Opinion: Consumption dampens holiday spirit

November 28, 2012


Bing Crosby would be appalled.

With singer Carol Richards, the great crooner once popularized a song, “Silver Bells,” about the joy of Christmas shopping. “Strings of street lights,” it went, “even stop lights, blink a bright and red and green as the shoppers rush home with their treasures.”

Of course, that was in 1950, a more genteel era when men still wore hats and women still wore gloves. These days, one would be well-advised to wear Kevlar.

In 2008, a Wal-Mart worker named Jdimytai Damour was trampled to death by a mob of holiday shoppers who broke down the doors of a store in Valley Stream, N.Y. In 2011, a woman in Los Angeles used pepper spray on a group of shoppers vying for video game consoles. That pleasant chore of holiday shopping about which Crosby sang has long since mutated into an annual ritual of mass psychosis called Black Friday.

About the best that can be said of this year’s Black Friday is that nobody died. Two people were shot in Tallahassee, Fla., in what police say was a dispute over a parking space. In San Antonio, a man allegedly cut the line and punched a guy who complained. The guy who was punched pulled a gun. In Moultrie, Ga., there was a near riot over cell phones. In Sacramento, Calif., a man threatened to stab anybody who pushed his kids.

And as people were thus celebrating the season of thanksgiving, redemption and light, the Rev. Nancy was saying grace over two cups of Jell-O.

She is my pastor’s mother, a preacher in her own right, who took ill on Thanksgiving eve and had to be rushed to the emergency room. She spent the holiday in the hospital and her son was so moved by watching her give thanks for Jell-O that he preached about it Sunday.

Maybe you say to yourself, Well, yeah, but what is Jell-O to be thankful for? Especially when everybody else is gorging on turkey and ham and dressing and greens and mac and cheese and pies and cakes?

But when your last meal was intravenous, Jell-O is quite a lot.

This is not a church, so there will be no sermon, only an observation that, whatever one’s belief structure or lack thereof, there is something to be said for learning to be content in the face of circumstances you cannot change.

Otherwise, you are in for a bumpy ride through this life.

Folks forget that sometimes. Heck, folks forget it all the time.

“The trouble with you and me, my friend,” Don Henley once sang, “is the trouble with this nation. Too many blessings, too little appreciation.”

Or as the serenity prayer puts it: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

Such sentiments are necessarily at odds with the cult of consumption and its belief that one is incomplete until one buys what the store is selling, that can change one’s entire life, find wholeness and a better self, in the things one owns. It is a faith — the word is used advisedly — that finds expression each year in scenes of people surging into temples of commerce, pulling guns and getting into fistfights while trying to buy things they feel they need.

But the things we need most in this life cannot be found in temples of commerce or bought at any price. Did more of us know that, back in the era when men still wore hats and women, gloves? Maybe. Or maybe that’s just a trick of memory, painting olden days in sepia tones.

So fine. No olden days, no sepia tones here. But you don’t have to go back to 1950 to marvel at how some of us define what matters in this life. You can just go back to last week, to a holiday weekend some folks spent camping at the mall and punching one another in the face — and at least one of us spent in a hospital bed giving thanks for Jell-O. Something in that juxtaposition makes you want to pause, reconfigure your ideas of what truly matters in this life and what, ultimately, does not. Perhaps that’s only to be expected when a woman is able to locate grace in a gelatin snack as the shoppers rush home with their treasures.

— Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald. He chats with readers from noon to 1 p.m. CST each Wednesday on www.MiamiHerald.com.


Briseis 5 years, 5 months ago

The country is evolving. Transformation from the 50's to the 12's is inevitable. Get what you can. None of us is getting out of here alive.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 5 years, 5 months ago

Is the exertion of refilling your coffee cup is really that tough on you?

Briseis 5 years, 5 months ago

More dampening.

Yet an interesting thing happened just following the election. The Obama administration, without warning, announced that it opposes prolonging a suspension of tariff walls on the materials that go into making these specialty products. To put it plainly, there is going to be a new tax on imports on your shoes. And it begins on Jan. 1, 2013.

(If you want to know more about the legal mechanism being overridden here, look up "miscellaneous tariff bill"; it is a slight window of freedom in an otherwise closed system.)

This puts many importers and foreign producers in a terrible bind. They've already made their business plans and purchases based on the assumption that the lower tariff rates will apply. Industry experts are predicting price hikes of an immediate 38% on outdoor shoes. It will hurt sellers, manufacturers, and especially consumers.

