Every year around this time, companies ramp up marketing campaigns that do their best to connect contentment with consumerism. Feeling lonely? Buy a candy cane latte. Feeling grief? Buy more holiday decorations. Feeling afraid and anxious as you watch the daily news in a world plagued by family separations, endless wars and mass shootings? Buy this year’s feel-good holiday movie.
These solutions to our loneliness, sold on every corner of our commute, might be laughable if they weren’t so tragic — fixes so profoundly lacking in their shallow attempts to remedy the deep spiritual crisis that so many of us are experiencing in our so-called “developed” capitalist society.
For nearly seven of the past years, I have lived in Bolivia, South America, and formed community with Bolivian families and friends whose holiday traditions have yet to be consumed by a Western capitalist definition of Christmas.
Living in another culture has challenged me to reflect on the cultural traditions in my own, especially around the holiday season.
I know personally many Bolivian children who now expect a Christmas tree and presents from their parents because that is how they saw Christmas defined on TV. Though their families may have never before celebrated with a tree and material gifts, the pressure to conform to a traditional capitalist Christmas grows every year.
Unfortunately, what we often fail to recognize about the global push towards development under capitalism is that it also includes an increase in consumerism. As many of us in the so-called “developed” world work slowly to reduce our own consumption, large corporations are working at a much more accelerated pace to inspire more consumption in other parts of the world. But replicating our materialistic lifestyles on a global scale is simply a model our planet cannot sustain.
And now, as I think about how we got to where we are as a global community, I wonder: where has this constant push towards endless growth, development and consumerism brought us? Are we more generous? Are we more empathetic? Are we less lonely?
Do our cultural holiday traditions in affluent Catholic communities in the United States reflect the values that we hold? If not, why not? How might we transform them? How have we allowed capitalism to uproot our Christian values?
When I reflect back on my own experiences of exchanging gifts around Christmas time, what I value most about those memories was the opportunity to know and be known.
Isn’t that what we all really want, to feel known and to know that we are not alone? When we experience the excitement of unwrapping a present, aren’t we really hoping to unwrap the gift of love?
We may be accustomed to the instant gratification of material things, but we can definitely live without them. We cannot live without each other.
As the wisdom of many Bolivian friends of mine has taught me, when we feel afraid, anxious and alone, we need each other — we need community, not more consumption.
This holiday season we must ask ourselves, are our holiday traditions feeding our hunger for connection and community? How might we liberate ourselves from the stress, distraction and debt of holiday spending and invest instead in radical inclusion, expanding our community to include those living on the margins? How might we reduce our dependence on the sins of a corrupt capitalist system and instead grow in interdependence with one another?
One way to start is by collectively engaging our communities in these questions. In sharing these questions together, we may open ourselves to hearing the needs of our neighbors. Doing so could enable us to share the gifts of love and presence and, in exchange, liberate us from the sins of consumerism.
ABOUT THE RABBLE ROUSER
Annemarie Barrett grew up in the Midwest and now lives in Bolivia, South America. Her spiritual journey has been greatly influenced by the Catholic Worker Movement and the Franciscan charism of humble availability and deep solidarity. She has also been influenced and transformed by the unique experience of spending most of her life in Western, capitalist culture and now living for years in Andean culture that is much more communal and rooted in the wisdom of indigenous communities. Today, she lives and farms with her partner and also creates and sells her original art under the name AEB Art.