From Seasons Greetings to Seizing the Means: How Christmas has Become a Capitalist Nightmare

Modern American Christmas is far detached from its humble Christian origins. Today, many Americans participate in Christmas’s aesthetic and capitalistic nature despite having no connection to Christianity, with about 81% of non-Christians celebrating Christmas according to pew research center. Many non-Christian Americans say they want to participate in the “cultural event of Christmas.” 

So what is the cultural event of Christmas? Christians and optimistic Americans would like to think Christmas is simply about spending time with loved ones and perhaps giving back to the community. Yet, in reality, the culture of Christmas has transformed into something profoundly capitalist. 

Since 2009, American consumers’ spending on holiday gifts increased from the previous year says Investopedia. The availability of online shopping and the development of innovative algorithms to push the products you want to see in front of your screen only exacerbates this spending. 

Christmas often starts with good intentions of mindful spending, with 56.3% of Americans setting a Christmas budget; however, only 64% of Americans stick to their budget according to MotleyFool. Those who stray from their spending plans find themselves paying off Christmas months after the holiday, with around 21.5% of Americans going into debt because of Christmas purchases according to MotleyFool. 

In addition,  all this spending doesn’t just happen; it takes concerted effort and time. Women spend an average of 20 hours shopping for Christmas gifts, while men do less than half of that time shopping for the holidays. We could observe how Christmas is yet another example of women taking on unpaid labor that men refuse to do while being underappreciated and overlooked, but that’s another story. The point is that the capitalist nature of Christmas eats away at our time. On average, three hours are spent just waiting in line when shopping, another three are spent on wrapping gifts, and one is spent solely on returning unwanted gifts says WEF. 

Much of this time is spent buying gifts mindlessly, with the capitalist nature of Christmas putting pressure on Americas to buy gifts no matter what. Many Americans are willing to buy gifts they know others don’t want rather than showing up empty-handed; in fact, 1 in 10 Americans have admitted to buying someone a present they knew they wouldn’t like. Many Americans purchase gifts with the mentality that unwanted gifts can be returned.  

This sentiment is not incorrect; most Americans (77%) say they plan to return at least some of the gifts they receive during the holiday season. Roughly $90 billion worth of merchandise comes back to retailers – roughly the GDP of Slovakia. While eCommerce has allowed for easier purchasing of Christmas gifts, it has also made returns much more likely; online sales result in $43 billion of the $90 billion return expectation. Additionally, the rate of online returns has increased about 15% each year since 2016 according to Motley Fool. 

Yet all these returns come at a cost for both retailers and the environment. Retailers spend an estimated $101 billion on transporting and sorting holiday returns back through the supply chain. This is a cost many retailers and unwilling to absorb, with 40% of goods returned to retailers ending up getting thrown away says Tobin Moore, Optoro’s CEO. This creates a staggering 5 billion pounds of retail returns that end up in landfills, with many gifts consisting of plastics and synthetics that take decades to decompose. 

This all paints a rather grim picture of American Christmas. A story of spending hours to overspend on unwanted gifts that harm the environment is a far cry from humble stories of the nativity. So what is the solution? Knowing all that we know about the woes of a capitalist Christmas, how do we solve this crisis?

The answer is we don’t. For many Americans, Christmas is no longer about celebrating the birth of Jesus or having quality family time, but for many, Christmas was never about that. The joys of decorating and giving gifts, however wasteful or unwanted they may be, is how many Americans started celebrating Christmas. 

Sure, it’s never bad to practice mindful gift-giving, but even that comes at a cost. It takes much more time and money to produce thoughtful gifts for every person in your life, something that many people simply don’t have time or resources for. 

The pandemic amplified the stresses and hardships of everyday Americans; the holidays offer a release valve for that stress, often in the form of gift-giving. 

Simply put, gift-giving makes us feel good. “In lifespan and developmental psychology, we teach about altruism and how it benefits individuals and society,” says Dr. Darlene Silvernail, a Psychology instructor at South University-West Palm Beach. “Gift-giving feels good internally, and there are extrinsic benefits also.” 

So maybe the holidays have evolved into a capitalist conglomerate with high financial and environmental costs, but it offers us some relief from the stresses of everyday life than that’s more than enough to keep on gifting.