Think outside the big box

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There's nothing Scrooge about it; we were the happiest people in the mall.

Last Saturday I got kicked out of one mall and four big bad box stores — a Christmas shopping first for me. I and 25 other Manitobans who probably go to church more often than to the mall were there to sing Christmas carols — evidently the kind that get one banished from the fluorescent premises of holiday madness.

Imagine standing in the check-out line at the local Super-Mega Deal-orama as a cheerful troupe of Santa-hatted well-wishers march in the door singing God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, or no, wait, those aren't the traditional lyrics:

    Slow down ye frantic shoppers for there's something we must say,
    If you would spare a moment all the stores would go away,
    Big business has been telling us what Christmas means today,
    Now it's time we decided for ourselves, for ourselves,
    Yes, it's time we decided for ourselvesâe¦

Our record was three full songs before being escorted out (in that case politely). The opposition to our store-to-store commercial sacrilege however did not come from shoppers. We might have been a fringe group oddly immune to public embarrassment, but shoppers didn't treat us that way. Many were curious, some indifferent, and a few responded almost as though they'd met a long lost friend.

The “Buy Nothing Christmas” campaign — the impetus for our Winnipeg singing spree — taps into increasing societal fatigue around high-pressure commercial Christmas. The four-year old international campaign is inspired by Adbusters “Buy Nothing Christmas” and the driving force behind it is Winnipegger Aiden Enns, former managing editor at Adbusters magazine. The campaign has Christian origins but appeals more broadly, not unlike the event it seeks to reinvigorate.

While making the holidays less stressful and more fun, “Buy Nothing Christmas” also recognizes that Christmas excess is corporate excess with exploitative business feeding off the spending frenzy.

This year the campaign included a front page ad in the Guardian.

For Enns, who joined our musical excursion, retail caroling is less a protest than an invitation to a less frenzied Christmas. As for getting ousted from retail establishments he says “mischief is a good thing if something's wrong with 'normal. '” And besides, it's festive mischief. When permitted, we ended a store visit with a hearty round of We wish you a Merry Christmas (traditional lyrics).

We banked on the fact that Christmas is the only season in which amateur public singing makes social sense (even if just barely). It's a unique season. There's a tinge of spiritual nostalgia — if you will — in the air, something that draws one back to those things that most satisfy the human spirit — family, fun, song and goodwill. Society breaks out in a bit of a smile.

Our message was a simple call to follow this seasonal inclination toward cheer and goodwill, rather than getting sidetracked by the stuff.

We feel drawn to basic human goodness, yet find ourselves stuck in Deal-orama seeking the perfect gift for that “special someone who has everything” but who will nonetheless get our “Made in China” plastic package of holiday affection.

We're looking for deals, but not reallyâe¦.

Last Valentine's Day, the same mall that promptly disapproved of our carols, boldly advertised: “Yes, you can buy love.” I emailed the mall manager wanting to hear someone defend such a bold-faced contradiction of what we've all known to be true since childhood. Her logic, by necessity, was as counter-intuitive as the original claim — a logic akin to that which somehow compels us back into the perennial stress of Christmas excess.

A recent poll conducted by the Centre for a New American Dream found widespread disillusionment with consumerism and materialism among Americans. A full 86 per cent of those polled said they are more interested in pursuing “more of what matters in life,” as opposed to a “more is better” tack.

The “Buy Nothing Christmas” campaign grants cultural permission to opt out of the madness, to celebrate more than just stuff. The campaign website provides a “catalogue” of gifts that money can't buy. And there's nothing Scrooge about it; we were the happiest people in the mall.

I am not a hardcore Buy Nothing adherent, but I am quite pleased with my idea for a non-purchased gift for my father-in-law (whose name I drew). And my “shopped-until-she-dropped” Mom seems to have proclaimed a gift-free Christmas on my side of the family. If we had kids, more creativity would be required.

I know this Christmas will be at least as good as any other. And I suspect next year my holiday nostalgia will include a faint longing for some festive mischief.

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