My mom is a radical Christmas activist who doesn’t even know it.
Unlike most post-modern moms, she usually doesn’t buy her Christmas presents at the mall or on Amazon.com and stuff them under a tree.
Instead, my mom makes Christmas gifts — she bakes cookies, sews dresses, knits hats or assembles something with her hands then wraps it in a box.
While she still buys a few gifts at the store, my mom’s cottage-industry approach to Christmas has, for years, led to hushed accusations that she’s “old fashioned” or even “cheap.”
But it now appears she’s just ahead of her time — part of a growing anti-consumerist movement called Buy Nothing Christmas.
“People can step off the treadmill of shopping for three weeks straight at Christmas and enter a different rhythm,” says Aiden Enns, the public voice and co-creator of Buy Nothing Christmas.
The movement urges people to confront the fact that Christmas giving has become more about Christmas taking — taking from the environment, from the community, from our time, patience and sanity.
The antidote: buying nothing at Christmas and giving something you make, bake or barter.
“The thrust behind this campaign is to undermine the negative aspects of our consumer economy, to restore the joy in giving, and at the same time, undo the harm in consuming,” says Enns.
“You’re creating things; you become a producer where you dream up things. When that happens, you begin to feel more alive and you’re no longer trapped with a limited number of consumer options.”
Instead of buying another shrink-wrapped trinket, people handy in the kitchen could bake something delicious for someone this Christmas, says Enns.
Those with a knack for crafts could make a collage or memory book with family pictures.
People can even give away their time, offering to take care of someone’s children, mow their lawn, give a back massage or fix their computer for Christmas.
“That is the spirit of a Buy Nothing Christmas: people being resourceful on their own and building community,” says Enns.
The idea of buying nothing on Christmas would likely have been laughed at a generation ago.
But Buy Nothing Christmas is increasingly appealing to the masses, says Enns.
Just this week, Enns was interviewed about the movement by BBC Scotland.
Those intrigued should “trust their gut” and take small steps towards the group’s message, he says.
Doing so could mean drawing names in a family to ensure each person receives only one gift, or talking about the needless excess the holidays have become, he says.
Or you could buy an ethical gift, like fairly traded coffee or making a donation to charity, he says.
And there’s always mom’s approach, which Enns describes as “a make-and-bake Christmas.”
But tread carefully.
“Christmas gift exchange is a ritual loaded with feelings. If you mess with the ritual, things can get explosive,” he says.
After trying Buy Nothing Christmas with their family, a young couple wrote to Enns to relay that their family was no longer talking.
“It’s terrible and that makes me sad,” he concedes.
Enns is a former editor at Adbusters Magazine (full disclosure: so am I) who noticed the anti-consumerist rag’s success with its Buy Nothing Day campaign.
Held the day following Thanksgiving in the United States, when stores drop prices and someone inevitably gets trampled at a Wal-Mart trying to buy a $20 DVD player, Buy Nothing Day has millions of international followers.
“I thought it was a shame to just keep it to one day and that we should roll it out to the whole Christmas shopping season,” he says.
During Christmas in 2001, Enns and a group of like-minded activists purchased advertising in Canadian newspapers, urging people to resist advertising come-ons and just buy nothing.
Buy Nothing Christmas has blossomed ever since, promoted by Adbusters and on the buynothingchristmas.org website.
The site features printable coupons for bartered gifts, a Buy Nothing catalogue, a song called Buy Nothing at All, and the script to an anti-consumerist play Enns commissioned called A Christmas Karl.
Yes, Enns is a Christian with deeply held beliefs and a Masters degree in theology.
He publishes an award-winning Christian activist magazine called Geez from his hometown in Winnipeg.
But Buy Nothing Christmas isn’t about religion.
Instead, it’s a response to the capitalism and consumerism run amok, sold by the idea of giving, he says.
“I see Buy Nothing Christmas as an explicitly political campaign because it seeks to undermine the problematic structure of our economy, which floods the market with excess goods and concentrates the wealth in the hands of the few,” says Enns.
“My personal faith is also political, in the sense that my hope lies in bringing justice to the world — freedom, peace, joy and happiness.
“That cannot happen without structural change. The joy of Christmas needs to have a subversive political dimension for it to be real for me in this day and age.
“That’s how I read the original story of Jesus.”
Though the group has been trashed in business publications, including the Financial Post, the fact that the message is even known and recognized offers hope, says Enns.
“People don’t smoke as much as they used to, and there’s a bit of shame attached to it.
“I see that rampant consumerism has reached its peak, and we are on a downward trend.”