At least since the time I was in college (which was right after Guttenberg came up with the idea of a printing press), economists have been using the Christmas gift-buying season an indices by which to measure the health of the national economy. Depending on whose statistics you want to accept, 40 to 60 percent of all consumer sales happen during the holiday season (Thanksgiving to approximately January 15). In the last few years of course, Christmas sales volume has taken on an extra special significance. As the Recession drags on, businesses look more and more to the spike in sales usually associated with Christmas in order to perk up their overall sales numbers for the year. Consequently, more and more gimmicks have been created to draw people into the holiday shopping frenzy. The traditional “Black Friday” sales have now been expanded to “Black Wednesday Pre-sales,” and some chain stores and local stores have “Black Thursday” sales. (Question: Between three NFL football games and expanding shopping opportunities, will American families actually have time to eat?)
According to research generated by the National Retailers Foundation, the average holiday shopper will spend $749.51 on gifts, decorations, greeting cards, and various Christmas tsotchkes. The NRF is also forecasting that total holiday sales will increase 4.1 percent this year to $586.1 billion.
The commercialization of Christmas is now a foregone conclusion, and I don’t think that there is any way to stop it or slow it down. In fact, it can be argued that for the health of the economy and stability of society and our way of life, we need to continuously strive to grow our Christmas consumer patterns. Having said all of this, I do think we all need to pause in our consumer pursuits, at least for a moment, and reflect on the larger significance of the season.
In the Christian tradition, of course, Christmas is one of the two most sacred days in the calendar, the other being Easter. At the secular level Christmas is now recognized as a cultural celebration of the winter solstice, the new year, and the “rebirth of hope” in the future. And yes, it’s also about gifts and demonstrations of generosity. So buy mom, dad, the kids, your wife and friends a gift. But remember, the gifts we buy for them are only tokens of our esteem. Our true gift is that we love them and that we are thankful that they are a part of our lives.
Al Gini is a Professor of Business Ethics and Chairman of the Management Department in the Quinlan School of Business at Loyola University Chicago.