In the lead up to Christmas I was thinking a lot about the ways in which we acquire stuff. Christmas seems to be a time of year when even those of us who normally preference experiences over objects, can find themselves inundated with well-meant (but superfluous) things. The stress of not being able to find the perfect gift for someone, or worse, of not getting enough, can push us from the headspace of ‘sensible shopper’ to ‘desperate consumer’ in a heart beat.
The pressure to buy, buy, buy during the Christmas season has prompted me to bow out of the race altogether over the last couple of years, to the point where I now only give things I have made or baked, and even then, only to my closest friends and family. As a result of my refusal to enter a shopping centre or department store this festive season, I have had the entire month to ruminate on the power things hold over us, watching as everyone around me went mad spending money left, right and centre.
And yet, I realised as I sat in my armchair with a piece of Mum’s chilli-chocolate fruitcake and a book in hand, it isn’t really that I am adverse to things, per se, but that the things we buy during the holiday season tend to mean so little. Social cues, combined with unprecedented levels of advertising, have conditioned us to buy quantity rather than quality, making it unlikely such items will even last to see the next Christmas.
Looking around my room, I can’t help but think that it doesn’t have to be this way; even the smallest of physical tokens, if chosen with care, are capable of prompting the strongest emotions, sensations and memories.
The two little feathers I have on the light switch beside my bed, for example, remind me of the sounds and smells of the forrest as we walked down into the city of Lausanne, Switzerland, to pace cobblestoned streets in search of punnets of fresh raspberries and gruyere tarts still warm from the oven.
The stone paperweight on my windowsill reminds me of the oppressive heat and humidity as we rode the length of Vietnam. I still feel a connection to each of the emotions on his many faces; there were moments on that trip of both tear-inducing exhaustion and pure ecstasy, the latter usually due to some combination of coconut and sticky rice.
The blurred Polaroid in the bathroom cabinet, meanwhile, makes me think of the red dust, spinifex and dry heat of the highways through the Northern Territory. I took the photo out of the car window hoping to capture the endless expanse of the desert horizon, and even though it is, unsurprisingly, rather blurred, it still immediately transports me there every time I see it.
If these things I picked up off the ground, haggled in a market, and snapped out the window of a moving car, are capable of embodying such emotion, sensation and memory, imagine the power of things given as gifts; things you have invested time, care, thought and resources in.
I am very lucky to be surrounded by people who understand my need for more considered and careful gift giving. My family, friends and colleagues know how distressed I become by the mindless over-consumption of the festive season, and gift-give with consideration accordingly. There is nothing more touching than a jar of homemade biscuits, a bottle of organic wine, a dinner together in the city, or a thoughtfully chosen book; such objects may not be big or flashy, but you know when you receive them that a lot of thought and care has been invested in their construction or purchase, and with you specifically in mind.
So I want to ask you, as we move into another year, to consider the things you will be bringing with you. Do they actually mean something? Are they imbued with an emotion, a memory, a sensation?
Or are they just the by-products of Christmas marketing and habitual consumerism?
Don’t get me wrong; I have nothing against Christmas. In fact I am one of those sappy people who sing Christmas carols under their breath and are constantly munching on Christmas cake. I just feel like we, as a society, need to remind ourselves that Christmas doesn’t have to be about things. And it certainly doesn’t take Christmas to imbue a thing with meaning; you are free to give a beautiful, thoughtful gift at any point throughout the year if you are inspired to do so. ‘Christmas’ and buying ‘things’ don’t have to be synonymous.
So I will leave you, in turn, with a little something to ruminate on; it is a simple message, but one I feel is particularly relevant in the aftermath of Christmas, and on the cusp of a new year.
Practice conscious consumption, always, so that the things you bring into your and others lives are worth sharing, and keeping.