Taking the Guilt Out of Christmas

Monday, December 25th, 2017

Published 4 months ago -

By Elaine Kendall

25 December 2017

The first slight waves of holiday guilt begin before Halloween, usually causing only a passing frisson or two of regret. The early ripples are the lavish mega-catalogues; beginning with those from places where you may have bought something years ago when they still had a brick and mortar store. The catalogues arrive optimistically in your mailbox, supporting the struggling United States Postal Service but ignoring the fact that most people have been communicating electronically for two decades. The rewards for shopping online are doubly irresistible. The shopper needn’t search for a parking space during the holiday season; can forget nagging worries that the car trunk isn’t locked, and for the once-popular shop itself, the greatest allure of all: no rent. You can be happy for the surviving stores.

The second wave tends to be large enough to challenge an experienced catalogue surfer, and it will come from a store where you have never bought anything whatever. The third wave is the one with the dangerous rip tide, addressed not only to you but to the current resident. That means the store has joined a consortium, and is Emailing a million potential unknown customers.  By then, you needn’t feel guilty because the sender has obviously assumed you no longer exist.  Give those catalogues to a neighborhood kindergarten.  Children in after-school programs can make Christmas collages from the huge assortment of pictures.  That’s sensible.

It’s the non-profits that create the most anxiety. Finally conscious that people who have abandoned the post office have very little use for another generous batch of return address labels, worthy causes are now sending tote bags, note pads, calendars, and greeting cards with their pleas; little gifts too useful to throw away but too quaint to be desired.

The floppy tote bags spill groceries to the unreachable end of car trunks; note pads have been obsolete since cell phones outsmarted them, and mailed greeting cards were an early 20th century custom, back when USPS stamps cost 3 cents. Within the year, supermarkets will be replaced by drones that drop your purchases on the doorstep. No tote bags will be necessary. By June 2018, note pads and calendars will have joined address labels in tech purgatory.  Consider yourself not guilty, merely accepting a global trend.

All sorts of greeting cards have been available online for at least a decade, and can be Emailed to a hundred people without writing a single address or buying a not-quite-forever stamp. Unlike holiday cards that needed to be selected, bought, signed and mailed, the electronic replacements sing, dance, do tricks and play music. Some even encourage family photos.  Maybe you can’t put them on the mantelpiece, but who’s done that since animated cards were invented? A truly merry Christmas doesn’t need to include standing in line at the post office.  Not only that, but you can protest Trump’s absurd ban on Seasons Greetings by choosing an E card offering either that or generic Holiday Cheer, an entirely unselfish reason to use them.

The major side effect of this otherwise welcome technology has put the non-profits in a serious bind. If their donors no longer appreciate the gifts they’ve been sent, what are charities doing to remind people that it’s time for another donation? Because plain accounts of desperate need don’t work as well as they once did, not even with quintuple matched promises, many organizations have succumbed to sending donors actual money; nickels, dimes, and quarters.

Even the venerable March of Dimes has adopted that dubious strategy. How many dimes do they send?  If they have a mailing list of 100,000 and everyone gets ten cents at both Christmas and Easter, they’re spending $20,000 of their own dollars, an obviously chancy investment. The March of Dimes is endorsed by General Electric, United Airlines, FedEx and an assortment of other industrial giants unlikely to be impressed by a dime. There’s even an upstart charity that sends two-dollar checks made out with the recipient’s name. You can’t give that check to the person with a homeless sign at the highway exit, and actually cashing it could cause a tsunami of guilt. Real guilt.

Organizations depending on guilt to goad their donors ought to find a note of objection in their return envelopes.  If the recipients resent feeling like panhandlers when they open the mail, they could send a donation, just misspelling their names.

A more intense response might include a return address with two capital letters that don’t belong to a state.  Guilt-tainted nickels, dimes and quarters seem mysteriously anti-American. Just thinking about using them is unnerving. Putting them in a wallet is humiliating.  A better place for guilt-Inducing currency is inside a collection of items earmarked for Goodwill. (Those things are often kept in the garage, patiently waiting for attention) If you put the small change in one of the collapsing tote bags that came with a plea, someone will have the small surprise of three items instead of one, and you’ll be guilt-free until next Halloween. Almost.



A journalist and playwright, Elaine’s books of American cultural history were published by Little, Brown, Putnam and Capra; her plays by Samuel French, Smith & Kraus and Art Age. Musical plays are An American Cantata; The Would-be Diva; Isadora! and COLE and WILL: Together Again! Non-musical dramas are The Chameleon; Two Margarets; The Trial of Mata Hari and The Nominee. The “I” Word; Gun Show Follies and Secrets of the Showroom are short comedies. She has written for many national magazines; The New York Times and the LA Times. Current articles appear monthly in the aptly-named online journal The Satirist.

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