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Christmas can't be found at the mall

As you’re reading this, there are only a few days left until Christmas. If you’re like me, you may not have finished your shopping yet … or even started it.

Rather than a last-minute scramble at the mall, perhaps you could buy nothing at all. And if anyone calls you cheap or lazy, you can direct them to Aiden Enns for a primer on the true meaning of Christmas.

Enns is part of a group behind the Buy Nothing Christmas movement. A Winnipeg-based Mennonite, he sees our current consumption-led version of Christmas as incompatible with the spirit of the holiday. By downplaying consumerism, the group says, we can enjoy holidays that are “richer in meaning, smaller in impact upon the earth and greater in giving to people less privileged.”

It’s a pattern he’s followed for more than a decade since he and six other Mennonites launched Buy Nothing Christmas. The reason for the change is outlined on the group’s website (www.buynothingchristmas.org): “The short answer is: After being continuously confronted with stats on the rich and poor and our level of consumption, I had to do something. And, because I’m a member of a church (Mennonite), I wanted to see what would happen if we pricked our collective Canadian conscience with a full-page ad in Canadian Mennonite magazine (Oct. 22, 2001).”

In living that lighter-on-the-Earth philosophy, Enns’ Christmas plans for this year revolve around a gathering at his grandparents’ home, where there’s a hill out back. Where family members usually draw names to assign the (homemade) gift-giving, this year many of them will be making sleds for everyone to enjoy.

“We’ll go out and play in the snow,” he says of the upcoming holiday festivities, noting that while Winnipeg is short on hills, it’s long on snow already this season.

His sled will make use of some old skis and scrap cedar from around his workshop. He hopes what will come out of the process is a workable sled and a whole lot of family fun trying it out.

And, as a bonus, he’ll be “taking the production out of the hands of the marketplace and bringing it home.”

That’s important because Enns and those who support a Buy Nothing Christmas are concerned about our consumer-driven capitalist system.

“In my support of Buy Nothing Christmas, I wish to address how our society is structured and how it tends to favour the rich over the poor. Because this is so complicated, we are tempted to fall back on a charity model. It’s taken me a while to understand how acts of charity towards the poor, even though well-intended, are ultimately not as beneficial as structural change.”

In that, he’s certainly not alone. The campaign has many parallels with the Occupy movement, as well as with Adbusters programs such as Buy Nothing Day and OccupyXmas. On a wider level, many of us are becoming concerned about the disparities inherent in our economic system, including its lack of sustainability.

A self-admitted “hardcore” advocate of a simpler way of celebrating Christmas, Enns recognizes that few people could go cold turkey, dealing with the shock of a truly Buy Nothing Christmas. But even being mindful is a good first step, as he points out in an FAQ:

“We are all going to have to buy some things. When you do buy things, we encourage you to remember principles like buying locally, fairly-traded, environmentally friendly packaging, recycling or re-using, buying things that last, and so on. The main aim of this campaign is not to save money (although that can be a side benefit), it’s not to slow down the pace of Christmas (although that can be a side benefit), it is to challenge our over-consumptive lifestyle and how it affects global disparities and the earth. So, even though you might buy a few things at Christmas, it’s important to think in these global economic terms.”

It’s a philosophy that’s certainly at odds with our sometimes desperate search to find something, anything for the hard-to-buy-for people on our Christmas lists, no matter what kind of junk we ultimately settle on. Instead of a nice homemade gift – perhaps even some cookies – we’re conditioned to believe that we have to go out to the store and buy something readymade.

“It should be the other way around: giving something plastic made in China and covered in shrink wrap … should be dumb. That should be stupid. That should be thoughtless,” says Enns of our backwards take on what a gift should be.

Instead of wandering around the mall spending money for the sake of spending money, he suggests we bake a cake, make a wooden toy, or give the gift of time, such as issuing a babysitting voucher, for instance.

“That’s an awesome gift. I don’t know any parent who wouldn’t like a friend offering up a night of child care.”

He knows, however, that we’re stuck in a shopping rut: “The peer pressure to consume shiny objects is tremendous.”

It is hard to shake off the notions we hold, even if our idea of a traditional Christmas is only a few generations old. We’re addicted to stuff, including brightly-wrapped stuff under the tree. One really strong argument in Enns’ favour, however, probably lives in your own memories: thinking back on Christmases past, do you get more joy thinking of the things you got or from the time spent with family and friends, some of whom may no longer be with you today?

I know it’s the latter for me. And that’s the real spirit of Christmas. And it can’t be bought at the mall.

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