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And so begins the shopping frenzy, though there are alternatives

Tomorrow’s Black Friday mayhem kicks the Christmas buying season into high gear. Long an American Thanksgiving tradition, the buying frenzy used to see Canadians flock for border crossings to join the fray. Today, with online shopping and many Canadian retailers attempting to compete, there’s much less effort involved.

Make that no effort if you take to heart Buy Nothing Day.

Launched in Vancouver in 1992 and promoted by Adbusters, Buy Nothing Day has coincided with Black Friday since 1997. Its message of taking a break in our relentless consumerism has since spread to some 65 countries.

The event eventually gave rise to the Buy Nothing Christmas movement, a real challenge for many of us who can’t even take a one-day break from our shopping habits.

Given an official launch in 2001 by a group of Winnipeg Mennonites, Buy Nothing Christmas is an attempt to not only buck consumerism, but to rediscover the true nature of Christmas – more Jesus, less Santa, as it were.

Born from religion, including roots in paganism and animism, Christmas has become much less about any theism and much more about the largest of the isms: capitalism.

Fewer of us are attending church, leading to the demise of traditional churches. Far more of us will spend time at the mall than at church this holiday season.

We’ve long decried the secularization of Christmas, with Santa supplanting Jesus and gifts trumping family time. Spend, spend, spend is the mantra – now more than ever given consumerism as the salvation for the faltering economy.

The economic focus of Christmas is a clear indication that capitalism is our new religion, a trend that the Buy Nothing Christmas movement looks to reverse.

By downplaying consumerism, the groups says, we can enjoy holidays that are richer in meaning, smaller in impact upon the earth and greater in giving to people less privileged.

Beyond the religious aspect, there’s a living-lighter-on-the-Earth philosophy behind the cause, one that looks at the vast amounts waste – not to mention carbon – generated by the manufacturing, shipping and sales associated with our gift-giving extravaganza.

On a wider level, many of us are becoming considered about the disparities inherent in our economic system, including its lack of sustainability.

A Buy Nothing Christmas, or even some effort at scaling back, is 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.

Proponents of homespun gifts – from baked goods to offers of babysitting – argue we’ve got our priorities backwards. That handmade should be seen as preferable to store-bought: giving something plastic made in China and covered in shrink-wrap should be dumb. That should be thoughtless, instead of the backwards take most of us have on giving gifts.

Instead of wandering around the mall spending money for the sake of spending money, we’re advised to bake a cake, make a wooden toy, or give the gift of time, for instance.

But even buy-nothing advocates know most of us are stuck in a shopping rut, that the peer pressure to consume shiny objects is overarching.

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. Quitting that cold turkey might be too much to ask, both as shoppers and recipients of other people’s Christmas spending. Perhaps the transition could include being more mindful when making choices, including the likes of buying local, which strengthens the local economy and can help with the environmental impacts.

In that vein, spending on services or on natural products as opposed to plastic-and-soon-to-be-landfilled items are also options.

Such choices not only make an immediate difference on holiday spending trends, but reinforce that consumers have the ultimate say when it comes to countering decades of corporate messaging reinforced by a financial sector hell-bent on forcing everyone into debt. The imposed consumer culture may seem all-encompassing, but individual choices can make a difference, even if the shifts take years to reach a tipping point.

There’s also charitable gift-giving to consider, either sourcing items from charities themselves or foregoing the exchange of stuff we probably don’t need in favour of helping those in need, locally or internationally, in the name of those who’d otherwise get stuff they probably don’t need.

While that’s a fine idea, it does raise the issue of the growing need for charity in our increasingly unequal society. In the long run, would be better off changing the nature of consumerism and the balance of power in favour of increased fairness, the better to reduce the underlying need for charitable contributions. A systemic shift is a long-term goal, part of reaching that tipping point.

For now, one really strong argument in Buy Nothing Christmas’ favour, however, probably lives in your own memories: thinking back on Christmases past, do you get more joy remembering 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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