No Hippopotamus for Christmas
Dear Friends, family, colleagues, neighbors, acquaintances, or anybody else who may be expecting a present from me!
Dear marketers, intentional manipulators of my emotional Christmas hang-ups, and purveyors of junk mail!
Dear anybody who is trying to get me to buy or sell anything this Christmas!
It is the intention of this letter to inform all of you that I have not and will not be buying presents to celebrate Christmas this year. I regret to inform you all that nobody will be receiving a hippopotamus from me for Christmas, regardless of how nicely you can sing that tune. Allow me to explain, in the hope that you will understand and not take it personal if you do not receive a present from me or get me to buy your product.
At this point I have been living in the United States of America for several decades, finally becoming an official US citizen a few months ago. So I am quite familiar with its seasonal rituals and have embraced some of them with delight (like Turkey Day or MLK Day) while avoiding others (Halloween and Fourth of July top the list there). I have created my own family “traditions” to navigate a new life with a new family away from the old country. From my first year here as a young college student, I have always struggled in this period between Thanksgiving and Christmas, feeling a painful cultural disconnect as I witness the increasingly intense pressure to “shop ‘til you drop,” to consume and spend money, supposedly to express care for our loved ones, all around me, that builds up to one ugly cacophony of consumerism and capitalism some time in the last few days before these so-called “holy-days.” So I tend to hide out, avoid grocery stores or any other public places where I might encounter Christmas muzak or “the holiday spirit” in its commercial abomination, spend time in nature away from the hustle and bustle of the season, and create my own little bubble in a safe haven at home, whether with or without a Christmas tree, cookies, and candles.
As a dutiful daughter and caring parent, I have always in the past managed to strike a more or less successful balance between my rejection of the social practices around me and my own and my family’s desire to celebrate what is clearly the most significant holiday of the year in my family and ancestral home of Germany. Like most human beings, I take great pleasure in giving presents, in seeing a friend’s or family member’s face light up because I have managed to get them something that communicates how much I care and think about them. I also love listening to classical music, lighting up these longest and darkest nights of the year with the soft glow of beeswax candles, and seeking stillness and peace within perhaps a bit more consciously than at other times of the year. I enjoy the heart-warming company of friends and family in front of a fire in the woodstove, making my own straw stars to decorate window sills and random branches brought in from the forest, and baking cookies to fill the house with scents of cardamom, ginger, anise, clove, and of course cinnamon. Plus I have a daughter who loves Christmas, so we do get into the “Christmas spirit,” some years because it’s just what a parent has to do and others because I share her enthusiasm for it. And she has spent enough Christmases with my family in Germany to know what the real thing looks like over there and to want a modified version of it over here. With the help of some German care packages from my mom full of strange baking ingredients, special straw for making straw stars and other craft supplies, and real candles for the tree, we do make our home cozy. So then, why on earth no Hippopotamus under the Christmas tree, as much as we love big animals around here??? Or no presents at all? Seriously? Do I really mean it?
The honest answer is, I don’t know. I have thought casually about boycotting Christmas consumerism for years, and I have certainly never been a big shopper or Christmas gift giver. But for some reasons, this is the first year that I do mean it and feel a need to spell it out. It is too negative to invoke the saying “desperate times call for desperate measures,” because I don’t see either the times nor my tiny personal boycott as “desperate” at all. My action is an attempt to make my little light shine and to bring back the flame of hope, of action, of love and warmth and life, at a time that seems pretty dark. And I think I can do that better in other ways than by buying “stuff.” So here are my reasons:
My experience of preparing for and then celebrating Christmas, growing up in southern Germany, did involve some commercial gift-giving from my family. Or more accurately, receiving some store-bought gifts like clothing or a toy train set, legos, musical instruments, and later mainstays like kitchen gadgets (one can never have too many cheese molds), goat bells, and most reliably books. My family knows me well. But the sweet strong family memories that come to my mind for this time of the year center around MAKING things and GIFTING things that are homemade, from cookies to fancy truffles and pickles, Christmas decorations, candles, soap, bath bombs, knitted scarfs (admittedly really ugly and scratchy and probably never worn) and pot holders, calendars of photos or art projects, and of course jams, jellies, vinegars and other concoctions from the garden. In my mind, this is how I like to express my love. The other set of memories that I treasure when I think of Christmas is long quiet walks with my family in wintry forests, followed by a feast with the ceremonial lighting of the (real) candles on the Christmas tree.
