In It Came Upon a Midnight Sale, first published Dec 23 2011, Sujata Dey measured the brief thrill of a brand new gift against the environmental cost.
So Kalle Lasn, co-founder of Adbusters and instigator of the Occupy Wall Street movement, has shifted his target to the holiday season, urging people to boycott Christmas materialism. Lasn wants people to stop gift buying, which supports environmentally hazardous overconsumption and the unethical actions of certain corporations.
But I have to say that, while others are just discovering anti-materialism, my immigrant parents had been practising this well before it came into vogue. Back then it wasn’t a chi-chi protest of the economic system. It was called being cheap.
My family was ahead of the curve. They knew what re-gifting was before it became trendy. Most of my Christmas and birthday presents had been previously given to somebody else. My mother in her cheap, I mean higher environmental consciousness, saved every plastic bag, every container and every object that was given to her.
I remember the day I knew Santa Claus did not exist. Okay, you might ask, what was a Hindu girl doing celebrating Christmas. But we lived in a small town: Christmas was mandatory.
That year, I had duly written Santa asking for a new-fangled marker and doodling set, the kind that all the other kids had. Before the advent of the dollar store, these crayons were da bomb. Santa, in handwriting much like my father’s, wrote back saying, “Here are the pencils that you asked for.” Next to the note were five pencils with the insignia of my father’s workplace. Having already heard elementary school rumours that Santa was not real, I found that this just confirmed it. After all, Santa was supposed to be a jolly, generous man, not the family scrooge!
While growing up, I envied kids who went to school clothed in Benetton and Reeboks. My parents lectured me that “you go to school to learn, not for a fashion show.” So, like all teenagers, in order to better consume, I got a job and spent most of my spare time hanging out at the mall. I already knew that if you don’t want to be the social outcast, you need to have stuff. I learned from my friends and acquaintances how to spend money and then how to quickly trash anything that got too tired.
But then every so often, my immigrant parents’ values come up. I think, “You paid WHAT for that ugly brown Louis Vuitton handbag?” Or, I have a battle with a roommate who didn’t understand why I couldn’t toss my outdated, broken computer into the trash.
My parents’ values were those of scarcity. They came from the old India, where even newspapers were rationed and reused. Things that are junk for us, our outdated clothes, our old technology and our dog-eared books, could be luxuries. In the NEW India, however, these values are only shared by the poor majority who still die for want of food.
I spent a summer once in the old India, and I stopped caring about my clothes or the required amount of hairspray to maintain a bang, and went local. Suffice it to say, the world did not end. But when I came back to Canada, I had reverse culture shock. I could not bear the superficiality of a culture where the coolness of Corey Hart and Duran Duran was a life-and-death issue.
I learned this again when I recently travelled Cuba. In Canada, I am a BlackBerry, phone and Internet addict. But in Cuba, these things are rationed. Not having access to any of that, I found pleasure in real human contact. With nothing to buy, I enjoyed music, dancing and talking. I did not feel I was missing anything.
Is poverty the only teacher? Do we need to have another financial crisis to change our habits?
All I can say is what is said every Christmas. During this Occupy Christmas or insert-the-name-of-a-comparable-festival-here, we should not equate generosity of spirit with generosity of the pocketbook.
Sujata Dey is a freelance writer and political attachée who doesn’t want anything from Santa, this year.