Briseis 5 years, 5 months ago

Why would the Obama administration do this? I have no inside knowledge. But if this action fits most such actions, it comes down to a political payoff for some industrial competitor somewhere. It has nothing to do with saving jobs. It is saving some friends of the government at the expense of everyone else. Another possibility is that this action helps give more work and power to the U.S. Customs agency and its public-sector union. http://lfb.org/today/

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 5 years, 5 months ago

This was just as relevant as your first post was profound. You're on a real roll here.

tomatogrower 5 years, 5 months ago

Maybe they should start making shoes in the US again. Duh.

Cait McKnelly 5 years, 5 months ago

I was born in the early 1950's. My own parents grew up in the Depression. I have a letter from my aunt that describes her Christmas when she was five years old. Her gifts consisted of new clothes for her doll, carefully stitched from an old apron of my grandmother's, and a doll cradle made from a Quaker Oat box. They were wrapped in colored funny papers from the Sunday paper.
Our Christmas was more abundant. I had three sisters and, until we were twelve years old, each of us got a new doll each year plus 3 or 4 other toys which always included one board game for the entire family. We always got new clothes as well. It was THE major time of year for re-wardrobing the family. Our stockings were stuffed, but not with candy. We always got an orange and an apple each along with unshelled nuts. Each would have a small handful of hard candy and at most, two or three pieces of chocolate.
My dad worked for the railroad and my mom, like most from that time period, was a stay at home mom. She was careful with money and would save for Christmas for the entire year, joining a "Christmas Club" at the bank. She had a locked trunk in her bedroom that was the "Christmas trunk" and if she ran into something at a good price throughout the year she would buy it and store it in the trunk.
They weren't above giving used gifts either. When I was in junior high, cassette tape players came out and were the latest technology. I wanted one badly. My dad bought a used one from a co-worker and they gave it to me for Christmas. I loved it.
And they MADE gifts; some of them quite beautiful. Just passed to my two year old granddaughter is a handmade oak, hooded Shaker doll cradle that my father made for me, was passed to my eldest daughter who, in turn, gave it to her baby.
This is what Christmas memories are made from, not cheap Chinese made junk from Walmart. Remember that when you go Christmas shopping.

Cait McKnelly 5 years, 5 months ago

I meant to add this to my post. It was taken in 1957, when I was four years old. I also apologize for the quality of the photo. It went through a house fire at one point. Many things can happen to a photo over the course of 50+ years.

Leslie Swearingen 5 years, 5 months ago

No, I don't think so. I will be shopping at Walmart and buying things imported from China who happens to be a very important trade partner of the United States. The phrase "cheap Chinese made junk..." is judgmental and rude.

Kathy Theis-Getto 5 years, 5 months ago

No it is not rude, nor judgemental frankie.....just the facts, ma'am.

Katara 5 years, 5 months ago

I have a gift closet (well, gift shelf in my closet) that serves the same purpose as your mother's Christmas trunk. When I see something that would make a great gift for someone and the price is good, I go ahead and purchase and store it until needed.

It is a great way to avoid all the crowds and fuss that comes along with the crazy shopping time that comes along with the season.

tomatogrower 5 years, 5 months ago

I got a used bicycle once for Christmas. It was the best present ever. Nowadays, if you tried to give a kid something used for Christmas, many of the them would whine. I knew a woman who gave her teenage kids TV's for their rooms, but they made her take exchange them, because they weren't the right brand. I would have returned them for the refund and donated the money to a charity.

oldbaldguy 5 years, 5 months ago

cait48, I remember those days and I agree

Cait McKnelly 5 years, 5 months ago

Thank you, Kathy. Looking at that photo makes me cry. The sister on the far right passed away two years ago. I just want to take all three of those little girls (including myself) and hug the stuffin' out of them.

Kathy Theis-Getto 5 years, 5 months ago

I know the feeling. I hope you can concentrate on the good memories!

deec 5 years, 5 months ago

Unless your parents, grandparents and extended family are actually toxic, please go see them this holiday season. I'd give anything to have one more Christmas with my grandparents, aunts, uncles and parents.

jhawkinsf 5 years, 5 months ago

Speaking of "one more day", the book "For One More Day" by Mitch Albom is an excellent book on the subject. Might even be a great gift.

Tony Kisner 5 years, 5 months ago

Disagree with the head line on this column. If you consume the right stuff in significant quantities the holidays can be very festive.

Abdu Omar 5 years, 5 months ago

Thankgiving has lost its meaning to become the "day before black Friday". Buy this, buy that, everything is about buying and more buying. for what? Another holiday that has lost its meaning. Christmas, the day that we should celebrate Jesus' birthday. Isn't that important enough without spending thousands of dollars, going into debt and giving things to people, especially children, that will forget in a few hours because they got so much. What is the point? More Stuff? What does that prove about Christmas? When I was a kid, we got one, I repeat, ONE toy and some clothes. That was all, no more. Oh, we could afford more, but my parents wanted us to grow up wanting something, not being satisfied.

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