It is hard to imagine a time when people felt there were too few shopping days before Christmas. Since 1939, when President Franklin Roosevelt introduced Black Friday — a special post-Thanksgiving day of deals in the United States — retail marketing has conquered much of the developed world. Hyperconsumerism has become the desired state of many developing economies and several have updated Madison Avenue’s playbook to suit themsleves. Earlier this month Ali Baba (China’s equivalent of Amazon) handled an historic US$14B in sales on ‘Singles Day’ (11/11— because the date resembles four single people), a 60 per cent increase on the previous year’s figures, and ten times the haul of North America’s better-known Cyber Monday.

Marketers everywhere have turned Christmas into a month-long shopping frenzy. Although Thanksgiving has nothing to do with Europe, companies like Amazon have pioneered the idea of Black Friday across the Atlantic with enviable success. Visa Europe estimates that yesterday shoppers spent about US$9,500 every second for the entire day. In the US, the National Retail Federation reckons that some 136 million shoppers will hunt for deals this weekend, starting off a season of Christmas shopping that could exceed US$630 billion in sales — an increasing fraction of which will take place online.

The drift towards online retail is significant because e-commerce encourages impulse shopping. During the opening hour of Singles Day, for example, three quarters of Ali Baba’s transactions were made on mobile phones. The subsequent rollout of deals was so well staged that customers averaged 2,000 transactions per second throughout the day. Within 12 hours the 2014 sales figure of US$9 billion had been surpassed. Similar patterns have been emerging elsewhere as consumers opt out of long queues and jostling crowds and seek their bargains online.

In multifaith, multicultural societies the commercialization of Christmas is not necessarily a bad thing. If nothing else, it allows other communities to join in what could otherwise be a narrowly Christian holiday. On the other hand, the old-fashioned notion of a season of “peace on earth and goodwill to all men” has never seemed more remote from the orgy of retail that the month of December has come to mean. Every generation laments the loss of respect for its traditions, and idealizes pasts that were full of their own shortcomings. Ours is no different. Even so, it may be worth reflecting a little on why we buy and exchange gifts with each other.

In the 1950s the anthropologist Marcel Mauss popularized the idea of competitive generosity — an undertaking in which the exchange of gifts acquired a variety of meanings, several of them far from altruistic. In so-called primitive communities, groups often delighted in being able to shower their rivals with lavish presents which implicitly diminished the recipient by emphasizing the donor’s greater wealth and prosperity. Even so, Mauss argued that the transactions helped to create closer ties between groups because the exchange usually required reciprocity. In other words the act of exchanging gifts often transcended the meaning of the actual gifts. This sense of maintaining bonds that help to define our communities is part of the reason why so many middle-class Americans still expend such vast sums of money at Christmas even though their wages have remained stagnant for decades.

At the end of a year in which peace on earth has been singularly lacking, and the need for goodwill towards millions of others — especially victims of man-made disasters like famine and war — remains at a premium, we might perhaps resist the lure of mindless consumerism a little by remembering Oscar Wilde’s brilliant observation that a cynic is someone who knows the price of everything but the value of nothing. Wilde’s quip ought to remind us that our generosity to each other is far more important than any gift we can buy.


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