The Coming of the Shopocalypse

Brace yourselves — the Christmas-shopping season is upon us. In fact, it's been upon us since October at least, when I saw an early-bird Christmas shopper guide for the “it” gifts in 2010. Is it just me, or does the chaos seem to start earlier each year?

Last night I was browsing the list of Netflix “watch instantly” movies, and I saw one produced by Morgan Spurlock of Super Size Me fame called What Would Jesus Buy? Here's the official trailer:

 

The film follows Reverend Billy (real name Bill Talen), a performance artist with a shock of bleach-blond hair and a knack for getting the attention of shoppers and security guards alike. The documentary takes place in 2005 as he and his Church of Stop Shopping choir tour the U.S. to fight the “shopocalypse,” a term he uses to describe the insanity that's become the American holiday-shopping experience.

Along the way, Reverend Billy gives passionate and comical speeches about consumerism and globalization, while the choir sings the “stop-shopping” version of popular Christmas carols. These performances take place in locations like Disneyland (Mickey Mouse is Reverend Billy's personal anti-Christ), Wal-Mart, and the Mall of America, and they typically end with security guards or police officers escorting the group from the premises. Talen's wife has lost count of the number of times he has been arrested, and he's no longer allowed in Starbucks. Any Starbucks.

Dreading the season
According to the film, three out of four people dread the holiday season. It's not really so surprising. Overspending is stressful, and in an Associated Press-GfK poll, 46 percent of Americans surveyed are experiencing a “great deal” or “quite a bit” of debt-related stress.

One mother featured in the movie said she had multiple credit cards she would max out at Christmas, but her husband only knew about one, and he paid the balance in full each month. It was so important to her that her kids have the best toys to impress their friends that she was willing jeopardize the family finances and keep secrets from her spouse.

Addiction to consumerism
It's easy to look down on someone who seems so out of touch with reality, but as the film points out, many Americans are clinically addicted to shopping. We're conditioned to associate material gifts with love at a young age, and family togetherness during the holidays now centers around gifts.

How else can one explain the 1996 insanity over the Tickle Me Elmo doll, when scarcity compelled some consumers to pay as much as $1,500 for a $30 toy? Or the 2008 incident when Wal-Mart employee Jdimytai Damour, 34, was trampled by a stampede of Black Friday shoppers and died by asphyxiation?

“It doesn't matter where it's made, as long as the price is low.”
Another message that the Church of Stop Shopping works to get out is of globalization. The documentary focuses a bit on Disney, arguing that Disney sells a fantasy — an image of a child and a dream — but in reality, the company is “ruthless.” One example from the film was a children's book about a Disney princess that didn't tell the story of the crushed fingers of the Chinese women who worked in the factory that produced it.

Buying most any item on the shelves of big box stores means American consumers are cooperating in this slavery, but those interviewed either felt that it didn't matter where an item was made or that there was nothing the average consumer could do about it. After all, they said, where do you shop if everything is made in China?

Advice from the film
Even the members of the Church of Stop Shopping realize it would be nearly impossible for the average American to just stop shopping altogether, but there were several bits of advice that anyone can apply who wants to keep the mania to a minimum and be mindful of how an item reached the store shelves, such as the following:

    • Spend half as much money as you did last year, and give twice as much to others in time and love.

 

    • When you buy, buy local. When local isn't possible, try to buy American-made items (or fair-trade items). The Responsible Shopper is another resource for the back story on a product.

 

  • If you think you have a shopping addiction, try a trick interviewee Dr. April Benson uses with her shopping addict patients: Put a card in your wallet with the following questions: “Why am I here (in this store, on this website, etc.)?” “Do I need this?” “How will I pay for it?” “What will happen if I wait?” “Where will I put it?”

My thoughts
Talen puts himself out there as a reverend, but his message supersedes religious preaching and Christmas caroling (He actually doesn't refer to himself as a Christian.). I found the documentary to be both funny and depressing, and perhaps that's why Talen's theatrics weren't as annoying as I thought they'd be — I needed the comic relief.

While based in comedy, his message is quite serious. Most of us are conditioned to believe that it's just not the holidays without tons of wrapping paper piled up in the living room. We think a gift is a display of love, so the gift then quantifies love. I'm guilty of it. I've bought my husband a new shirt just because I was thinking about him and wanted to get him something.

