by Ahona Dam and Julian Phillips, Centerfold Editors
graphic by Julie Wang
As the December cold carries light flurries in the wind, and people sit by a fireplace with a cup of hot cocoa, stores begin to stock their shelves with glittery snow globes, tinsel-wrapped trees and fruit-flavored candy canes — elements that symbolize one thing: the arrival of the holiday season.
While some find boundless joy sifting through store racks filled with these items, others dread searching for the perfect gift. Biology teacher Ashley Vollaro said she panicked last winter when every teacher in the science department was expecting a gift from her, but she could barely cover rent with the low wage from the Pennsylvania high school where she worked.
“There was this dread, like ‘what do I get them?’ or ‘how much do I spend?’ or ‘what are they going to get me?’” she said. “There’s the guilt, the ‘okay, after Dec. 31, my bank account is pretty empty’ [aspect] and the stress associated with [gift-giving] that could lead us to not feel the joy of the season. Giving gifts can be powerful, and a lot of people like to make someone’s day, but it can get daunting at this time of year.”
With the holiday season in full swing, increased commercialization of shopping for gifts and heightened social anxiety — parts of which can be attributed to the pandemic — have marred the tradition of gift-giving. While giving gifts remains a valuable way of expressing appreciation, gift-givers like Vollaro find that social and economic values rooted in the United States’ capitalist society lead to an obligation to buy an excessive number of gifts.
In a way, the gifts we exchange come with a price tag that may be heavier than affection, psychology teacher Paul Estin said.
“With gift-giving, it’s a mix, because yes, it’s fun, but it’s an obligation, it’s a duty, and what if you get it wrong? What if you forget someone?” he said. “There’s always some sense of what’s expected and what’s your obligation, and the greatest hope is that you can exceed that, the next best is to meet it and the worst is that you fall short.”
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The recent surges in COVID-19 infections and the spread of a new variant have disrupted many people’s plans to see family and friends to celebrate the holidays; however, it has not stopped people from buying gifts. The National Retail Federation anticipates an 8.5%-10.5% increase in holiday sales from 2020 to 2021 as compared to an 8.2% increase from 2019 to 2020.
This growth could be attributed to more family gatherings and heightened expectations for gift-giving, especially when considering the isolation of last year. For years, the American Psychological Association (APA) has observed an increase in fatigue, stress and irritability during the holidays, all driven by a pressure to spend substantial money on gifts and a desire to sustain and strengthen relationships. According to the APA, the stress of gift-giving can have long-term effects when combined with preexisting stressors.
Wellness teacher Patrick Jordan-Quern said he worries about choosing the right gift. He said there is a fine line between perception and intention.
“I always worry about giving a ‘bad gift’ or something that someone’s not going to use or something that just takes up space,” he said. “How is someone going to perceive this gift?”
In light of the demand for gift-giving, Amy Shih, the owner of Just Next Door, an Auburndale gift shop, said that her job can conflict with her personal values; while her business is dependent on the social expectation of gift giving, it can occasionally be problematic, she said.
“I’m contributing to societal pressure of ‘you’ve got to get grandma a gift, and your next-door neighbor has to bring you a plate of cookies,’” she said. “It’s tough, and I’m a part of it all.”
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A Commercialized Nation
As the clock strikes midnight, marking the official end of Thanksgiving, stores rush to decorate elaborate displays, blast holiday music and lure consumers inside with sales. While these marketing tactics may seem modern, advertising holidays as a means to increase revenue for stores isn’t new; stores began to market popular holidays starting as early as the 1840s.
As the American Industrial Revolution ended, German and Dutch immigrants brought with them the concept of Christmas as a time for children and giving, according to Jagwire, Augusta University’s online newsletter. Meanwhile, in England, the popularity of the Santa-like Ghost of Christmas present in Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” stirred up a cult following of Santa which also migrated to the United States.
Retail businesses in industrial cities seized this to capitalize on the newfound cultural fervors and began mass producing goods across the country.
Similarly, Hanukkah became popular in the United States at the start of the 20th century with an influx of Jewish immigrants. According to Time, gift-giving during Hanukkah soon became a traditional American phenomenon. This practice gained traction and a shift towards commercialization was seen in the 1920s, when Yiddish-language newspapers advertised giving gifts in honor of Hanukkah. The Time article said that while some see gift-giving during Hanukkah as a symbol of joy, others see it as assimilation into the American culture of consumerism.
