Earlier this month, I wrote about how Hanukkah's prominence was the plan of reformist rabbis, seeking to create a Jewish holiday to compete with Christmas just as Christmas was created to compete with pagan solstice festivals. In an ironic sense, this campaign has been both a success and a failure: although the cause of Hanukkah was eagerly taken up by marketers, it failed to dislodge Christmas from public consciousness and has simply contributed further to the commercialization of the holiday season.
And that commercialization is spreading and growing beyond all sanity. People have been injured in retail-outlet crushes before, but this year brought the crowning shame of holiday ugliness: a part-time Wal-Mart worker who was trampled to death by a frenzied mob of shoppers. By many accounts, people continued streaming into the store around the paramedics as they worked on the unfortunate man, and became angry and hostile when police closed the store down after the death.
But incidents like that one are just the most visible outbreaks of an attitude that's taken wider root in our society, and that's led to the current economic crisis: an attitude which holds that every person is entitled to every material luxury, regardless of their income, and that it's perfectly all right to get deeper and deeper into debt to obtain them. To an extent, this attitude flows from the top - from a president who told Americans that the most important thing we could do after 9/11 was to go shopping, and a Congress that financed a ruinous foreign war on borrowed money. But it's also partly intrinsic to capitalism, which by nature rewards greed and rapaciousness. When those tendencies grow out of control rather than being held in check, the result is the market collapse and financial meltdown we're now living through.
All of these attitudes come from the same source, the view that happiness and satisfaction in life is secured through the accumulation of wealth and possessions. This belief is false, and I laid out an alternative in "Down to Earth": an ethic of rich simplicity that takes joy in the ordinary pleasures of life, rather than grasping after luxuries.
What does this ethic have to say about gift-giving? I don't think that it's necessarily a bad thing. There's nothing wrong in giving a person something that they need or can make use of (as I've said earlier, you can never have too many books). I think it's better that it be small, however. Large and ostentatious gifts, feel too much like trying to buy the recipient's affection, or else put them in the position of owing a debt they can't pay back. But small gifts, especially if they're handmade, are a genuine way of conveying, rather than attempting to purchase, good feelings toward those for whom we feel friendship and affection. (If you're not a craftsperson, I also favor consumable gifts - soap, candles, wine or chocolate, for instance.)
But best of all is the idea of agreeing, with friends and family, to make donations to charity in each other's name instead of exchanging gifts. After all, for most of us First World citizens, we don't need these gifts: we are comfortable, well-fed and well-clothed and well-housed; we enjoy living standards that are inconceivable to most of humanity. There are places in the world that need assistance far more than most of us ever will, people for whom even a small gift - say, a mosquito net or a vaccination - could represent a genuine improvement in their life and not just a token of affection. If the real purpose of gift-giving is to create happiness for the recipient, acknowledging and addressing the world's need would be a far worthier and more powerful way of doing so.