Thanksgiving is almost upon us. While only a minority of the students at NYU Shanghai have any traditional cultural ties to the holiday, make no mistake: the Thanksgiving spirit – that is to say, the spirit of Christmas shopping sales – will probably infect us all. Even here in snowless Shanghai, where ‘winter’ means little other than a slightly more tea-colored sky, you’ll still find the sweet scent of Christmas prices in the air in the weeks to come.

Last year, TIME Magazine published an article online about America’s Black Friday. The title of the article was “Calm Black Friday: Only 1 Death, 15 Injuries Attributed to Big Shopping Day.”

For those unfamiliar with the term, Black Friday is the U.S. media’s favorite tagline for the Friday after Thanksgiving, when virtually every store in America prepares for Christmas by offering their largest online sales.

Christmas, like many other holidays celebrated around the world, is a day that celebrates joy and compassion. Some, however, would point to the conspicuous use of the word “Only” in the TIME article headline, and say commercialization has changed all of that.

While Christmas specials on television still carry with them messages of warmth and family unity, there is a tendency among those who celebrate the holiday to regard those sentiments as being meant more for the children. When we’re out Christmas shopping, the news depictions seem to say, we don’t have time to be nice. If we have to, we’ll step over someone to get what we need. Instead of feeling relaxed and at home as Christmas approaches, hundreds of anxiety-inducing questions run through our minds: What do we buy? Who are we buying it for? What if they don’t like it, or they think we cheaped out?

Although these feelings may be what ultimately drive each of us to give and share with one another, the TIME article’s headline alone attests to the damage they can cause. And it’s not only around Christmas that this happens; this is a phenomenon that many would also associate with Valentine’s Day. While there are undoubtedly happy couples that know how to make something beautiful and mutually exciting out of Valentine’s Day, far more familiar is the archetype of the  young nervous pair, each consumed by anxiety over what to do for the other or what to expect the other to do for them; each one treating conversations as complicated struggles, expending tremendous effort to maintain a facade of confidence, until the holiday and its burden of expectation have passed.

Ultimately, some would say, the commercialization of holidays such as Christmas and Valentine’s Day has turned them from times of mutual love and togetherness into times of universal social angst. Imagine a Christmas that keeps those children’s stories’ themes at the fore, and where no one necessarily needs to buy gifts for their loved ones. Would a single man being trampled to death while Black Friday shopping then come as such good news to us?

On the other hand, is it strictly the commercialization of these holidays controls the nature of these holidays? There are those who, come Christmas, take great pride in finding all the right gifts and in seeing the look on their loved ones’ faces on Christmas morning as they’re unwrapped, without worrying whether their gift was good enough, or if they should feel guilty when someone spends money on them. What’s the difference between they, and someone who pulls their hair out over what to buy? What does the happy couple on Valentine’s day do differently from the boy or girl whose head won’t stop running in circles? Could the problem lie not with the act of gift-giving itself, but rather on the symbolic importance we as individuals place upon it?

One way of tackling these tensions is offered by those folks who, through whatever means, bypass the shopping culture entirely. Possible ways to do this include making one’s own presents (a popular way to avoid the financial and psychological burdens that come with buying gifts, yet still show sincerity) or perhaps even by forgoing the tradition of gift-giving completely, and instead choose to focus on the company of their loved ones.

In a Huffington Post article titled “The Gift of Not Giving a Thing”, mother Christella Morris makes a thoughtful contribution to the discussion of holiday commercialization, dealing with Christmas in particular. By illustrating how presents for her kids do not equate to them leading a happy life, she calls attention to the choice that any reader can make between showing compassion through material gifts or through “experiences.”

“Starting this year,” the mother said, “I’m beginning a new tradition. Although we’ll always be grateful for the presents we receive, I’d ask that family and loved ones offer experiences and time spent with our boys instead of money spent on them.”

This article was written by Michael Margaritoff. Send an email to to get in touch.
Photo Credit: Tirza Alberta

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