I don't think Talen's point is that all buying is bad; it's more that we should be mindful of what we're buying and why, especially as the shopocalypse approaches and we're bombarded by the advertisers, deals, and hot items for the season of “giving.”

Talen said it best during one of his sermons: “We think we are being consumers at Christmas, but instead we're being consumed.” Here's to hoping we can all maintain our mindfulness through the hectic holiday season.

(And if you need some pointers, GRS has featured articles in the past on celebrating a frugal Christmas, keeping the season anti-Stuff, and making homemade gifts.)

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Becca
Becca

Honestly, I don’t know how the issue of parents spoiling their children can be blamed on anyone but the parents themselves. If you don’t have the strength of character to tell your child “no”, then I have to wonder if you’re fit to be a parent at all! The Disneyland thing is particularly weird – your child is enjoying an amazing holiday, why on earth do they need *stuff* as well?

The sweat shop issue is completely separate. I’m ashamed to think how often I block the issue out of my mind.

Allyson C
Allyson C

My sister and I are both in our thirties and we live in Michigan. Neither of us has children. Our parents live in Boston and fly out to Michigan every Christmas to be with us, so each year they are already spending a few hundred dollars in plane tickets. For the last five years or so, my family has had an agreement to not get each other any Christmas presents, and it has been AMAZINGLY RELAXING. I don’t have to set foot inside a packed mall, there is no pressure to find “the perfect gift,” and it’s easy on the… Read more »

Nicole
Nicole

I don’t think we’ll be buying *anything* for our kid this year except candy for the stocking. Last year the relatives filled our house with presents for our kid. This year might be different because the other grandkid is no longer living in their basement so there’s less of a need to be “fair” but even if they give half as much stuff it’s still too much.

Derek
Derek

3 out of 4 people dread the holiday season? That’s terrible. I, for one, still love the holiday season and love giving gifts to friends, family, and the less fortunate.

Thanks to a little creativity, my wife and I have learned how to make a little extra money this year.

Dink
Dink

Great article, but prepare for the backlash. As Becca mentions above, a lot of people block out the negatives that come along with these anti-consumerist ideas and confronting those people about it can cause sidestepping and justification. I think the greatest thing to take from this article would be to buy American (if you live in America, that is; otherwise buy local from where you live) or buy fair trade goods. Frugality is about conscious spending, not scoring the cheapest piece of crap from Walmart. This is especially important around this time of year when so much money is spent.… Read more »

MikeTheRed
MikeTheRed

While I’ve always enjoyed giving and receiving gifts, that hasn’t been the focus of Christmas for me since I was little. Now it’s a rare chance to get together with friends & family, enjoy a good meal and good company. My wife and I have our little tree we put up in the living room. I put on Christmas music. There is usually a lot of eating and spending time with the people we care about. THAT is what Christmas should be about. The people, not the stuff under the tree. I don’t understand people who get so worked up… Read more »

lostAnnfound
lostAnnfound

Some of it is also trying to change “traditions” that a family has. When the kids were young they would have more gifts under the tree at the grandparents than was sane and would open them up like an assembly line. Several times in the past we have suggested not buying ANY gifts for the extended family and instead “adopting” a family in need and giving them a better holiday than they were looking forward to. There was resistance all around. Our kids have more than enough and then some. Our family is very generous, but it just contributes to… Read more »

Brad
Brad

When I clicked the trailer, I was hoping it would be a worthy successor to Affluenza (1997), which has grown a bit dated over the past 13 years. Alas, this film looks like it will fall short.

ami
ami

I would love having a Christmas focusing on the meaning of the holiday, the food, communing with family and friends, and more food. I do like exchanging gifts, and in my dream world we each receive one ‘perfect’ gift that brings much joy to giver and recipient. Problem is – I usually feel like the gifts are not quite perfect, and I am tempted to compensate in quantity for the supposed lack. One way to counter this consumerist mentality is to volunteer rather than shop. Some of the best holiday experiences I have had involved wrapping and organizing and communing… Read more »

