Occupy This: The Crusade Against Holiday Shopping
Dec 15th 2011 4:00PM
Updated Dec 16th 2011 10:18AM
Kurt Armstrong won't be buying any presents for his three children, ages 7, 4 and 5 months, this holiday season.
Instead, the Winnipeg, Canada, resident, who patches together a living with a handful of disparate jobs -- handyman, freelance writer, church worker -- is making them a board to play crokinole, a game similar to marbles. "I salvaged some 100-year-old maple flooring from a house I was working on, milled the wood and am using it to build their gift," he says.
Armstrong's reasons to forgo holiday shopping are twofold. "We barely scrape by," he says. What's more, "We're trying to establish different, healthier ways to celebrate."
He won't be the only one skipping the mall scene this holiday season.
Armstrong is a devotee of "Buy Nothing Christmas," one of several online movements that have shined a spotlight on people who -- for philosophical, economic or religious reasons -- are doing something radical this holiday season: saying no to gift buying.
Many of these non-shoppers are replacing the annual buying spree with rituals that they believe more aptly reflect the meaning of the holiday, such as sharing time with loved ones, offering up a homemade gift or donating to a favorite charity.
"The idea that we express how we love through buying consumer items is so outdated," Aiden Enns, founder of Buy Nothing Christmas, tells DailyFinance.
The group, started by Canadian Mennonites, rejects what it deems the over-consumptive shopping patterns of North Americans, urging people to spread the message of non-shopping at home, work, in their communities and places of worship. It's grown from a group of about seven Mennonites in 2001 into a national movement with 36,000 web visitors in November, Enns says.
Buy Nothing Christmas is on a mission to recast the holidays so that they're "richer in meaning, smaller in impact upon the earth and greater in giving to people less privileged," according to BuyNothingChristmas.org. It also aims to expose the downside of an economy largely reliant on consumer purchases.
Other, similar sites have sprouted, such as The Christmas Resistance Movement and OccupyXmas.
The crusade against holiday shopping has assumed a new resonance this year amid the rise of Occupy Wall Street, which, like the anti-holiday buying crusades, rally in part against corporate greed.
Indeed, Occupy Wall Street was branded by Adbusters, the Canadian anti-consumerism magazine that sparked awareness for Buy Nothing Day, which encourages people to boycott shopping on Black Friday and is now behind OccupyXmas.
Forgoing store-bought presents will no doubt save the Armstrong family money. But Armstrong says that his decision mostly reflects his kids' pure appreciation of the homemade gifts he's been making them for several years now. "I built my kids a Lego table last Christmas, and they've spent hundreds of hours there over the past year," he says. "My kids are young, but I know they already appreciate the things I build for them."
It also teaches them an implicit lesson about the emptiness of excessive holiday consumption, he says.
"Rather than explaining [to the children] complicated reasons why we're not going with the flow, my wife and I are trying to teach gratitude and celebration," he says.
Armstrong points to writer William Cavanaugh, who makes the distinction between "consuming well" and overdoing it. "I think that making [gifts] helps reconnect my kids and me to consuming well," he says.
The Church of Non-Buying
In the nation's places of worship, some religious leaders are also spreading the gospel of non-buying.
This holiday season, Pastor Pat Bodenhamer of United Methodist Church has been preaching the four principles of the Advent Conspiracy -- worship fully, spend less, give more and love all -- to her congregation of 20 in Omaha, Ark.
The rural town has been hit by a depressed economy. "There are no jobs in rural Arkansas," Pastor Bodenhamer says. "I would dare say that 90% of my congregation may not have health insurance."
Joblessness has taken a financial toll on retired congregants, who are increasingly shelling out more to help support their adult children and grandchildren, she says.
"So here comes Christmas, and they want to give, but they're struggling all around."
Pastor Bodenhamer challenged the congregation to cut out one frivolous gift this holiday season, and instead give their family, friends, even people in their communities who might be alone on Christmas "the gift of you -- a phone call, a hug, or stop by and have a meal," she says, or offer something homegrown and homemade, like a gift from their garden or a quilt.
"I'm trying to guide them into changing their mindset," she says. The idea is to give and receive "meaning instead of just junk."
Bodenhamer also encouraged her congregation to take up a personal cause this holiday season, such as raising funds for an impoverished village in Africa or for those hit by the tornadoes in Arkansas. Because "people became really invested in it and took it personally," the church has raised more money than in prior years, she says.
While the holiday gift exchange can fulfill people's real need for connection with others, it often falls short of any lasting impact -- save for the credit card bills, says Jan of Northwest Arkansas, who preferred not to give her last name.
Jan was determined to preempt her family's shopping madness this holiday season, and help her "debt-wracked, underemployed, over-leveraged, over-mortgaged family members in overcoming denial," she says. "They spend and then they cry, complain, fight with spouses and siblings, and ask for Prozac."
It recently dawned on her that family members were more attached to the feelings of connectedness and love generated by the gift-opening ritual than the actual gifts. "For some family members, this may be the only time during the entire holiday visit that they feel they have the full attention and appreciation of others," she says.
In lieu of the gift exchange, the family will hold a tea-and-candle ceremony. Each family member will receive a personalized, inspirational message of love and encouragement, speak their hearts and minds -- with the promise of full attention from the group -- pray silently, light candles and sip gourmet tea.
"It's about breaking the unwrap-fest habit and meeting emotional needs in a healthy, satisfying way," she says. "If this doesn't promote tears, hugs and extended heart-to-heart follow-up conversations, I don't know what will."
Passed Down Gifts
For the Forshaw-Sawatzky family, the holidays have never been about store-bought gifts, says Tara Forshaw of Winnipeg, Canada, a mother of two boys.
Instead, every Christmas, Forshaw's 5-year-old son, Avery, is given unwrapped toys that his older cousin Adam has outgrown. "We're teaching him that they're not his, but his to use for now, and they will continue a life after him, and he's really a steward of them," she says.
The approach makes perfect sense to the Forshaw-Sawatzky family. "It's just the way we were raised," says Forshaw, who along with her husband is Mennonite. "Christmas is about celebrating the birth of Christ, about spending time with the people you love and eating far too much" -- rather than shopping for presents, which the family can't afford anyway, she says.
This is the first Christmas in three years that Forshaw, an administrative assistant, and her husband Gord, who insulates older homes and was twice laid off from construction jobs, are both employed. "We don't have the money to do what conventional wisdom says, which is to buy, buy, buy."
But even when money was tighter, the couple managed to give extended family Living Gift cards from fair trade retailer Ten Thousand Villages. This year, they'll be making a $25 Living Gift donation in a family member's name to aid those worldwide who lack basic needs, from education and health care to running water.
The anti-consumerism philosophy holds year-round in the Forshaw-Sawatzky household.
According to Forshaw, malls are "social shopping machines." That's why she's kept Avery away from them as much as possible, and from the children that she sees there "asking for stuff, and crying when they don't get it," she says. "I just see this sense of entitlement. I don't want him to learn that's appropriate behavior because in my opinion, it's not."