Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Meaning of Boxing Day

Yesterday was Boxing Day. Virtually no Americans know the meaning or origin of that holiday, but it is so strongly associated with returning Christmas gifts that many people actually assume that it refers to placing merchandise back into boxes and taking them back to the stores. Worse still, retailers seem to be playing on that association so actively that in coming years I won’t be surprised if Boxing Day is actually recognized throughout the United States as the gift return holiday.

To my knowledge, Kohls was the worst offender, having scheduled a 5 AM opening for December 26th. Other big box stores weren’t far off with their early openings and special promotions. There is a nascent trend towards turning the day after Christmas into a new Black Friday. All of the commentary I’ve already written here about how consumerism detracts from the enjoyment of non-shopping traditions applies tenfold to Christmas over how it applied to Thanksgiving.

My heart goes out to anyone who typically celebrates Christmas but has to work on that day. So it made me sad to see that each of the Wilson Farms stores and Tim Horton’s in my area were open throughout the holiday, and were awfully well-populated. It’s an unsympathetic employer who makes his employees work on what is supposed to be a cultural holiday on which most Americans gather together, relax, and celebrate the closing year. Even if they come from a distinct culture, I think at least that one day of rest ought to be a near-universal perk of working in America.

Added to the number of people who had to actually push coins across a retail counter on Christmas Day, I’m certain that early-morning promotions as major stores meant that overnight crews were required to setup that night, which presumably shortened of otherwise impeded some people’s gatherings with their friends and families. As consumers, making a shopping holiday of Boxing Day does a disservice to others who had, or would have, celebrated Christmas the day before.

But my concern is really for everyone, whether the new consumerist push obligated them to sacrifice a bit of Christmas or not. I find it appalling that returning gifts after Christmas is now assumed to be part of the holiday season. Personally, I’ve never unwrapped a package, looked at its contents, and thought to myself, “Gee, I can’t wait to returning this for something of roughly equal value that I actual like!” I’ve never said, “I hope you kept the receipt.” Generally, when I receive a Christmas gift, I say thank you, and I mean it, and if it’s an article of clothing that doesn’t fit, I or the giver exchange it for the same item in the proper size. That’s why the things that we open on Christmas morning are gifts: We didn’t choose them for ourselves; we don’t cherry-pick them; they represent not just our own base desires, but a material expression of how our loved-ones perceive us.

And even if our self-perception and the perception of others don’t align, accepting a gift is a great way to discover new things, and to learn to enjoy what you might not have chosen for yourself. This year, my mother gave me a very generous gift and before I opened it she commented that I might not think I need it. And indeed I don’t. I’m still young enough and fortuitous enough to stand the cold of my apartment without need of an electric heater. My mother intimated that I could take it back if I tried it and found that it didn’t suit me, but I made it clear to her that I would not be doing that, and I acknowledged that it was something I never would have purchased for myself, but that I would use now that I owned it. And despite not being something I’d coveted, it does suit me on some level, as the fake-fire display adds to the aesthetic of my home, and after all, I do need heat, even if I don’t acknowledge it to myself.

The price of the item might have done me better directed elsewhere, or even just kept by my mother, who is financially little better off than I am. But what ever happened to the old cliché, “It’s the thought that counts”? Perhaps we retain that sentiment as an ethic for the giver, but we don’t seem to ever apply it to the receiver. The thought behind each gift has value beyond money, and returning the item is often as good as returning the thought, sending the message, “You thought wrong.”

This is one of those instances in which the etiquette that we learned as children is thrown out the window as we age. Aren’t kids expected to say thank you even to the gifts that they don’t like? Then don’t their parents explain that they need only wear the ugly sweater when the aunt who gave it comes around next year? Are things like that social obligations that we just grow out of over time? Or do we just conveniently forget them after years of building up our material desires?

The four, six, eight and more weeks before Christmas are devoted to mutually gratifying those desires. With Boxing Day now devoted to consumption as well, how many more days need to be added to this shopping spree before the American affection for consumerism reaches a breaking point and starts to cede ground back to the spirit of giving, gratitude, and togetherness?

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