El Nerdo Loco
El Nerdo Loco

Luckily, I’m immune to this foolishness, so is my wife. We don’t give gifts to anyone, and we request that family and friends don’t give us gifts either– in spite of all best intentions it’s usually stuff we don’t want/ can’t use. Christmas shopping is supposed to be “good for the economy” (of China, that is), but I see no benefit to my family’s economy in giving and receiving useless junk. We all lose time and money in the process. Getting together with family and friends does not require outlandish exchanges of ridiculous purchases– especially for adults. There’s no Santa,… Read more »

KC
KC

Most people reading this site probably have a handle on the holidays. Most of us don’t wander out willy-nilly and just shop til we’ve bought something for everyone. We generally have a list, budget and a good idea of what we will purchase. I for one completely avoid Black Friday and any weekend shopping in November & December. I choose to go out Mon-Thursday either mornings or evenings – in fact went out last night and I had the entire city to myself it seemed. I have 2 families (mine & my husbands). We buy gifts for our parents and… Read more »

Kevin
Kevin

Honestly, I have mixed feelings about the holidays. I love getting together with family, enjoying a ridiculously gratuitous meal, and sitting around the fireplace with people I only get to see a couple of times per year. On the other hand, I dread the inevitable guilt associated with trying to balance our time between my family and my wife’s. I could also do without the gift buying. ANY gift buying. I dislike the stress of trying to come up with the “perfect gift” for 20 different friends and relatives, when I’ve already been doing it for every birthday and Christmas… Read more »

MrsClaus
MrsClaus

It’s almost as if this discussion should be separated into people WITH kids and those WITHOUT. It’s a whole different scene, man. The anti-consumerist movement at Christmas doesn’t tend to give real help or solutions, though I do embrace the message. There’s a balance between creating happy memories for a child, as you only get ONE chance, eek! to create Christmas-defining memories they’ll carry for a lifetime, and sticking to the ideals you want to get across to them. We want most of those memories to be the intangible joys of food, family, traditions, but think back to your own… Read more »

April W.
April W.

Thanks for the morning laugh! I enjoyed watching the trailer, but unfortunately, I think the message will be lost on most folks. They’ll be too busy laughing at the antics of ‘the reverend’ and putting him in the same metal category as cultists, too far from the normal parameters of society. And then forget about him, and his message just as quickly. Although I wholeheartedly agree that consumers should spend their dollars to boost their own economies, there are so many ‘things’ that aren’t made locally anymore that most families feel they require. I think most of us are just… Read more »

David C
David C

Working my way through college in retail certainly dimmed my view of Christmas for many years. This was the time of the first coming of the Cabbage Patch dolls and the idiocy that reigned for those seeking them. My store manager held back many for “special” customers and left us to issue rain checks to regular folks, not knowing if they would ever be fulfilled. It took a lot of years before I ever got the Christmas spirit back. I do dread the holidays somewhat, but not as much as I could. We have imposed gift limits of $30 for… Read more »

Kevin @ Thousandaire.com
Kevin @ Thousandaire.com

There are lots of people who derive great joy from overspending on gifts for others. I’m lucky to not be one of those people. I like to do nice things for people, but I don’t necessarily think it needs to happen at Christmas time.

I do know people who overspend at Christmas, and it’s sad because they are trying to do something great but they are really just hurting themselves.

Barb
Barb

Interesting. I enjoy all of the holiday season, Including the gift gifing for about seventeen people in family and some out. that said, we re all very laid back about gifts and we know what each other wants nd would use so I never feelpressure per se.

cheapcookies
cheapcookies

I’m in the blue Christmas club. I could do without all the crap that goes with it.

I have shifted gears: I now do all my Christmas shopping at once: Gift cards at the big box store.

Oh, I usually get a small gift with it too, like a book or something, but that’s about it now.

The secret: Assign an amount you are going to spend on each well in advance.

Then stick to it.

Shannon
Shannon

Does JD even write on this blog anymore?

Carrie
Carrie

Ha! I love finding like-minded company here. I dislike shopping and wouldn’t be caught dead near a mall on Black Friday. That doesn’t mean we don’t buy gifts for our son, but we are more modest with what we give than other people.

