How to Celebrate What Really Matters in the Season of Holiday Consumerism

Raising Healthy Families podcast: How to ditch holiday consumerism

A simple shift in mindset towards gratitude can bring back what really makes this time of year special.

It should’ve been shocking when I popped into a local store to grab extra Halloween candy to find it completely restocked and transformed into a Christmas bonanza by October 27. It should have been shocking—but it wasn’t. The holiday consumerism season had begun.

Holiday shopping creeps earlier and earlier every year. Targeted ads follow us on our phones, beckoning us to score every limited time deal possible. Affiliate marketing goes into overdrive with influencers pushing their own curated gift guides and must-buys for the season. The pressure to buy and keep up is everywhere. But what is this teaching our kids? Is this truly what matters this time of year? And lastly, how is this behavior affecting our environment?

My colleague Chrissy Kissinger spoke with Nancy Colier, psychotherapist, author, and interfaith minister all about the pressure to keep up with the Joneses during our latest season of Raising Healthy Families with Moms Meet and KIWI. She shared with us some of the reasons why this time of year tends to go off the rails and offers up some practical solutions on how to reframe your holiday celebrations. 

The Gigantic “Should” of Motherhood

I’ve heard it aptly said that moms are the magic makers in the family (although this certainly can be said of dads and grandparents, too). This characterization is especially true when it comes to the holidays. We put immense effort into creating these magical experiences for our kids in an effort to give them the best life possible—and because we love them immensely. 

But with endless options and a skewed view of other families’ realities on social media, it’s easy to get wrapped up into feeling like we should do just about everything. And it can overshadow what really matters beyond the material. 

Colier shares, “[I] think that the season has gotten very disconnected from what the spiritual meaning of the season is, and the values and the yummy stuff it’s really supposed to be about. And it’s become this kind of gigantic ‘should’, just a big ‘should’, in so many ways.” She explains that so many of us feel the pressure to have this time of year be the most special. But in her experience as a psychotherapist for 30 years, this is rarely the case. 

Chasing the Joneses

While the notion of “keeping up with the Joneses” is not new, social media has kicked it into overdrive. Being on these platforms can offer wonderful connection and entertainment. But as Colier argues, it can also be damaging. “It creates a sense [that] there’s a right way of doing things. And it turns our focus to the external. How are the Joneses living Christmas?” But the questions we should really be asking ourselves instead are, “How do we as a family want to live this holiday? What do we want to celebrate? What do we want to teach our kids through this holiday? Lastly, what’s important to our family?” Colier cautions us to, “Stop comparing and take ownership of what this holiday means to me.”

The trap of trying to keep up can trickle down to our kids, who as we know, are always watching and learning from us. Colier shares, “When we chase the Joneses, what we’re teaching our kids is you’ve got to keep up with the junk. And ultimately, that is going to fail. Ultimately, that is going to lead them towards depression and anxiety, because there will come a day you cannot do it. There will come a day where you also realize that all the chasing and gathering and getting the things, going on the vacation, it’s not ultimately what’s going to feed you. [It’s] not what’s gonna make you feel good about yourself.”

Instead of focusing on what everyone else is up to, Colier encourages us to look inwards and figure out what we want from life. Then we can go about teaching our kids what really matters.

Say It Out Loud

If you decide to do things differently with your family, Colier encourages you to own it. “When we step off that treadmill, honor the fact that it’s not easy in this culture… However we choose to do it, you’re bucking the trend. Honor that, and also be open with your kids that you’re doing it differently. Name it, so that they can stand in that as something that they are proud of.” 

This is not to say that you should not do anything or buy anything. You just don’t have to do everything and buy everything! You may decide to do one or two special gifts or opt for experiences instead. Whatever it is, choose what really matters to your family and make that your tradition. 

“Gratitude and appreciation are the recipe for a happy life.”

