Surveying the ruins of Christmas: Why so much stuff?

We don't think back on all the great gifts we got; we think back on the great experiences.


WASHINGTON, December 25, 2014 — I’ve totally freaked out my son. A friend of mine told me about her family’s Christmas: They drew names for gift giving, and had to keep the price of gifts under $25.

I mentioned that to my wife, who thought that sounded like an excellent idea, and our 14-year-old son Harlan asked, “You aren’t serious, are you? Only $25? You can’t get anything good under $25.”

“Yes you can,” I replied. “I think the gifts you gave this year were thoughtful and nice, and I’m very pleased with my Beethoven socks. Your sister loves her sewing box.”

“You can’t get anything good for under $25,” he repeated, not hearing me at all.

“Well, I think we could up that limit to $50,” I said. “But better yet, we could skip the gifts and take a trip. Your mom and I aren’t going to give each other expensive gifts for anniversaries or birthdays anymore. We’ve got enough stuff. We should just travel more.”

He didn’t answer, but at lunch he was rattled. “You guys sounded serious. But you’re joking about presents, right?”

Not really. We managed to keep the debris this Christmas down to one kitchen-sized trash bag, not counting the mailing boxes that gifts from extended family and Amazon came in. But we could do better. Our kids’ rooms are full of junk that they don’t want to part with. They’re on their way to being on that show about hoarders.

Our family is weighted down with stuff, most of it unnecessary. There’s not an empty flat surface in the house. When I want to bake, I transfer small appliances and decorative bowls from the kitchen counter to the kitchen table, then back again when it’s time to eat.

We have cupboards full of bowls and vases, enough china for a dinner party with our 30 closest friends (and a table big enough for six of them, when it isn’t covered with papers and homework), tea pots on top of the refrigerator, oil lamps in the entryway, ceramic pots on our bedroom chests of drawers, closet space filled with clothes we don’t wear.

Every time I dig through the closet for something it’s like Christmas; I find things I forgot we had. “Lisa, did you know that Jimmy Hoffa’s head is in my sock drawer?”

“I forgot about that; I think you put it there as a gift for Harlan in 2005.”

It’s insane how much stuff we have that we don’t need. We’re probably not that much different from any other middle-class family in that regard, either.

You inherit things, you receive things as gifts, you find neat buys at estate sales and on vacation, you add them to your mountain of possessions and they disappear into closets, never to be seen again except when they get in your way while you’re looking for bandages and Neosporin.

Experiential consumption has a much bigger impact on us than stuff. My time at daddy-daughter camp with my nine-year-old daughter was far more meaningful to me than the glass-art bowls in my curio cabinet. If I had to delete one from my history, it would be the bowls without a second thought for what they cost.

No one looks back from old age and says, “I’m sure glad we bought that Stickley table.”

We remember the things we did rather than the things we had.

Unless we’re 14.

Harlan called one of his friends this morning and is still filled with envy over the stuff his friend got for Christmas. He recited the list to me twice, punctuating the recitation with heavy, pregnant pauses.

There is a certain joy in having things that, when your dearest friends who you love as much as family and who are always there for you see them, they drop dead from envy. That’s our inner teenager.

It’s time for me to strangle my inner teenager (my outer teenager doesn’t know how lucky he is that I love him and that the law frowns on strangling teenagers), grow up and stop the mindless acquisition.

My wife is ready for that stage in our lives, too.

Our daughter is happy to go anywhere for the ride as long as we let her help pack the bags. Harlan will only go kicking and screaming. I’ll make a deal with him. If he cleans up his room enough to accommodate it, we’ll buy him just enough new stuff to grease the rails.

Otherwise he’ll have to cough up the money to pay to expand his bedroom.

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James Picht is the Senior Editor for Communities Politics. He teaches economics and Russian at the Louisiana Scholars' College in Natchitoches, La. After earning his doctorate in economics, he spent several years doing economic development work in Moscow and the new independent states of the former Soviet Union for the U.S. government, the Asian Development Bank, and as a private contractor. He has also worked in Latin America, the former USSR and the Balkans as an educator, teaching courses in economics and law at universities in Ukraine and at finance ministries throughout the region. He has been writing at the Communities since 2009.