Of course, in our crazy busy modern world, where most people work full-time and only get a few days off for the whole winter break, it is hard to carve out the time to make things by hand and get them under the tree on time. I speak from personal experience here since I just finished my grading for fall term, prepared for seven classes to teach next term, and am determined to finish up my next book project over this break. Maybe I’ll get around to writing some cards before the New Year, but this year, I also need to work on making some new straw stars, which we didn’t get around to last year.
It is probably a sentiment shared by many that it is not quite in the “spirit of the season” to buy tacky cheap disposable “stuff” made for starvation wages from toxic materials in developing countries, which soon end up in the landfill because we all have living spaces already too full of stuff that we do not need or use. Luckily, my home town in Bavaria, Würzburg, offers an easy and yet apparently ethical answer to this modern conundrum:
Making Christmas shopping easy and fun, the famous “Weihnachtsmarkt,” which happens during the month of December in the town’s central square, offers a plethora of hand-made gift options, often locally and sustainably produced, from food products and spices to cosmetics, pottery, handmade clothing, candles, and many things that you didn’t even know existed. And while you shop or chat with neighbors and friends who you happen to run into, of course you warm up with a hot cup of “Glühwein” (sweet spiced wine) and the best “Bratwurst” (sausage) in the entire region. So even though we may be too busy to make all our gifts ourselves now, at least we can feel good about directly supporting the nice people who did make our gifts for us.
Of course these regional Christmas markets in Germany have been commercialized and are not nearly as idyllic as I make them in my home-sick mind, especially this year after the tragedy in Berlin, which is still too raw for me to wrap my head around. Still, I have not found an equivalent to this experience in the US. Buying highly priced handmade fair trade products at my local health food store somehow is not the same thing, especially when I know that very little of that money makes it back to the “peasants” in developing countries who labored for many long hours over those gloves, purses, or candles.
In addition to my resistance to buying a gift instead of making it myself, this year I feel a particular concern about the future of the world, as we are looking at a president in the US who thinks of global warming as a Chinese hoax and denies the validity of scientific facts. I just can’t get myself to buy my daughter yet another sweater made in some Indian sweatshop that she clearly doesn’t need. I am acutely aware that children learn not from their parents’ words and teachings but from their actions. So I have decided that the short-term discomfort around the need to explain my failure to provide presents for my friends and relatives is worth the long-term goal of causing myself and those close to me to think critically and more deeply about our patterns of consumption.
And before I sound like a total Debbie Downer, here’s the little positive twist to this writing: Not having to deal with traffic and long lines to even make it to such horrible places as the mall in the month before Christmas frees up time to make cookies and straw stars (and books), to meditate and read, and to spend happy times with friends and dogs. And not spending money on gifts frees up finances to donate to causes like the American Civil Liberties Union, Southern Poverty Law Center, Planned Parenthood, NARAL, The Nation, and other organization, at a time when these seem more sorely needed than ever before. So to those of you who are expecting a gift from me, it will be given, in the form of donations to political causes of my choice. And if you disagree with my politics, well, it is not polite to “look a gift horse in the mouth” – it can’t be any worse than sending you an ugly Christmas sweater. But I don’t mean for this action to sound like a joke, because it is not. The toxic stew of hatred, racism, bigotry, misogyny, xenophobia, ruthless and bottomless greed, white supremacy and fascism (or their local variations), and denial of scientific facts like climate change that is on the rise not just in the US but all over the world is causing me to question my entire way of being in this world. And for whatever reason, this particular “holy-day” season, I choose to celebrate the return of light and warmth and to express my love to the world in a non-traditional way. To those of you who live close enough to come visit, though, I am busy making cookies to sweeten the blow…