Lots of people have a lot of problems with Christmas. They don’t like to take the Christ out of Christmas. They don’t like commercialism at Christmas. They don’t like that trees go up before Halloween and that Best Buy commercials tell our nieces to expect iPads in their stockings and that we’re somehow expected to eat lots of Christmas-colored Hershey Kisses yet still fit into sparkly holiday dresses.
I have mixed feelings about this holiday phobia because I love Christmas — even the cheesy parts. (Maybe especially the cheesy parts.) I love decorating a tree and opening presents with my family. I love cocoa and peppermint ice cream and watching truly terrible holiday movies on Netflix. I even have a sparkly dress. Yes, I agree that there’s a lot of pressure to perform on Christmas, and that’s too bad, but I don’t think it’s a huge issue (more of a problem, I think, are the 364 days a year when we’re encouraged to think only about ourselves).
I understand the desire to buy tons of presents for family members. I’m not judging anybody for hunting down sales and stalking savings and running up debt like some kind of Christmastime gladiator of cheer. I honestly love giving (and let’s be honest, getting) gifts.
But here’s the thing: Giving stuff, especially stuff with only money and no thought behind it, is a very poor way to communicate love. (Thoughtful gifts, gifts that show a person “I see you, and I value our relationship,” can be very effective, whether or not they happen to be expensive.) And in our running-around-in-parking-lots and wide-eyed-cyber-shopping frenzy, we can actually push real attention and love so far away that no amount of electronics on Christmas morning can make up for our neglect.
What makes this active neglect even sadder is that those savings we’re so intent on racking up can be doing serious damage to the people behind the scenes who are making those products, selling them, packing them up and shipping them. Our insistence on low prices, free shipping and last-minute gifts create a bloated demand for cheap labor, and cheap labor usually means mistreated people. It seems like creating so much sadness for the sake of more toys on Christmas morning mocks the spirit of the season, especially since Jesus spent a lot of time telling us to love each other and treat each other better, and little-to-no time instructing us on layaway plans.
The good news? You can still have a Christmas full of fun and family and love and friends and magic and even cocoa and sparkles — and you can know that you’re putting more goodwill into the world instead of leaving destruction in your wake. I’ve been shopping mostly local for Christmas for about five years now, so I thought I’d share my tips for shopping creatively — and responsibly — for the holiday season. Do they take more planning than running to the mall on Christmas Eve? Yeah, for sure. But you’re also less likely to have a nervous breakdown outside a Sharper Image or cry in frustration over your Cinnabun. Without further ado — How to Shop Locally, Responsibly and Creatively for Christmas:
Skip Black Friday
Black Friday can be fun. It involves standing in lines, like at Six Flags! There are fights, like on American Ninja Superstars (or whatever)! Also, you can save a lot of money. But Black Friday represents the very worst of our corporate system: the most-discounted products (like electronics and clothes) are the ones most often made in other countries by tortured and underpaid people; this is the holiday most likely to cost you more than you save (because you pick up impulse items and stocking stuffers that bring your purchase higher than what you save with discounts), and American retail workers are robbed of Thanksgiving because they’re are forced to go to work earlier and earlier on Thanksgiving Day, meaning they can’t be with their families. (What did Thanksgiving ever do to you! Probably nothing!)
REI has a great alternative to Black Friday this year: They’re closing all their retail stores for the day and encouraging their employees and customers to #optoutside and get outside the house (and definitely outside the mall), for the day. Is #optoutside a marketing scheme? Uh, probably. But it’s a pretty great one. It’s a marketing scheme that might actually improve your health and your relationship with your family, as opposed to the marketing schemes that keep you standing in a cold mall parking lot at 4 a.m., and that seems like an improvement.
Another great Black Friday alternative? If you have an independent record store in your area, see if they’re celebrating Record Store Day Black Friday. This international event involves sales and exclusive content, and most record stores will also have live performances inside their stores on Black Friday.
Make a List
This super cliché advice from Santa Claus — make a list and check it twice — is actually pretty good. Shopping locally for holiday gifts is definitely the most responsible way to go, but I’m not gonna lie: You probably won’t find a gift for everyone in one building like you would at the mall. So plan ahead. Early in the season, make a list of who you want to give gifts to, and make notes when you see great products in local stores. (I make notes on my phone so I always have them accessible.) By the time you’re ready to shop, you’ll have a gift-giving guide at-the-ready.
