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?
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?”
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.
Author: April Dykman
As a freelance writer, editor, and blogger, April Dykman specialized in personal finance, real estate, and entrepreneurship topics. Her work has been featured on MSNBC, Fox Business, Forbes, MoneyBuilder, Yahoo! Finance, Lifehacker, and The Consumerist. Now she does direct response copywriting but, in her free time, April is a wannabe chef, a diehard Italophile, and a recovering yogi.