Holiday Shopping 2011: The Main Event Isn’t Always Buying

Were you one of the 212 million shoppers that the National Retail Federation said hit the stores over the Black Friday weekend? Or have you waited for this week to get the Cyber Week deals that are being promised? I was in Los Angeles for the weekend, and visited toy stores all over the area where sales were strong, crowds were excited and a sun-tanned Santa worked to accommodate a huge line of kids at The Grove shopping area.

Shopping has become as much a part of the holiday as any other celebration, and it was heartening to see families delighted crowding the Apple Store, and, of course, the American Girl store. And not because of the rampant consumerism (It’s unclear at this writing whether the record sales of the weekend will continue through the last few weeks of the season or if people bought their stuff and have packed it in.) but because families were actually talking, interacting and not buried in electronic devices. Yes, the focus was on consumption, but I overheard, okay eavesdropped on, many conversations about what to get a family member and how much he or she might like something, a most wanted toy. Yes, I also heard people talking about what they could and couldn’t afford this year, and I caught more than one wistful backward glance at an iPad as consumers left the Apple store. But the mood overall was upbeat; in fact, very happy.

As I walked through store after mall after street market, I was left with the distinct impression that the main event of the weekend was spending time with the family on an activity that just happened to be shopping. That may be a new holiday tradition that achieves the same ends as all of warm, fuzzy nostalgia promulgated by romantic magazine articles and movies, but ends up causing stress for families—and moms in particular. I talk to many moms who feel guilty that they don’t spend weeks baking and creating the kind of holiday their grandmothers did, but their grandmothers’ lives are not the reality in 2011. Store-bought cookies are no less sweet, but time with the family in these pressured times is a rare commodity indeed.

One of the things that becomes so clear as we get older is that no two holidays are ever the same from year to year, and the romantic notions that we have were formed over a couple of years when we were kids. Learning to let go of those images and deal with the present without feeling compelled to recreate the past—something doomed to failure anyway; means that you can give up the guilt that you’re not making Victorian Christmas cards, a time-consuming Bouche de Noel, or posing Ralph Lauren ads (nothing wrong with those) and living in your own reality today. And if that means that the entire family is laughing at a street vendor making piles and piles of Insta-Snow, while trying, with limited success, to get his audience to buy, that’s a memory that will endure.

At this time of year, I always think of the verse to “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” It was written in 1944. The Second World War was raging, and life was in upheaval for many, and yet it spoke of hope, and most of all, the wish for joy amidst all the uncertainty. I think it’s a great way to approach the holiday: “Christmas future is far away./Christmas past is past./Christmas present is here today./Bringing joys that will last.”

That’s where our focus is best placed as we dive into the holiday seas.

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