– Nancy Colier

Teach Gratitude

So what then should we be teaching our kids? Colier adamantly teaches her children gratitude as the antidote to the pressures of consumerism and social media comparison. “Gratitude and appreciation are the recipe for a happy life,” she says. “It’s such an important experience for children to learn to be happy with what they have. And if we run around chasing everything and buying 3,000 presents, you know the story. What they do is they open it and then before they’ve finished getting the wrapper off, they’re on to the next, and it’s really painful to watch. And often those kids don’t even really play with [these toys]. Excess does not breed gratitude and appreciation.”

Colier says that when we push for all things in excess, it creates a bit of existential despair—a feeling our kids may pick up on. “If what we want is to be happy, if what we want is to be connected, to be peaceful, we’re creating this narrative that if you get more, if you have more choices, then you’ll be okay. It isn’t what makes us feel okay, so I just say, make it conscious, what you do about presents.” 

Transitioning to Mindful Holiday Consumerism

If you take stock of years past and are looking for a way to pair it down, Colier thinks it’s totally doable. She advises you to be upfront with your kids to set expectations and own your choices from before. At the end of the day, kids really want our presence over presents from us, she explains. “They want our attention. They want our kindness. And they want our delight when they bring something home that they did well. So let’s not confuse also our deepest value with how many things we can give.”

Mindful Merrymaking

  • Opt for experience gifts that cut down on the material waste and provide long lasting memories. Whether it be a family trip, tickets to a show, or a day at an amusement park, the options are endless and you can tailor it to your child’s interests.
  • Transition to the 5 Gift Rule of present buying for each child. This method will help you focus on something they want, need, wear, read, and receive second hand. You can read more about it here.
Why I’m Attempting the 5 Gift Rule This Holiday Season
  • Set a budget and stick to it. This will keep you from hopefully falling for those deeply discounted deals or last-minute splurges when you already have enough.
  • Shop second hand for clothing, winter gear, and even big ticket toys that other families may have outgrown. Local resale stores, Poshmark, and Facebook Marketplace are great places to start.
  • Give back as a family by sponsoring a family’s wishlist, serving food, or donating funds to charity. You can start small with acts of kindness and tailor them to your child’s age.
  • Pick and choose your holiday activities in a way that does not lead to burnout. The options are endless, and the Santas are everywhere. Decide what brings your family the most joy in the upcoming weeks and be reasonable about how much you can fit into your schedule while still enjoying periods of rest.

Take Stock of Your Holiday Waste

Between the wrapping paper, packaging, abundance of food, and beyond, this time of year is notorious for creating a colossal amount of waste. One survey of 2,000 Americans found that respondents average 43% more waste during the festive season. This is detrimental for our planet in so many ways, namely by increasing carbon emissions, eating away at our natural resources, and polluting these natural spaces with our trash. Yet, this doesn’t seem to be part of the equation for many people when they go about their holidays. 

Colier believes much of it starts with a lack of awareness from the general public into the tragic consequences. “I think we have to raise awareness, where do all these toys go? People don’t make the links,” she says. “It’s not about blaming people that do this, it’s recognizing that so many people just don’t have the education. They don’t understand that when you put that stuff out—the broken toys or the toy never played with—it needs to go somewhere. Often it goes into the sea, or it goes into a waste dump. And then it gets burned. And then what does that do?”

“We’ve lost that sense of how our behavior change affects the globe and dear Mother Earth.”

– Nancy Colier

She also acknowledges that some of the wastefulness of holiday consumerism is a chosen ignorance to look away from the interconnectedness of people and our planet. “We don’t see that what we do impacts everyone and everything. So we’ve lost that sense of how our behavior change affects the globe and dear Mother Earth. And so that’s allowed us to completely trash Mother Earth, because we’re so disconnected from our parts,” she laments. To combat this, Colier says we must educate our young people on how interconnected everything and everyone is. 

Teach your kids about the plastic that goes into their tiny toys and why opting for more sustainable materials is better. Work gratitude into your everyday conversations. Encourage small acts of kindness. Find joy in the great outdoors together. These little conscious behaviors can all work together to create more reverence for our planet and what we do have and less focus on material things.