I became fully awake to the fact that consumerism had jumped the shark when I got an email in late June suggesting “last minute 4th of July gift ideas” were actually a thing that existed. Gifts? For the 4th of July? Since when did people start exchanging gifts on the 4th of July? I realize we celebrate Jesus’s birthday by buying each other swaddling sweaters and holy tech gadgets, but I didn’t know anyone was celebrating America’s birthday in the same fashion. And “last minute” gifts? As if buying 4th of July presents is something that should be completed by Memorial Day? WTF?
Then I read that – according to a survey taken by Visa – “Fourth of July spending will be up 58%” in 2013 compared to 2012. Respondents planned to spend $300 on the holiday vs. $190 in 2012. Additionally, “Last year’s survey showed that almost 21% of respondents estimated they would not spend anything on celebrating the holiday. That number dropped significantly this year with only 12% reporting that they didn’t plan to spend anything.”
I realize $300 may not seem like a fortune, but think about how the 4th of July is traditionally celebrated: a backyard BBQ, maybe some small fireworks for the kids. Extended families usually pitch in and share the cost of food and fireworks, but according to Visa, individuals planned to spend $300 on the 4th of July. (I spent $140 for my daughter and I to have a day of fun in NYC including food, a boat ride and a trip to the Top of the Rock to see the fireworks.) If you think that’s crazy, you should know that Americans now spend over $7 billion on Halloween. That’s up from $5.8 billion in 2008, which was up from $5 billion the year before.
It’s not just me who sees this spending on minor holidays as the form of escapism that it is. The National Retail Federation said back in 2002 that “the holiday (Halloween) was seen as a way for consumers to escape from the uncertainties of daily life and to seek relief during an otherwise tense period.” Not much has changed in 11 years. The economy is still sluggish, joblessness is still high, home ownership is low, 16% of Americans are uninsured, children are in poverty. TIME magazine noted in a 2011 piece about Halloween spending, “troubled times drive our zeal for escapism; romance-novel sales boomed during the last recession, just like extravagant musicals that were popular during the Depression.”
In a Babble post from December 2012, Lori Garcia noted that spending on holiday decorations alone reached $7 billion last year. I should specify that she meant the December holiday season, because now Americans spend lots of money on holiday decorations all year long, and that the $7 billion spent on December decor does not include meals or gifts! I am not exempt from this kind of escapist, feel-good spending, but maybe it’s time for us to look in the mirror, America. Especially since THIS is the kind of crap we’re spending our hard-earned money on, including yard inflatables and lights for even the most minor of occasions. Here’s just a small sampling of the junk we waste billions on annually in the hopes of escaping the economic truth we’re all reticent to face, all available online at America’s favorite store, Wal*Mart:
Now, for the record, this isn’t about snobbery or being anti-Wal*Mart. Though am I a sometimes snobby city slicker and don’t love Wal*Mart, I am from Wal*Mart country originally and have spent plenty of money there. This is about examining the way holidays have become increasingly commercial and gaudy over the last 10 or so years, almost losing all of their meaning, as well as the ways Americans feel the need to escape everyday life via celebration. I’m as interested and uninterested in politics as much as the next regular guy, so I don’t want to appear dogmatic, but maybe if we all spent a little more time trying to change the ways in which our country is being plundered by corporations and less time trying to escape, we’d feel less of a need to escape.
That being said, it’s not just a need for escape that fuels this type of ridiculous celebrating. It’s also the resurgence of the DIY-homemaker movement, a fallout of the opting-out movement. Lots of American women feel a real need to prove their worth in the domestic sphere by keeping perfect homes at all times, and that includes having some kind of rotating special decorations on display throughout the year. This blogger even jokes about the need to decorate for Presidents Day, saying, “I don’t like to be the one to raise the alarm, but many of you have been so caught up in the Valentines Day whirl that you probably have not planned adequately for the next big holiday: Yes, Presidents Day is Monday. Have you decorated? Shopped? Gotten your cards out in the mail?” While it’s clear that she’s kidding, she also wrote an entire post dedicated to decorating and cooking for Presidents Day. She admits the escapist nature of her own pursuits by saying, “While you’ve got the gumdrops and the rolling pin out, wondering how a life that began with so much promise ended up with making odd crafts out of candy, you might as well go whole-hog and make a gumdrop cherry decoration.” Or buy your kids some candy from the store. And while you’re there, don’t forget to pick up an inflatable George Washington.
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