I think the world maybe needs more made up holidays, not fewer
Last week was my favorite holiday of all the holidays. While I do enjoy my town’s goofy Fourth of July parade and I’ve always liked raising a glass with neighbors on New Year’s Eve, the real once-a-year day of reflection and celebration for me is Buy Nothing Day.
I grew up in a small town and my family wasn’t religious. And I mean that in the not-religious sense, not the “Only go to church on Christmas and Easter” sense. No one ever went to church, or temple, or anywhere else to worship, ever. We had a town center with a town hall and a town common and a Congregationalist church. There would sometimes be community suppers there, or the bloodmobile. We had a Christmas tree at home and I didn’t really learn that I was partly Jewish until I went to college and my Jewish friends explained the whole Jewish thing to me. I’m surprised I didn’t catch on sooner when I was visiting my mom’s relatives in New Jersey, but I’m not always that clued-in to things. I say this only as a way of explanation that I really do understand the secular Christmas thing, but it’s still not a holiday I enjoy much. Too much baby Jesus, too many formally structured events, too much shopping and overeating, too much “this is how you do this right”.
So, sure, Buy Nothing Day is a made-up holiday, popularized by Adbusters and Wired, and even so I’m certain that I “celebrate” it in some sort of non-canon way. At the same time, when I come back to Vermont to my part time public school job and see the tiny menorah that is buried somewhere under the “holiday” tree in the school’s display, I appreciate having one day of celebration that I can be all in on. I campaigned for that menorah, and yet seeing it under the tree gives me a feeling of defeat.
I’ve commemorated Buy Nothing Day in some fashion or another for the past two decades — it’s only been an official thing since 1992 — in two basic ways.
- I don’t spend any money at all. No matter what.
- I spend part of the day outside. No matter what.
One of the initial impetuses for #2 was Bill McKibben’s first book The Age of Missing Information which he wrote in 1992. Bill McKibben is better known as the guy behind 350.org. He’s an earnest, sensible Vermonter concerned about climate change and other things that are ruining the world. This was back in the earlier days of cable television and the endless ruminating on what would actually be on those 500 channels we were promised.
In 1992 I was just out of college, living in Seattle, just learning about the Internet, didn’t have cable TV. McKibben found the US city that had the most cable channels, Fairfax Virginia, and recorded 24 hours of programming on all 93 channels. He watched these over a period of about six months, two thousand hours of television. Then he spent 24 hours in the Adirondacks, just thinking about things, and compared the experiences and wrote about them.
“What sets wilderness apart in the modern day is not that it’s dangerous (it’s almost certainly safer than any town or road) or that it’s solitary (you can, so they say, be alone in a crowded room) or full of exotic animals (there are more at the zoo). it’s that five miles out in the woods you can’t buy anything.” ― Bill McKibben, The Age of Missing Information
Now it’s pretty easy to fall into a lazy “Kids today…!” rant about the effects of technology on our lives and our culture. In my current life, I have more jobs that are online than offline, and even the offline ones are about teaching people to get online. I make jokes about becoming a raspberry farmer to get away from it all, but I could never hack the hours. Farmers get up early. McKibben’s not a snot about his observations, he just makes them and moves on. He later wrote a book, Hundred Dollar Holiday: The Case for a More Joyful Christmas, which was a project done with local churches to spend more money and time making sure everyone had their basic needs met and less money and effort on the shopping part of Christmas; creating genuine traditions that instilled a sense of well-being and fellowship, not feelings of urgency and competition.
I liked that idea but I’d long since stopped shopping for Christmas, a holiday I don’t really celebrate. My partner and I have a $20-ish limit for any holiday exchanges with bonus points being given for best recycled wrapping paper. Last year I was given some of that green glop that you can use to get all the crumbs out of your keyboard. So thoughtful.
It’s odd for me to be in a culture where “Buy something!” is thought of as a positive message and “Don’t buy something!” is somehow political. We’ve made a national anti-holiday out of the day after Thanksgiving and somehow feel okay that “Black Friday” implies that if we don’t shop, these stores may go out of business since they’ve been operating in the red since January. The .blackfriday top level domain became live this year, registered to a company operating out of the Cayman Islands though with 11,000 domains registered, only 7% of them go anywhere other than the original registrar which to me implies some sort of a land grab.
And sure there are other holidays that are about something other than shopping but there are less and less of them in the US. So setting aside this otherwise-black Friday for not buying anything and going for a long walk seemed like not such a big sacrifice. And at the same time, it required planning. Was I driving anywhere? Did I have gasoline in the car? Did I have bills due? Did I have enough coffee and milk? Did using gift cards count? What about coupons for free things? Netflix? Kindle? Apps? Barter? Public transportation? Tipping? Learning about the pressure points is a good part of thinking about consumerism. The good thing about a made-up holiday is that you can also make up your own rules. I saw some folks on Facebook saying that they bought nothing on the 28th except for groceries and while I may have experienced a flash of “ur doin it wrong” it quickly passed.
In the end we decided to aim for a net negative cashflow for Buy Nothing Day and planned to donate a dozen pairs of glasses that had belonged to my father. And then we nixed that idea and decided to not get in the car at all. Part of buying nothing, for me, is giving myself permission to say that I don’t really enjoy shopping. I’m not great in parking lots. Fluorescent lights make me a little twitchy. I can get judgey about other people’s parenting techniques and then I get mad at myself for that. Piped-in overlapping shrieky Christmas carols make this dis-ease worse than usual.
I can’t stop thinking about how the price of everything is calculated through some formula that takes into account the price of the cheap lighting and the music licensing and the narrow parking lot lines. When I was a kid I asked my mom where the supermarket bought toothpaste from and why couldn’t we buy our toothpaste there too and get it more cheaply. She explained to me, using six-year-old words, why we couldn’t pull our car up to the toothpaste factory, and the inconvenience of driving around to fifty factories just to get our groceries. And she’s right. And yet over time I’ve moved somewhere where I can get more of the things I have to shop for in places without terrible parking lots, or piped-in carols, places where I mostly run into my neighbors, and where the money I spend goes to employ my other neighbors. I need less and I buy less. It’s not for everyone, and that’s okay with me too.
We ate leftovers from the day before. We read books on the couch under a blanket. We fed the birds and checked to see if there were any frogs left in the pond (no) and we went for a three mile walk as the sun was setting and talked about the previous Buy Nothing Days that we could remember. It was a good day, for a made-up holiday.