he retained was a watch I gave him for his 50th birthday.

A watch I received back upon his death.

I cherish it because it represents the most precious gift we gave each other: our time. Time that came to an end, just as my time with my children will come to an end.

Again, love tokens are a good thing, not a bad thing. But as we approach Christmas, I urge you to spend less money and more time. Time doesn’t last as long as things, but it’s far more valuable.

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