It’s early December and the holiday season is in full swing. This late-year string of celebrations now extends a full two months, starting on Halloween, ending on New Year’s Day, with Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa sandwiched in between.
These festivities all share laudable goals: the celebration of family and friends, the spreading of good will, and the appeal for international peace and prosperity.
But along with the good cheer, camaraderie and generosity, comes a healthy dose of consumer spending.
The sales numbers tell the story:
According to the National Retail Federation, this year consumers will spend $630 billion on retail items in November and December, up significantly from the $400 billion spent in 2002. This is 19 percent of the year’s total.
According to a Gallup poll, this year each adult will spend an average of $830 on Christmas gifts, up significantly from the $690 spent in 2002. One third will spend $1,000 or more and 64 percent will spend $250 or more.
All this consumption has created ambivalent feelings toward the holiday season.
In 2013, the Pew Research Center surveyed Americans about their attitudes toward Christmas: 69 percent said the part of the holidays they liked most was spending time with family and friends; 65 percent said the part they liked least was the commercialization, cost and seasonal shopping.
This concern about commercialization is hardly new. Sixty years ago, in his classic “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” Dr. Seuss, gave us the following words of wisdom:
“And he puzzled and puzzled ’till his puzzler was sore. Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before. What if Christmas, he thought, doesn’t come from a store. What if Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more.”
The worry that we have devalued the meaning of the holidays does not mean that we should automatically rearrange all our buying habits.
Few would argue that we should abandon all gifts: They are a powerful way of expressing love and appreciation. Few would argue that we are not entitled to creature comforts: no one wants a life of unnecessary chores. Few would argue that we should abolish the occasional extravagance: All of us deserve and appreciate a touch of luxury.
But we need to be cognizant of and sensitive to the world in which we live. The gap between rich and poor is widening; middle-class wages have stagnated; and whether we like it or not, we have all become members of an increasingly close-knit global community (any activity in the part has an impact on the whole).
For Halloween this year, Americans spent $6.9 billion on costumes, candy and decorations.
This includes $350 million on pet costumes. In this new world in which we live, we should examine our individual and collective priorities.
We may find that there is much need for more responsible thought and action.
Gene Budig, an Isle of Palms resident, was president/chancellor of three large public universities and president of Baseball’s American League. Alan Heaps served as vice president of the College Board in New York City.