A couple of years ago, a friend at church mentioned that her son was getting a TV for his bedroom for Christmas and asked me what my son was getting. The expression on her face was priceless when I said, “Well, he’s gonna be really excited about the marbles we’re putting in his stocking!”
🙂

partgypsy
partgypsy

The most important thing is to show love and caring for your friends and family all year round; that way you won’t feel guilt or obligation to make it all up by buying an expensive gifts for Christmas. Other than gifts for our children, we are really going the way of cash or gift cards, supplemented with fun or thoughtful or food gifts in addition for the extended family. It is a gift for them that is just (if not more) appreciated than the endless search for the perfect gift, and it is a gift for me, that I spend… Read more »

John
John

My wife and I watched this after Christmas last year. We really enjoyed this movie and laughed along. There is a lot of truth in this movie. Our view of “the holidays” aligns well with WWJB.

elisabeth
elisabeth

I think one can find a balance between frenzied over-consumption and the real joys of giving. my dear husband and I don’t expect gifts from others (many on our list have fewer resources than we do) but we enjoy the opportunity to show friends and relatives in a concrete way that we’ve been thinking of them and appreciate them. So, every year we pick a theme and put together gift packages (of various sizes, depending on size of the family, or how close we feel to the recipient) which we joyfully give. It is a lot of fun to choose… Read more »

Tyler Karaszewski
Tyler Karaszewski

Our consumer culture would collapse completely if we couldn’t depend on outsourcing production to places like China with cheap labor and little government regulation. Imagine you were paying American salaries to all the people building the things you buy, and the companies producing them were paying American tax rates, American real estate prices, and following American environmental regulations. People would have no choice but to buy a *lot* less stuff, and it would still cost more than they spend on more stuff now. If you look back at the supposed golden age when America manufactured things, here are some prices… Read more »

Steffie Erikson
Steffie Erikson

I grew up watching the Andy Williams/Bing Crosby Christmas specials on tv, wondering why my family didn’t look like them and why couldn’t we look like them ? My stress comes from trying to recreate these ‘memories’ for my kids, who for years couldn’t have cared less about singing carols, trimming the tree etc. Not to mention all the guilt about how NON Martha Stewart my house looks!! Luckily my boyfriend is really good with the kids and he has taken over the tree trimming and they seem to be enjoying it more. I stay in the kitchen, drink a… Read more »

Sam
Sam

We solve the Christmas crunch by doing the following: (1) We have a short term savings account for holiday spending, we contribute to it during the year and our holiday budget is limited to what is in that fund. Includes gifts, holiday cards, decorations, tips for service providers, etc. (2) We have reached agreements with almost all the adults in our family, no gifts for adults at Christmas. Now I love to buy gifts so I still do but I don’t go out of my way to buy them at the holidays, rather I buy when I travel or if… Read more »

KarenJ
KarenJ

@Shannon – I believe JD is in Africa Shannon on an extended month long vacation, practicing what he preaches! My husband and I don’t exchange gifts. We are in our 50’s, are not into electronic toys and have everything we need. We go on one really nice vacation every year and that’s our gift to each other. I have two kids and I help them both out financially during the year, so they get a couple of small gifts just to have something to open. It’s been hard for me to adjust to no presents because my mom used to… Read more »

Luke
Luke

Is it just me, or do the people saying ‘is it just me, or does the chaos seem to start earlier each year?’ start earlier each year 😉

Sorry April – couldn’t resist! Interesting article…

Lisa
Lisa

I love Christmas. Gift giving is a natural (the Three Kings each gave a gift to Christ) but I do think that the sales are starting earlier and Black Friday starts at 4 am here!! It has gone very over the top. We do not buy alot of presents at all and each child of ours gets one gift (my aunt asked why and asked if there was something wrong with me). Truth be told, we try not to focus on material things since it’s not really all that important. We have flown home for the holidays before but do… Read more »

Corey
Corey

Seconding everything Tyler says. There’s an awful lot of economic illiteracy in this post and in the comments.

The free flow of trade benefits everyone involved. As morally atrocious as a lot of sweatshops are, they represent a pretty significant step up from the pre-sweatshop norm. On the other end, everyone gets cheaper goods. No one loses.

