Outside the Package
surreptitious joys of nonmaterial giving for the anti-consumer
you celebrated Black Friday by staying away from the stores
in observation of Buy Nothing Day, you probably already have
a few ideas about how to alter the consumer-frenzied focus
of the holiday season. Buy Nothing Day (BND) is a grassroots
movement that encourages people to consider what they consume.
One of the proponents of BND is Reverend Billy, who features
a Shopocalyptic video from Buy Nothing Day in NYC on his “Church
of Stop Shopping” Web site. While the Reverend preaches against
a consumer lifestyle, I’m sure he’s happy to have people buy
his recently published What Would Jesus Buy?, a compendium
of sermons, lyrics and, apparently, holy jokes.
But what if Buy Nothing Day is all news to you? What if your
godmother announced she does not want to receive any consumer
goods, period, but you feel obliged by a deep, unwritten,
yet spiritually explicit contract to give her something for
all she has given you? Hang onto your credit cards, because
yes, Virginia, there is a Christmas without packages.
There are all kinds of ways to handle this situation. Come
January, some people are going to try to impress you with
how little they spent—in time, money or energy—on the holidays.
They will brag that they’ve got nothing to recover from while
you are trying to reassemble your nerves and your finances.
Others may feel good about giving only cookies or hugs. No
matter where you fall on the spectrum, here are some hints
on how to “shop” for the person with an anti-materialistic
One friend’s family bought gifts for a family in need instead
of exchanging presents. Why, they reasoned, should they shop
for each other when they could afford most anything they wanted?
They found a family to sponsor through a local charity, and
bought everything on the family’s list.
Another great example came straight from the deep dark heart
of retail. My sister runs a jewelry store, and one year, when
I asked her what she wanted, she said she wanted us to spend
time together. So, my husband traced his hand six times and
had our son decorate the fingers: coupons for dinner and massage.
The evenings we spent together—chowing on homemade food, lazing
on the sofa and massaging her shoulders and feet—were great.
If MasterCard added up the cost, they’d call it priceless.
Coupons are a good cover-your-bases gift for bad shoppers,
no matter what time of year. Birthdays often take me by surprise,
even though I theoretically know when they are going to happen.
But I always have envelopes, paper, and my imagination on
hand to whip-up a coupon for a shared outing. A trip to an
art museum, and a meal or drink afterwards. An evening at
Pick your brain and see what other hidden talents and tricks
you can transform into gifts. Do you know how to make caramel
sauce that your best friend loves? Give her a coupon for a
lesson. If not caramel, then how about crepe making, or knitting,
or raking leaves? Who would not love having a friend
share the chores that come with running a home? In case anyone
in my family, immediate or extended, reads this, I would love
coupons for laundry help. I can wash the stuff, but I’m crippled
at putting it away. Once a month would be often enough, and
a half-year of laundry filing services would be plenty, thanks.
Maybe the memories of doing it together would inspire me to
do it gladly on my own.
Give coupons to your mate for handholding, walk-taking, or
just plain kisses. Give coupons to your kids for book-readings
in the afternoon (in addition to bedtime). Invent a family
currency for sharing the necessary evils of domesticity (did
cavepeople fight over sweeping the cave floor?), and also,
a money, of sorts, for the domestic blessings: the shoulder
rubs, the sandwich hugs, the board games on the floor.
Write coupons for room painting or a morning of elbow-deep
spring-cleaning. Make a promissory note for closet cleaning
or car vacuuming. Say you’ll take the time to climb a mountain
or have a cup of tea or a pint of beer with your lover, your
mother, your friend. Has your brother-in-law always admired
your woodworking skills? Share them.
But how do you resist materialism with friends and family
who live far away, or are stationed remotely? Don’t you want
to give them something you’ve held so that they can hold it
and think of you while they play cards or wear a shirt you’ve
chosen? Probably—even if they are toeing an anti-consumption
line. Still, there are alternatives, such as giving money
to charities. For about $25 to $50, you can buy a lot for
someone who is not so fortunate: Give money to food banks,
homeless shelters, animal shelters (and give the money in
June, when donors have forgotten that people are hungry year
round). If the charity doesn’t have a formal program, write
a card yourself, and include information on the charity.
My favorite buy-for-someone-else charity is Heifer International.
You can buy a flock of ducks for a third-world community,
in honor of Aunt Lucy. Or, if you’ve really got the cash,
a Noah’s Ark to help a whole village.
If you follow this philosophy for even one person on your
list, whatever you give—coupons, chickens or caramel lessons—get
ready to receive the gift of shared time, a precious commodity.
And don’t feel embarrassed by saving a little dough in the
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