In defense of consumption

I’ve been thinking a lot about the winter season this year – call it Yule, or Christmas, or the Solistice, or Agnostica, or whatever you like. I’m not referring to any specific holiday or label, just the season in general. One of the common complaints – one that I often share, mind you – this time of year focuses on the combination of commercialization and consumption that seems to be an inevitable part of our culture. At a time when many people are lacking in resources, it seems like the height of foolishness to overspend on gifts…and yet this seems to be the norm. I find myself often among those decrying this trend each year, even as I also find myself to be a *part* of the trend to some extent. This inconsistency is probably something I should explore as part of my effort to improve myself, but that’s a different topic entirely.

This year, though…I don’t know. I’ve been thinking a bit more about the origin of our seasonal celebrations, and it occurs to me that this trend of consumption isn’t all that far off from those origins. Consider: At the winter solstice, a celebration has long been the custom. A time to celebrate being alive, and to hail the too-slow return of the light. Feasting at this time of year served a purpose both practical and symbolic. Practically, the livestock couldn’t all be fed through the winter months, and meat that had been brought in from the hunt would of course spoil, so it needed to be eaten. There’s also something to be said for ensuring that everyone was as well fed and healthy as possible as the winter months truly began. For the symbolic side, I think it’s pretty simple. There is a need to *feel* like there is plenty to go around, even when – or especially when – that feeling is so fleeting. I tend to believe that the feast at the solstice was both a celebration for the clan and a sort of wake for those who would not survive the winter.

Today, of course, the practical reasons aren’t exactly germane. At least in our culture, we have these useful things like refrigeration and food preservation. It’s not as though one of my housemates happened to come home with a turkey that we absolutely had to eat before it spoiled (though to be fair, I certainly ate last weekend as though there was some danger of that happening). And of course, today’s version of overconsumption in the winter season (at least in our culture) often takes the form of overspending as much as anything else. I think, though, that this overspending fulfills a symbolic role similar to long-standing seasonal celebrations and feasts. There is still a need to feel as though our resources – whether in the form of food, or money, or time – are abundant. To celebrate for the sake of celebration, even when we know that we might lament our choices when we look back at them in just a few weeks.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not suggesting that this is a particularly healthy pattern. But this year I’m finding that I have a little more sympathy for the instinct that’s underneath that pattern. At the very least, I think I’ll be less likely to dismiss that overconsumption as being somehow contrary to the “true meaning” of this season.

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