Of course, if everyone were to start “Buying American” and ignoring comparative advantage, we’d go back to paying $200 for every piece of clothing we own, and folks in China and Vietnam would return to a standard of living akin to the stone age.

Caroline
Caroline

Actually, even a “Made in America” label doesn’t ensure that the product was not made in a sweatshop. American Samoa and the Northern Mariana islands, for example, are both allowed to use the label, but are either exempt or extremely underregulated in their labor practices: http://www.webster.edu/~woolflm/sweatshops.html

My family just started copying my in-laws’ tradition, which is to draw names out of a hat and choose a theme (such as “green” or “liquid”). Presents stay at around $20-$30 and it’s really fun to see how everyone interpreted the theme.

Harry
Harry

I went to a relative’s house recently and found the house had been completely taken over by toys. Each room had piles of toys such that walking through without tripping was a challenge. All of this for one child. To make matters worse plans are already in the works to add more toys to the mix. It is crazy. I asked my wife if we might consider doing what we can not to add to the pile. Shock was the response I got. This is why I dread Christmas. This year we have a cash envelope for all the gifts.… Read more »

Kim
Kim

We’ve never done Xmas. Never had a tree etc …. I’m quite sure it would be different if we’d had kids.

For us, Xmas is a spectator sport. Let the games begin !!!

Sherri
Sherri

Great article! Another thing that comes to mind is the gift exchanges for work. I can’t think of how many $ 10.00 limit gifts that end up sitting in the closet, back into the exchange for next year, or in the trash. I remember when I was in a staff position and all this effort was put into finding “little” gifts for each other. While they can at times be fun, but at times very wasteful and stressful. I’m now working as a manager and changed the perspective on Christmas a bit. I requested that we no longer do gift… Read more »

J.D. Roth
J.D. Roth

@Shannon (#19) Of course I still write here! I wrote two-thirds of the post last week, and I’ll write half of the posts this week. I’ll probably write two-thirds of the posts for next week, too. When I’m not on vacation, I’m the primary author at Get Rich Slowly, and I’m the editor of the site. But, as I’ve mentioned before, Get Rich Slowly is now a multi-author blog, not a single-author blog. This gives readers more viewpoints than just my own, and it keeps the material fresh. Trust me: Nobody would want to read a personal-finance blog written just… Read more »

Gal @ Equally Happy
Gal @ Equally Happy

My family immigrated here from Israel when I was 10 years old. We never got into the holiday shopping spirit and I’m quite happy to stay that way. My friends and girlfriend understand this and none of them have an issue with it. I think anyone could get out of this ridiculous tradition (the overspending, not the gift giving) if they wanted to, as long as they were willing to invest a little time in telling their friends and families why they were doing it.

Jo@simplybeingmum

The one purchase I would very much like to make this Christmas is a time teleporter. I’d like to transport my family back to a time where Christmas meant home-baked food, cosy nights in, open fires and spending time with your loved ones. I won’t be doing any frantic shopping. I do have to exchange gifts as not everyone shares my anti consumerism opinion – but it’ll be gift vouchers (so they can do the shopping) some consumable stocking fillers (so as not to clutter up their homes) and some home baked cake. Merry Christmas Everyone!

smirktastic
smirktastic

Regarding the workplace gift exchange: we used to do a traditional gift exchange (complete with a “gag” gift that got regifted each year), but for the last 3 years we switched it up a bit. We still draw names, but we buy that person a toy that reminds you of that person,or something you think they would’ve liked as a child. We wrap them, exchange them, have riotous laughter and then donate them all to Toys for Tots. We still get the fun of picking something out for someone we know, seeing their reaction, helping a worthy cause and nobody… Read more »

Amanda
Amanda

@11. I don’t celebrate the holidays but I like your point about the poorest spending A LOT. I joined my husband on a business trip in oct. An admin joined all the execs. We all went to dinner one night. The admin had a several hundred dollar pair of glasses purchased on the trip. I feel she was trying to fit in, show she had money. Obviously she didn’t. No one else had any clothing or accessories out of the ordinary. She stood out its sad!

beth2
beth2

I’m really into giving gifts that don’t cost much but that pamper the recipient just the same. Gifts that the recipient wouldn’t buy for themselves. For example, my husband loves burritos from this little burrito place in town. They’re totally huge and you’d have to be a glutton to go there regularly. Anyway, I got him one recently (went there during rush hour, etc. etc. so it was a real treat) as one of the gifts I gave him for our anniversary. He loved it.

retirebyforty
retirebyforty

Ahhh, it’s nice to not watch TV. I didn’t even notice the Christmas madness had already started.

