Nothing corporate: Holiday shopping outside the big-box store
More than a week into December, I remain relatively unscathed by corporate Christmas chaos (although I’ll admit I caved to the craving for a Starbucks Peppermint Mocha). ‘Tis the season to make you realize what a commercially saturated society we live in — it bombards you from every side: the unbearable soft-rock holiday music playing on loop in the doctor’s office, the sad, cluttered “seasonal” aisle at the drugstore, the bus driver wearing a Santa hat.
I’m not even one of those wet-blanket scrooges who hate everything Christmas, either. I baked gingerbread last weekend, I get a thrill from the smell of Douglas fir on a cold morning, and I’ve been known to get verklempt if I hear Judy Garland singing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” after a bit too much eggnog. Actually, my sentimental enthusiasm for Christmas is what makes me cringe at the corporate crap even more — for sucking the soul out of what should be a quiet, cozy, reflective holiday. (I think the film that best represents my feelings toward Christmas is The Homecoming, the 1971 made-for-TV movie that launched the series The Waltons. My family watches it every year, and I’m not the only one who cries. Go ahead, judge us.)
Given my growing distaste for forced consumerism, Buy Nothing (Corporate) Christmas is a welcome challenge. I kicked it off with a weekend arts-and-crafts binge, hitting up two local art fairs. At Art Under $100, held in a community center in one of Seattle’s more neglected (and thus probably soon-to-be-hip) neighborhoods, they had a DJ, snacks, and local IPAs for $2 a pop, so you could get buzzed while you checked out all the handmade pottery, jewelry, art, clothing, and knick-knacks. I bought a set of coasters made out of old 45s from a kid trying to raise money to go to film camp, a tie-dyed skirt from a woman who sews roller derby outfits for her daughters, and a couple pairs of found-object earrings from a vendor who showed me the design of the bee tattoo she wants to get. It was Christmas shopping farmers-market style, a rare opportunity to chat directly with the folks who make what you’re buying.
The next day I checked out Urban Craft Uprising, a twice-yearly event that’s attained the status of a Nike product release among local hipsters — people apparently line up hours before it opens to snag early-bird gift bags and get first crack at this festive, in-the-flesh version of Etsy. I didn’t saunter in until the last couple hours, but the offerings were still overwhelming, making Art Under $100 seem tiny in comparison. (But to be honest, I liked the scrappier, neighborly feel of the first event better.) I had the predictable problem of just wanting to buy things for myself — like two original Northwest-themed prints that I might yet decide to “give to my roommates” (the best way to technically give something away but still get to enjoy it yourself). I had better luck with this event last year; this time I didn’t see as many items that immediately struck me as perfect for any certain someone.
That’s the thing about this kind of holiday shopping — it renders wish lists moot, because if you go in search of something specific, you might walk away empty-handed. Cruising vendors’ tables with an open mind, discovering something unique and unexpected, is part of what makes the experience an adventure as opposed to a chore. But there’s always the chance that you won’t find anything — and suddenly you’ll remember that flea market you stopped at on the way back from a camping trip in July and wonder why you didn’t impulsively get that pint glass you knew your dad would love.
In some ways, the search for original, non-corporate presents makes you realize that maybe having a single time of year dedicated to supposedly heartfelt gift-giving is wack. Isn’t it more genuine to give when the moment strikes you, instead of when society demands it, and thus when everyone’s expecting it, and probably already preparing for disappointment? From now on I’ll try to make a practice of accumulating gifts throughout the year, stowing them away until birthdays and Christmas.
The other drawback to buying hand-made, artisanal stuff is that it can be pricey, at least compared to Target. Of course, like sustainably grown food, you’re paying for quality, hard work, and transparency, instead of the artificially low price of factory-produced crap. But no matter how much we want to support independent artists, some of us simply don’t have the budget for a $30 mug or a $50 screen-printed sweatshirt. (Not all the prices were that high, mind you — I was happy to pay $5 for a pair of earrings and $20 for a beautiful-yet-practical purse. Some vendors will cut you a deal, too, if it’s close to closing time or you’re buying several things at once.)
The best solution, to me, is quality over quantity — a Buy Less (but Better) Christmas. (God forbid you have any Dudley Dursleys in your family.) A few nice things from the art fair or local shops, supplemented with homemade stuff — an option which doesn’t have to exclude non-crafty types like me. I may not know the difference between knitting and crocheting, but I make decent baked goods, and as one reader pointed out, “who doesn’t love getting food? Canned goods, baking, fresh veggies, fresh grown sprouts, homemade yogurt …” (How about some home-brewed kombucha?)
You, Grist readers, offered tons of great ideas for gifts that don’t require spending gobs of money. Some of my favorites: garden things (do you save heritage seeds?); planned activities and outings (a great alternative to toys for kids); gift certificates for babysitting, yard work, or other services; a compilation of favorite recipes (better than a glossy $30 cookbook); donations in a loved one’s name to a good cause; or donations of your talents: Are you a musician who could offer lessons as a gift? An aspiring massage therapist looking for practice? A developer who could help shine up a friend’s website? Artist friends have given me original pieces before, and I’ve considered channeling my gift-giving spirit into a piece of writing.
The most important thing to remember is that every family celebrates the holidays in its own way, and often these traditions are linked to our deeply held values and unique personal tastes — which is to say, there’s no right or wrong way to do this. Some of you may eschew gifts of all kinds; some may strive to avoid stuff; others may make a point of shopping local; and maybe some of you recognize that an annual mall outing is something that holds your family together, and far be it from us to take that away. We’re only offering suggestions and inspiration for those of you interested in shifting the gift in some manner. Let us know how it goes!