Use Shopkeepers for Expert Advice
Local shopkeepers and shop workers are your secret weapon when shopping for gifts. They’re almost always experts in their fields, and specialty stores have deep knowledge about the very thing you’re looking for in their store. Tell a record store owner what kind of music your best friend likes, and watch him pick the next great album. Show a jewelry store owner a picture of your significant other and get a hand-picked necklace that’ll look great.
Walking into a real store, taking pictures of the things you want, and then buying them online (a.k.a. showrooming) is really crappy. Don’t do this. If you must shop online, at least do the research yourself — don’t punish brick-and-mortar stores for paying their rent and their taxes and shipping in products for you to try before buying them on Amazon. Come on. Be a human being. If you’re going to steal an idea from a local store and buy the item at the lowest price available, at least be more secretive about it than whipping your phone out in front of an employee.
Ask about Gift Wrapping and Shipping
A lot of small shops offer free gift wrap, and unlike the gift wrap at a lot of corporate store, it’s probably not stamped all over with a thousand logos. When time to plan for the holidays is at a premium, remember to ask is a store gift wraps and/or ships for their customers. It might only save you 15 minutes, but when it’s Christmas Eve and you’d rather be asleep than playing Santa, every 15 minutes counts.
Embrace Shop Small Saturday
Did you know the world of locally owned stores has its own happier alternative to Black Friday? We do! It’s called Shop Small Saturday, and while not every local business participates, lots host special events, have sales, give away free stuff, and generally celebrate you for being such an amazingly responsible citizen and celebrating localism. It’s pretty rad. To celebrate Shop Small Saturday, I like to call a friend or two to come with me and plan a few shops we want to try. Then we start the day at an independent coffee shop, walk to a few stores, and wrap up the day with lunch. It’s kind of like Black Friday except … well, it’s totally the opposite of Black Friday, actually. But it’s a really nice day.
Check out Local Pop-Up Shops
Around the holidays, Pop-Up Shops and craft markets creep like mistletoe into unexpected spots all around town. For the uninitiated, a Pop-Up is a group of artists or shopkeepers who sell their products at an unusual spot for a limited time. You might see Pop-Ups on the sidewalk, in corners of other existing stores, at event spaces or at coffee shops. Pop-Ups and craft fairs are great places to find unique gifts, plus the “salespeople” are usually the people who actually made the products, so you can ask about bulk discounts or personalization (asking is fine, being pushy is not). Find Pop-Ups in your area by checking free event listings online and in your local paper; you can also find out about them by finding local makers on social media — they’ll probably be promoting these events like crazy. Oh, and here’s a bonus: Because you’re buying from the actual makers, they tend to get really excited when you buy their products. It’s like getting an adrenaline shot of Christmas cheer.
Part of the reason Christmas has become so materialistic is because our culture has become materialistic. It seems like we all have too much stuff, and the holidays make it even worse. Sure, we get gifts we want at Christmas, but we also go home with a lot of stuff we don’t need or even want. If you want to tone it down this year, think about giving only (or mostly) consumables — that’s a fancy term for stuff you can eat or drink. If you give consumables, it’s a lot easier to find unique items made locally, and it’s simpler to give the same thing to everyone on your list without it looking like a cop out. Think about giving whiskey, wine, jars of local honey, locally-made granola or jams, or bags of whole leaf tea. Oh, and if you’re the one who’s been getting too much stuff for Christmas, think about mentioning on social media and to your family that you’d like to receive only consumables this year.
Local shopping at the holidays really is more challenging, but I think it pays off. The past few years, I’ve had a lot of fun shopping for gifts because it’s felt like a treasure hunt, and I’ve been able to get great advice and have good conversations with local shopkeepers. The people on my list have loved their gifts (or they faked it well … but I think they really liked them), and I’ve actually spent less money because I didn’t try to make up for lackluster presents by adding more junk gifts to the pile.
If you have more ideas for shopping locally, let me know through social media. Until then, happy shopping … oh, and one last gift idea — you could buy a copy of my book, The Localist, here or at your favorite local bookstore! Wink-wink!
Carrie Rollwagen is author of The Localist: Think Independent, Buy Local and Reclaim the American Dream, creator of 30 Days of Local Praise and co-founder of Church Street Coffee & Books. Find her on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter @crollwagen. She’s taking a break from blogging during the 2015 holiday season to write a Nanowrimo book and spend time with family.