Do Not Judge the Christmas Shopper

In 2007 (Good Lord, have I been blogging that long?) I wrote a post entitled "In Praise of Christmas Shopping." Last night Timothy sent me a link to this provocative article: "Stop Shaming Black Friday Shoppers."

Given that I've been pushing hard on consumerism in recent posts I thought I'd draw your attention to these two posts to add some context and balance.

Basically, while I think we need to push back--hard--on consumerism in our culture, we need to be very careful in judging the motives of any given shopper.

For example, in my old 2007 post I focused on how Christmas shopping, given how brutal it is, can be an expression of joy and deep love. Some of my reflections from  2007:
Let me take a moment to praise the commercialization of Christmas.

Don't get me wrong. I think American consumerism and materialism is a great evil. And lots of what goes on at Christmas fits this mold and should be rejected. But those crowded malls have a lot of spirituality flowing through them.
Before we denounce the commercialization of Christmas, let's pause to note that most of those shoppers are shopping for someone else. And when during the year do we spend this much time thinking about the needs and wants of the people in our lives? A lot of that "consumerism" looks awfully unselfish to me.

This Christmas I know I'm going to venture off to the malls to shop for my wife. I'll be a part of the "consumeristic" mob. But you know what? I love, for spiritual reasons, joining that crowd. My wife will be traveling to India this Christmas season to bring encouragement, food, and medical aid to children in an orphanage. And on her Christmas list Jana has a journal and some pens to record her trip. So I'm excited about shopping for a really good journal with some good pens for her Christmas present. If that's consumeristic, well, that's fine. But I'm going shopping this Christmas!

On Black Friday my mother and father-in-law stood in line at 5:00 am in the freezing cold waiting for a store to open. Why? Because they were looking for a toy (one in limited supply) for their grandsons. True, the shopping scene on Black Friday isn't very, well, "merry", but in those crazed throngs two grandparents woke up early and stood in the cold to buy a gift for two little boys. Consumeristic? Perhaps. But that shopping is also an expression of love.

Here's my point. Don't you love giving gifts to people? Further, don't you love giving extravagant gifts to people? I do. And while I know that we need to worry about living within our means and economic justice there is a joy to be found in giving the perfect gift on Christmas morning to someone you love. 
The point of those old reflections--and looking back I'm a very different person today than I was six years ago--was this: consumerism is an evil, but gift giving is a joy. So it's hard to judge, from the outside, what is going on in any given shopper during the Christmas season.

A similar but different sort of point is made by Bridie Marie in her post (H/T Timothy McCord) "Stop Shaming Black Friday Shoppers." Where my focus in 2007 was on the joy of giving gifts Bridie's focus is on economic inequality and the shaming of the poor:
Look. Black Friday might be the one day of the year when people can afford to buy something like a TV, or an appliance, or a fucking winter coat. It might be the only chance they have to be able to afford Christmas for their children.

So many of the people abandoning sleep and human decency are doing so because they’ve been told they have no other choice. Maybe they actually have no choice, because they were forced to work by their monolithic billionaire employers for an unlivable wage. Or maybe they feel they have no choice because it’s the only way to get the items that can keep them warm and help them navigate a society that measures you by whether you own enough middle-class status symbols. Because they’re being paid unlivable wages by their monolithic billionaire employers...

Yes, a holiday season that should be about gratitude and family has become a frantic orgy of violent consumption. Yes, humanity seems to be eroding and collapsing in on itself. People regularly get stabbed, shot, pepper sprayed, and trampled on Black Friday, and yes, the carnage is especially bad at Wal-Marts. But it’s time to stop pretending that “poor people” are the problem.

Remember who the real enemy is.
I think this is a point worth reflecting on. If you are poor the only chance you might have to get that new Xbox is the one being sold for some crazy low amount on Black Friday. But there's, like, only one of them. The bait to get hundreds of people to line up for hours before a mad rush to be the first to the prize. And yes, that looks insane to most of us. But mainly because we can afford to wait.

I don't need to fight a bunch of poor people over a bargain-priced Xbox. I can be a civilized person and pay full price.

And this also explains why people will do seemingly crazy things like camp out in front of a store overnight to hold a place in a line. Because you know what? The one commodity the poor have over the rich is this: time. The rich are rushed and hurried, schedules packed and overflowing. The poor, generally speaking, have a lot more time on their hands. The poor can afford to wait in a line.

Which means that those crazy Black Friday shoppers camping out might not be insane materialists. They just might be poor people who can afford to wait in a line. You're not watching consumerism run amok in those Black Friday campers. You're looking at social inequity.

Who can afford to wait in a line and needs the bargain price? The poor.

Who can afford to skip the line and pay full price? The rich.

