The Holiday Season: American Over-Indulgence at its Finest
Though we live in a time of perpetual change and cultural redefinitions, the celebration of Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years, and other holidays around the colder time of year seem to be one of the most consistently and highly anticipated cultural phenomena in America. With towns and cities named after Christmas icons like in Santa Claus, Indiana (shown below) (Enchanted America, 2014) , televisions plagued with constant advertisements for the newest holiday deal or toy, there is no escaping it. Some of my fondest childhood memories come from the holidays: writing a wishlist and foolishly thinking I might actually get what I want, stuffing myself to the brim with an assortment of candy and sweets, making resolutions for the new year that would be broken almost immediately, you get the picture. However, as I’ve gotten older I’ve begun to see these joyous times in a more critical light. Though admirable in their basic ideals, the holidays run on economic inefficiency and overspending, are dangerous to public health and safety, and aren’t near as “giving” as they could be.
These factors have been recognized and complained about by some Americans, but are often eclipsed by the all-powerful holiday spirit. I know nobody likes a Grinch, but if we as Americans can recognize and accept these seasonal shortcomings, we can reconceive the holidays as an opportunity to make a constructive difference in our communities, our families, and our own lives. Out of all twelve months of the year, which is widely thought of as the most expensive? You guessed it. December. Though everybody has their own personal definition of the “true meaning of Christmas”, if you look at the holiday through a macro-lens you will see one theme rise above all else: money. Americans spend vast amounts of money on everything from gifts for anybody we deem worthy of our hard-earned cash, plane tickets to see family for the holidays, decorations we only use once a year yet seem to keep buying more of, etc. According to economist Joel Waldfogel, holiday expenditures in America average around $40 billion a year.
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Though economists have come up with a vast array of conclusions regarding the effects of this annual spike in spending, many classical economists agree on the idea that it is in fact quite wasteful. For brevity’s sake, I will boil these down to two reasons: misjudged gifts and an imbalanced economic capacity. You might not think much about the economics of not wearing an ugly sweater gifted to you, but it has its negative consequences. A gift gone unused represents resources and money wasted in a world with a finite amount. Waldfogel has estimated anywhere from 10-30% of holiday spending can be attributed to unused gifts. This would mean that the “deadweight loss” of Christmas can be up to $13 billion in some cases, just from unused gifts. Despite this acknowledged waste of resources, businesses involved in the holiday market like retailers or transportation companies still have to increase their capacity to handle the influx of products purchased. During the rest of the year, this capacity usually goes unused, making for another waste of resources.
If we as a people were to more equally disperse this incredible spending amongst the other nine months by reconsidering our current spending habits, there would be less excess in resources used, meaning a significant boost in efficiency, as well as a general boost to the economy itself. Just as the holidays prove detrimental and dangerous to the economy, they provide many surges in physical danger to society as well. Though the holidays are known as a time for relaxation and happiness, they can actually be some of the most stress-ridden months of the year for many Americans. In an interview with Lucy Pasha-Robinson of The Independent, once impoverished budgeting-centered food writer Jack Monroe attests to this Christmas-time hardship, describing it as a “festival of all the things we couldn’t have”. She goes on to recall her worst Christmas Eve a few years ago. Her apartment bare of any and all signs of holiday cheer, she sent her son to his father’s house, unplugged all her most costly appliances and drank cheap alcohol all night. With 25% of the distilled-spirits industry’s profits coming from the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas (Forbes), many Americans make this same turn to vice to cope with the mandatory happiness, overspending, and many other stress-inducing factors around the holidays. As alcohol consumption rises, so do alcohol-related deaths.
In December 2016 alone, 716 people were killed in car crashes involving an impaired driver (USDT). Excessive eating is another byproduct of this holiday stress, as the typical holiday dinner carries a whopping 3,000 calorie count (around 500 calories more than the average daily intake) according to the Calorie Control Council. This over-indulgence has been attributed to the increase in holiday deaths of natural causes as well, with deaths via natural causes like heart problems spiking on Christmas and New Years, increasing an average 9.64% (Phillips, et al). Self-induced harm is just one of the facets of holiday danger, as crime rates also spike. The weeks surrounding Christmas and Thanksgiving show increases in property crime, with a 10.5% average increase in household robberies and 2.2% increase in motor vehicle theft. Despite all of the evidence of these destructive patterns, those who do not experience them often choose not to acknowledge them. I myself turned a blind eye to the dark side of the holidays until one day, I found myself with no choice but to face it. One personal memory that always reminds me of the saddening side of Christmas came from a few years ago on a costly Christmas vacation to Chicago, during the coldest time of the year. I remember walking through the streets, seeing a homeless person on every block, freezing cold and presumably miserable.
Barely being able to talk through chattering teeth, many of the men and women sat on street corners of major department stores and asked for money from the people walking out their doors. Their wallets dry from holiday shopping, many were unable to donate any money to the helpless person in rags at their feet. Seeing this happen made me truly aware of the dichotomy of the holidays, and how the overspending directly affects the less fortunate. We like to claim that the holidays are the “season of giving”, but if the ginormous amount of money we spend on gifts was used on more social class-defying selflessness like helping the homeless or donating to charity, the season would be truly giving. Don’t get me wrong, the holidays truly are the most giving time of the year. As the weather gets colder holiday-centered charity activity surges, organizations like the Salvation Army have volunteers put on the famous red apron and ring their bell at your local supermarket. For many, these Salvation Army volunteers (as well as many other engaging charitable strategies) signify the beginning of the “giving season”. With charities becoming more active, people really do give more. According to the National Center for Charitable Statistics, 42.7% of those surveyed claimed to give more to charity during the holidays. Though admirable, this seasonal giving leaves non-profits out to dry in the following nine months, with almost 40% of non-profits claiming a significant decrease in contributions (GuideStar).
These higher rates of charity are disproportionate not only to the rest of the year, but to the amount of money spent on all other holiday expenditures. The Blackbaud Institute reported that the last quarter of the year accounts for almost a third of the annual total of charitable donations of $24.1 billion in 2016. Referring back to Waldfogel’s study, this means that holiday charity can account for around only a fifth of all holiday spending. For a season that centers around altruism, this is a measly fraction, as the thirty percent “deadweight loss” of money wasted on unused gifts (Waldfogel) is 180% larger than that of money given to charity. That goes to show, if you don’t think the possible recipient will like the gift you’re contemplating buying for them, don’t buy it. If you do, you could be taking money away from those less fortunate. This mindless spending on gifts is a prime example of how we have been brainwashed by holiday tradition. We buy gifts because we’re supposed to. We sparingly give to charity because we’re supposed to. We eat and drink too much because everyone else does. In a country plagued by over-indulgent behaviors and change-resistant tradition, the wasteful nature of the holidays is no surprise. However, if we begin to acknowledge the flaws of the revered months of October, November, and December, we can begin to change them. If we do, it could improve economic efficiency, give more to those in true need, and even save lives. So enjoy your holidays, but always be mindful of ways you can make the most wonderful time of the year even better, for all people.