It’s almost Thanksgiving here in the US, and the official start, globally, of the holiday shopping season. But, of course, COVID is raging, and lots will be different this season. From how we celebrate, to what and how much we buy. I’m worried that gifts, wanted or not, will become a proxy-demonstration of love in a time we’re starved for social connection and closeness. But perhaps there are ways to adapt? Both in how we celebrate this year and what we give as gifts:
I remember, as a boy, being so excited on holidays—we’d go first to my grandmother’s house, then to my uncle’s. Dinner at Nanny Jean’s and playing with my cousins. Then dessert at Aunt Kay and Uncle John’s, and more time to play—this time with my older cousins who I always looked up to.
Nothing like that is going to happen this year. My mother begrudgingly accepted my suggestion of having our Thanksgiving meal (not turkey—finally a tradition we can scrap permanently I hope!)* outside by a fire, or the day after, if it rains. But COVID must constrain the choices we make. So we won’t travel, won’t visit anyone except outdoors. However, this made me realize that perhaps we can still go from home to home, in a Progressive Dinner type of way, via Zoom.
So I’ve set up breakfast with a deeply missed friend in Atlanta. A morning coffee with friends in DC. Then lunch with mom, barring rain, and evening drinks with friends out west (plus additional chats woven throughout the week). These are people I miss. That I don’t spend enough time staying in touch with—who we might have visited around the holidays (polluting the Earth to do so). Of course, I’ll also squeeze in calls with family members wishing them Happy Thanksgivings and hopefully an outside visit with my cousin as well. Actually it feels like I packed in a bit too much. But that’s the point. A day of excess in feasting and socializing.
I thought instead about attempting to organize a Zoom Thanksgiving: having everyone over at the same time (eating meals simultaneously—perhaps even eating the same thing!) or a Zoom Open House, where people rotate in and out, but the Zoom birthday parties I’ve been to this past year are uncomfortable, just like real parties. Do you really want to speak to your friend’s neighbor knowing that the next time you’ll see him, if ever, will be at next year’s party? No, you came to visit your friend. So instead, we picked some folk to reach out to and spend an hour or so with having a symbolic coffee, drink, or dessert. Not sure how it’ll go, but I imagine it’ll be fun, and certainly a tradition, that unlike the turkey, I’ll want to carry forward.
Black Friday is coming…. Inoculate Yourself
Last year I meant to write an essay encouraging people to buy nothing on Black Friday, as Adbusters has promoted for so many years, with its Buy Nothing Day. The organization has promoted staying home on the crazy shopping day that the day after Thanksgiving has become. It has encouraged protesting, collectively cutting up credit cards, walking aimlessly through stores (not buying anything), even zombie walks in front of malls.
But now, with the COVID-induced recession and so many local businesses struggling to survive, it feels a bit tone deaf to say don’t go to the store. In fact, looking at Adbusters’ website, even this group focused its energy on one company instead—Amazon, a company that has profited greatly during this pandemic, often at the expense of local stores. (As of this writing, Adbusters did not offer a specific way to do this but I have a few ideas on how to navigate the holiday shopping frenzy this year.)
Avoiding Amazon is difficult as it has become an easy one-stop-shop to buy pretty much anything need (and lots of things we don’t). But are there ways around this? And more importantly, perhaps this is a reminder that we shouldn’t be buying holiday gifts if we can help it. When making decisions this holiday season, let’s ask ourselves, ‘Can we make it? Buy it used? Or buy it local?’
First: it’s essential to keep in mind that COVID and the COVID-fueled recession haven’t made the bigger threat of our unsustainable consumer lifestyles (and the massive ecological damage they cause) disappear. So if it’s possible, just as Bill McKibben and so many others have advocated, spend little on gifts. Make** things if that’s an option: a dessert, a meal, a photo collage. I remember every year growing up, a friend of the family, Uncle Rich, would deliver a box of cookies to our house. Homemade and in a dozen varieties. It kept us merry (and sugared up) for weeks! And decades later, he’s still at it, as I discovered when we reconnected last New Year (and got to eat some of the surplus cookie supply).
Or, if making things adds stress at an already stressful time of the year (and a stressful time in the COVID curve), mine secondhand shops for unique gifts for friends and family. The financial and ecological savings of spending $3 for a perfectly playable game or a funny, gently worn T-shirt makes far more sense than spending $30 on a similar, brand new product.
Or, buy things that are needed or luxuries that loved ones might not purchase for themselves (but you will eventually buy anyway!): a nice bottle of wine, or for my wife, a bottle of scotch. And those things, you can buy at a local store. Or this year especially, get a gift card to support a struggling local business a loved one values.***
Essentially, if there are ways you can keep shopping locally, from merchants that are a real, and an integral part of your community, do so, but only if the gift is truly needed or wanted. And definitely not on November 27th. Instead, stay out of both physical and virtual stores on Black Friday. Go for a hike. Marie Kondo all the stuff you’ve accumulated during quarantine (sans your toilet paper stockpile) and resupply your local thrift store. And perhaps add a few more virtual stops to your Thanksgiving progressive visit.
*I was listening to “Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me” recently (11/7 episode) and the panelists raged on how disgusting turkey is: “Turkey was never that good.” ‘It’s dry, it’s the only food you need to stuff with other food to make tasty, etc.’ And 46 million poor turkeys are raised (the overwhelming majority on factory farms) and slaughtered each year, just for Thanksgiving. And why? To give thanks for our lives and for Earth’s bounty. Seems like we should have a less cruel food tradition to show our gratitude.
**Or even mend/fix something for a loved one. How many things in your home sit unused because they’re dull, ripped, or needing a bit of glue or a nail? Fixing these instead of letting them linger on the bottom of the priority list may not seem like a gift, but having access to a missed prize possession certainly is.
***You could also support a cause near and dear to them, though it’s important to recognize that not everyone values donations as a gift.