Which brings us back to the earlier point. Consumerism is an evil that should be resisted. But we shouldn't judge any given shopper. The crazed Black Friday shopper might be poor and simply desperate, facing, against all odds, the one chance to get that perfect gift for her child. The gift she cannot afford. Unless she camps all night long and rushes to get there first. Is that consumeristic? Perhaps. But it's a sympathetic sort of consumerism. Especially compared to the rich person who can afford to skip the Black Friday chaos but who will spend mindlessly and excessively.

From the outside, in those instances, it's hard to tell who has the deeper problem with consumerism. 

Based upon appearances, best not to judge the Christmas shopper.

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12 thoughts on “Do Not Judge the Christmas Shopper”

  1. :) One other perspective I'd add to this: macroeconomically, 'consumption spending' is what the global economy needs right now. But that doesn't necessarily mean Xboxes and Cheezwhip. It can be beans and rice, vaccines, tutors, or some icecream and a trip to the waterpark for orphans. I think a large part of the trouble with the global economy is that the current intranational response for us in the US involves trying to get those in the global top 80% to save less and spend more, which seems flawed on a few different levels. While greater equality between those in the 70th percentile and the 100th percentile is important, and is particularly important for internal social stability within the US, I think the most urgent task before us is figuring out how to get the global top 1% to help the bottom 50% thrive and flourish economically. Simple cash transfers, or simple transfers with a few very basic strings attached, seem to be a good way to do that...and this money actually does tend to trickle up, as the global poor and middle class quickly spend this money on things they want and need, creating jobs for those who provide the public and private goods that they want and need. And yes, that might mean that some of the global middle class can buy Xboxes, creating jobs for Xbox makers and game designers.

  2. Great post, and very timely...though I do think one fact that needs to be more well-known is that many retailers jack up their prices just before Black Friday, so that the "discounted" price is either 1) just the normal retail price, 2) only slightly lower than the normal retail price, or 3) even a little bit higher. You can read more here:

    This, of course, doesn't change the often good-hearted motivations of the people who shop on Black Friday - it's just another example of corporate greed pulling the wool over people's eyes.

  3. How about the general narrative that says having an XBox is even something to attain to? It's rather disturbing that poor people and rich people alike either wait in the long lines for that excellent deal or pour out copious amounts of money for planned obsolescence.

    I agree, though.. gift giving is a good thing and there is great joy there and we need to make sure we don't condemn those who shop. But when we, in God's Kingdom, continue that narrative that we need to get "stuff"... then we have an issue.

    Correct, don't judge the Christmas shopper... but at the same time, perhaps, present a different kind of Christmas shopper, one of deliberation, thought, intent, so that the joy when they give is not just giving another "thing" but something, truly, grounded in a love of the other person.

  4. Its the Christmas shoppers who fill up those Salvation Army kettles. With all the consumerism that is hung on Christmas I am always impressed in how people open up their wallets and purses to charities at this time of year. The grocery store where we shop has slips of different dollar denominations to purchase for the food banks in the area, and those slips disappear quickly. All societies need a Christmas, a time to celebrate "a child is born", a time that helps us see that child in one another.

  5. "Remember who the real enemy is."

    After having recently seen Catching Fire, phew does that hit right in the feels.

  6. Forgot to add--no need to judge when we can hoover their data for free:

  7. Similar thoughts crossed my mind working retail on Black Friday. A great post. My only criticism is that I don't think a lot of poor people -- the working poor -- have a lot of time on their hands. They (we) are working minimum wage, shifts, evenings, weekends, and holidays, picking up work when we can. The poor were working, not shopping, on Black Friday.

  8. That's a good point. I was thinking of a group (that I spend a lot of my time with) just below the working poor. But I'm wondering if they would, the people I'm thinking about, have the money even for a Black Friday deal. So I think my point about having expendable time isn't accurate. Though I do think there are class differences in how "busy" the rich vs. the poor are. Some of the problem here might be in how we define "the poor," a very heterogeneous group.

  9. "...forced to work by their monolithic billionaire employers for an unlivable wage."



    Your post itself is fantastic, a nifty balance to the neoPuritanical impulses to judge BF shoppers. But this polemical sensibility in one of your sources, quoted above, is just utterly bereft of any useful, meaningful understanding that might lead to common ground, etc., etc.

    As I


  10. Incidentally, perhaps you could call the pastor of one of the Baptist churches up in Dalhart, TX, to congratulate him/her. It struck me as oddly funny when, as I was arriving at Wal-Mart at 4pm on Thanksgiving Day to get in line for one of those iPad Mini specials, up to the front doors rolled that church's big people mover, emptying its dozen or so shopping heathens into that yawning abyss, into that paragon of black-hearted, slave-driving capitalism, into that nest of Arkansan globalist adders.

    One of whose indentured servants, by the way, routinely gives my wife a peck on the cheek every time she enters by his assigned doors, presumably because she looks like a dead ringer for Sarah [Palin] the Great.

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