It’s holiday time, so you know what that means: excess. Excess eating, drinking, merry-making, and, of course, spending.
Despite my attempts every year to 1) finish my shopping early and 2) be tight with my spending, it never ends up working out. Yes, self-discipline surely has something to do with it. But I’ve been thinking about how this idea of excess has become pervasive.
It’s present on a daily basis, but arguably, it rears its ugliest head around the holiday season.
It’s an unfortunate contrast to what is otherwise supposed to be a time filled with cheer, love, and wishes. Somehow, we’ve turned that into a rat race to give (and receive) the best presents, make the best dishes, wear the best holiday outfits, buy the fanciest New Year’s Eve meal, and shoes, and… the list goes on.
Recently, my friend told me that he had to put the kibosh on his family’s ongoing Christmas festivity planning. Because the planning had steered very far from the original point—spending time as a family—toward more obligatory spending. On top of customary gift-giving, his siblings and mother wanted to instigate a Secret Santa stocking exchange as well. He rallied back by requesting that instead of spending more money on “arguably useless stocking stuffers”, they go to a homeless or food shelter as a family. It was, he said, supposed to be his father’s actual Christmas gift.
Certainly the holiday season brings out the very best in people, much in this way. Many families do make a point, every year, to participate in some event or activity that gives back. Some, of course, do this year-round. But the holidays do help put things into perspective in exactly this manner.
As a Jew, I’ve been thinking about this more and more. We never celebrated Christmas (occasionally, my mom would give us stockings so we wouldn’t feel left out), but we took the Americanized idea of Hannukah and ran with it: eight nights, eight presents. It sure was fun, but over the years, that dovetailed into just one night of gift-giving. Then my brother married a Christian, and as our families merged, we incorporated Christmas traditions into ours. We now have dinner as a huge family on Christmas Eve and, while we are proud to continue the stereotyped tradition of seeing a movie and eating Chinese food on Christmas night, we do spend Christmas morning with their family around the tree, helping the young ones open their presents, cuddling on the couch in our pajamas.
I’m incredibly grateful that these customs have merged for our family—it’s introduced a new way of being together and, for lack of a less cheesy word, it’s beautiful.
But it does mean I’m buying lots of Christmas presents. And while I love to do it, the joy of gift-giving can be diminished when you’re doing it because, well, you sort of have to. And especially when it’s getting down to the wire and I don’t have everyone crossed off my list yet, I start to wonder: why, exactly, are we doing this?
Historically, Christmas gift giving was a symbolic tribute to Jesus, but even before that, people in Europe and the Middle East gave one another gifts as a way to lift their spirits during the stark cold of winter. Later, this tradition was deemed too pagan and it was banned, only to be reinstated in the 1680s when, thrilled to have gift-giving legal again, it bloomed—handmade gifts and treats abounded.
The industrial revolution saw a goldmine opportunity for mass-producing gift items, and you can probably fill in the rest from there. Retail sales in the U.S. generated over three trillion dollars during the 2013 holiday season alone.
If you think that’s excessive, you might be pleased to know that lots of people felt the same way, even 100 years ago.
In 1912, a group of working women in New York City grew so disheartened with rampant commercialism induced by the industry of Christmas gift-giving that they formed an activist group: the Society for the Prevention of Useless Giving, or SPUG.
Maybe it’s just me, but I’d never heard about this before, and I was fascinated. Primarily, they were fed up with the popular custom of purchasing exorbitant gifts for one’s boss. “BE A SPUG AND STOP FOOLISH XMAS GIVING” was an ad published in the New York Times. The Spugs wanted to rally against unnecessary gift-giving and establish the opportunity for people to refrain without pressure. It helped that two of the founders had political sway and socialite-friendly status: one was an actress, the other was none other than Anne Morgan, daughter of J.P. Morgan. (Yep, that Morgan—one of the richest men in history.)
They did not, as many people believed, disapprove of Christmas. Really, they were trying to establish something very progressive: independence and, in a sense, feminism. They wanted to form a community around women who, instead of believing themselves to be working women, thought of themselves as “self-respecting, self-supporting women”. In kind of a bad-ass, early feminist move, Teddy Roosevelt signed on as the first male Spug, jokingly calling the group “bullies” for being female-only. Membership blossomed. Smartly, they changed their name to the Society for the Promotion of Useful Giving, and emphasized selflessness and generosity.
But then the war came in 1914, and the focus on gift-giving—useless or otherwise—fell away. A different kind of somber urgency took over. The founders focused on war efforts, and the Spugs dissipated.
I’m curious if the Spugs would have any impact now. The country is in a very divided place. Feminism is thankfully spreading, but we still have leaps to go before we can stop fighting. Largely, we spend more time staring at our phones than our loved ones, and it doesn’t help when we can do anything we want—purchasing holiday gifts chief among them—with the click of a button. We can’t change the world (heck, maybe we can), but we can change our own behaviors, habits, and lives.
And that will influence those around us. This year, I want to focus on being present (no pun intended—okay, maybe it was) and thankful for everything—and everyone—good in my life. Doing so will undoubtedly produce gifts all year long, whether they’re wrapped with a bow or not.