Joe
Joe

My wife and I have finally decided that we are not giving consumer items for gifts this year. We are giving things we have made ourselves, but still very much in the spirit of the holiday (cookies and rumtopf). I have hated gift giving for a while, I have never been incredibly perceptive about this stuff (figuring out what to give people), but I hate giving gifts which are not going to be used. I figure nothing is more “Made in America” than something from our kitchen. On the other hand, I do like all the sales going on this… Read more »

Kandace
Kandace

“What Would Jesus Buy” is one of my favorite documentaries. Thanks for profiling it.

My husband and I don’t give gifts to each other–we have everything we need and want. But it’s hard to convince other family members that a ton of gifts doesn’t equal a ton of love. My step-kids are used to receiving a lot of gifts and to them, not having a holiday with lots of presents just isn’t a holiday. to them, presents are what makes it Christmas.

smirktastic
smirktastic

Joe #42 – you are spot-on! Thanksgiving has become a mere speedbump on the holiday superhighway. We slow down enough to stuff our faces, then head full throttle into Christmas. There’s something to be said for slowing down!

SupportingParents
SupportingParents

@38 Fantastic idea! I think I’m going to suggest that to my family for this year!!! I don’t have any children so I don’t have parental pressures of the newest toy or gadget. I give my brother’s 2 little ones money in an account that I set up after seeing the ridiculous number of birthday/Xmas/You Name It gifts that never got enjoyed. Everyone knows I do not give them gifts but rather put a regular amount in this account so that when they choose, they have the money to take a FAMILY vacation that will be remembered rather than having… Read more »

Kevin M
Kevin M

Giving a gift is an awesome feeling. Coupled with the expectation of a holiday like Christmas it becomes something mechanical and the obligation makes it not so fun. It’s hard with kids, obviously we will give them a new toy or book, but at the same time try to teach them what really matters is spending time with family, eating, drinking and having fun. My wife’s family decided instead of exchanging gifts, we’d go out to eat together with no kids. On my side, we only buy gifts for the kids in the family. After all do (adult) American consumers… Read more »

Shalom
Shalom

Thanks, Tyler & Corey, for the reminder that global trade has many benefits that are so pervasive that many folks don’t even see them anymore. As has been discussed in comments on this blog before, “buy local” may provide some benefits, but it’s always not the clear win that it’s billed as. Also, I’ll out myself as one of the people – apparently rare as unicorns, at least on the GRS blog – who likes buying and giving gifts. I LIKE shopping for gifts, wrapping them up, and giving them away. We don’t need to get entrenched in this either/or… Read more »

Mom of five
Mom of five

I agree with #13 Mrs. Claus. Believe it or not, sometimes the kindest thing you can do for your child is to keep him up with the Joneses (within reason). If you don’t think there’s a good chance other kids will isolate or bully a child who is so different that he comes back to school saying, “my family only celebrates the real meaning of Christmas,” then you’re living in a dream world. I’m not saying every item on a kid’s Christmas list needs to be purchased. Happy memories can certainly be created on a tight budget. But if you’ve… Read more »

Nicole
Nicole

@48 Mom of five. Don’t worry, if the grandparents are a little more sane this year then Santa will step in for our little one. We will adjust to fit the needs of the situation. Seeing how they got him a Wii this summer “just because,” I somehow don’t think Santa will be necessary. They do get him some great stuff but man, there’s so much of it.

Claudia M.
Claudia M.

Last year was probably my family’s best Christmas. We did exchange gifts, but they were primarily functional items like pajamas, hygiene products, gas cards, and so forth. What made last Christmas so wonderful is that we all spent the day together, eating, drinking, and having a very good time. I’m the youngest of three siblings all in our 20s and 30s. We are all still able to gather at our parent’s house for Christmas. When we were younger, our parents would stuff the tree with presents for us, but as we grew up, it was tacitly decided that spending time… Read more »

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