On the other hand, Kwanzaa is a more contemporary example of holiday commercialization. While the holiday was established in 1966 by Black power activists, mainstream corporations grew to use Kwanzaa in marketing products to a largely white audience. By forcing the idea that white people could use Kwanzaa to show their cultural tolerance, businesses diluted the holiday’s original meaning.
In an interview with NPR, University of Minnesota’s African American History Professor Keith Mayes said that while this display of tolerance is not entirely negative, “we should also remain aware of a cautionary tale so often associated with holidays. Too much variation and too many usages will cause Kwanzaa to lose its original purpose.”
Around the same time in the 1990s, the invention of the internet revolutionized gift-giving with e-commerce giving gifts an air of convenience and efficiency. As many traditional holidays have become commercialized, individuals like Estin feel a disconnect between the purpose of holidays and the commercialization of the holiday season.
While attending church in 2009, Estin said after listening to a sermon about gift-giving, in which his minister wanted church members to donate half of their gift money to charity, he noticed the power of consumer culture.
“[The meaning of the holiday] gets lost in all the commercialism, family expectations and things like that,” he said. “ It is one of the things that adds to the stress because as people get monetary expectations, that makes it harder, but at the same time, you don’t have to give in to that.”
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Facing the pressure of holiday gifts, sophomore Kevin Yang said he was unsure if money would be well-received; he thought that a cheap gift would be meaningless, but that an expensive gift would be unreasonable. Dilemmas like Yang’s have become representative of the commercialistic attitude toward gift-giving as givers attempt to find the “perfect gift” to appease the recipient.
Yang said that while he ended up purchasing a book, the gift still felt unsatisfactory because it could only serve as a materialistic representation of his appreciation.
“Gift-giving is a materialistic concept. It’s rooted in giving material, and that’s the reason why society often places more value on it.”
Yang said that he feels a disconnect between his role as a gift-giver and gift-receiver, a feeling that senior Jenny He said she experiences as well.
“I personally don’t feel like when I give something, I expect something in return,” she said. “I assume that my friends are the same way, but I always think that because they give me something, I should return it.”
Junior Stephanie Saloum said the expectation to give gifts can vary depending on the giver’s relation to the receiver.
“[Gift-giving] can be a chore when you’re buying gifts for someone that you’re not necessarily best friends with or someone that you only go to see once or twice a year,” she said, “However, if you’re giving it to a friend or a family member, it’s a more enjoyable thing in that you want to give something to them.”
With different perceptions of these roles, choosing the right gift can be anxiety-provoking. Shih said as a salesperson she counsels customers with gift-giving anxieties toward finding the perfect gift.
“We throw out lots of suggestions, and we know some of them will be totally off for this person,” she said. “Maybe people are afraid that their gift won’t be accepted well, so that provides anxiety, or maybe they feel like they’re not going to have enough money to spend to get the proper gift, which is definitely not true in my eyes.”
Consumers are also subject to the larger-scale techniques of chain retailers that are unlike Just Next Door. Estin said that when opportunities arise to trick consumers into spending more money, large businesses seize on them.
“The most transparent example ever was when I was growing up with the idea of getting a diamond for something, and somehow it became that two-months salary is how [expensive] the diamonds are,” he said. “It’s like, wait a minute, the people making this up are the diamond industry.”
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Gifts that Keep on Giving
Amid the pressures of consumer culture, Yang said that there are alternative methods that can reduce the stress.
To preserve the holidays as a time of relaxation, Estin said that his family is taking a different approach this year.
“[We’ve decided to] do a really minimal Christmas this year, no pressure, just being together, a few minor gifts [and] getting a meal, and that takes the pressure off,” he said.
Although the thought of giving gifts may result in stress, Shih said that shopping for gifts can be a collaborative effort.
“If there is someone who’s close enough to you that you feel obligated to buy a gift [for], you could invite them to come with you and shop with you, or show you how you can be more comfortable at shopping,” she said.
Estin said that the central message of appreciation that giving gifts send still holds strong, which is why gift-giving continues to play a central part in many cultures today.
“In the end, it does feel good to exchange gifts, and it’s easy to see why cultures have developed all kinds of different rituals around that, even with people who are not in their family,” he said. “On the very simplest level, it feels good to give.”