Volume 92, Issue 54

Wednesday, December 9, 1998

and to all a goodnight


The true holiday spirit

Graphic by ©Brahm Wiseman

By Dara Kacarevic
Gazette Writer

When you hear parents or grandparents tell stories of past holidays, nostalgia sets in for a time when they seemed more sacred. There are a lot of complaints today that there is an uneven distribution of emphasis placed on giving and getting during the holiday season. Is this true? Has the "getting" aspect of the holidays started tipping the scale? Is the commercial aspect truly getting the best of us?

The fact that the festive season is an important time for retailers in a tough market is indisputable.

"Forty per cent of our sales, for the entire year, are in the Christmas season," says Angela Seney, customer service manager at Eatons in Westmount Mall. "We usually start talking about Christmas planning after Labour Day. We plan our inventory, our shops and our expenses based on any marketing information the company gives us. Expenses are immense at Christmas."

Along with preparation of the store, Seney says a lot of time and effort goes into creating a theme for the holiday – this year's theme of "Peace, Love and Joy" was completed last February. "[The theme] not as commercial as, maybe, our other themes have been like the 101 Dalmatians theme or the jester theme," she says.

The smaller retail stores seem to put in just as much effort to help instill the holiday spirit in their customers.

"We try to be in full swing by November," says Joel Aylon, retail manager of Pier 1 Imports for Ontario. "Meetings are held in late September, where we come up with a game plan for Christmas hiring. A very strong game plan is in place because it is one of the biggest times of the year."

Although Aylon says people are spending more money during the holiday season, he doesn't feel it is becoming more commercialized. "I've been working here since 1978 and it has always been a huge time of year," he says. "Other than increased store hours, I don't think much has changed."

Glenda Martin, office manager of North Park Community Church disagrees, saying there are definitely more inklings towards commercial aspects today. "There's more emphasis placed on the getting of gifts, than the gift that was given to us. We have become more self-centred during the holidays."

Martin does, however, find generosity increases during the holiday season. This year she was able to ship 500 packages to South America through a program for the needy, called Operation Shoebox. "We try, within the church, to emphasize to the children that Christmas is not about pleasing yourself," she says.

Mary Ann McDowell, food and services coordinator for the London Food Bank, also sees an increase in generosity at this time of year. "General donations are up from fall through December," she says. "I found that by talking to corporate people that they're grasping ways of making Christmas meaningful through their companies.

"They have a chance to get away from the getting, getting, getting and instead do something for someone who doesn't even know them."

This lesson is sinking in – not all holiday preparations done at Eatons and Pier 1 Imports are for the beautification of the stores. Both stores are involved in such organizations as United Nation's Children's Fund, the United Way and the food bank, just to name a few.

"The people that come in [to the food bank] try to be in high spirits – 95 per cent of them are extraordinarily grateful," McDowell says. "They're ready to give hug after hug. It makes you feel heartened. Occasionally we get, 'Don't you do any more for Christmas?' but these people are few and far between."

Lynn Seymour, supervisor of volunteer services for the Children's Aid Society, says she also sees increased generosity during the holiday season. However, due to the downsizing of many companies, corporate contributions have become somewhat smaller than in previous years.

Seymour points out the needy benefit throughout the whole year from theses donations. "People aren't only hungry at Christmas. We need to learn how to share the wealth over the year."

Even the children at the Children's Aid Society, who are in the most difficult of circumstances are excited during the holiday season, Seymour says. "Everyone has a wish list."

Seymour describes a particularly generous gesture last year by the Fireman's Association. "Group homes are often overlooked," Seymour says. "Last year the Fireman's Association donated items such as basketball nets, stereos and Nintendo for all the homes. The kids loved it. It was a really nice thing for them to have done."

Seymour has witnessed a number of families trying to help with the overflow of need. There are some families, she says, which have ceased exchanging gifts or have kept gift giving to a minimum, in order to adopt a family for the holiday season.

McDowell has also seen similar trends. "A lot of people will bring their kids to volunteer, just so they realize how lucky they are."

Both Seymour and McDowell say they have worked with a number of volunteers from Western over the years. "We realize that students don't usually have a lot of extra money," McDowell says. "But they can give their time. When I was a student, I didn't even know [the food bank] existed."

Students aren't necessarily the ones donating – sometimes they are the ones in need. "We take note that being a student can be one of the toughest times," McDowell continues. "We stay open on Saturdays from 10 a.m. to [noon] so that students can come. The big myth is that you need to be on social assistance to get help from the food bank, but this isn't true."

Students have noted and responded to what they feel is an increase in Christmas commercialization.

Diana Stucchi, fourth-year student in the social work program at King's College, says she sees a definite increase in this area of the holiday. "For example, Santa Claus is supposed to be about more than giving gifts. He's supposed to be somewhat of a teaching tool for small children, to illustrate generosity. But when Santa Claus is placed in a mall, a commercial atmosphere, it just reiterates gift giving and perpetuates the receiving of gifts," she says.

"Shop, shop, shop is what children now learn from him at a very young age."

Stucchi says she dislikes shopping during the holidays because of this change in attitude. "The malls are packed with people buying last minute gifts and the majority of these people are frustrated," she says. "Everyone's concerned with getting it done and over with. It's more a burden or a chore than it is about generosity or good will."

Stucchi says this is illustrated very well in the idea of a "secret Santa." "By setting a minimum and maximum monetary value on the gifts, emphasis is placed on costs and equality of spending," she says. "It should be about wanting to do something special for someone you care about or spending time with the people you care about, rather than buying a gift because it's within a certain guideline, or it's expected of you."

Perhaps the true spirit of the holidays lies not in the shopping malls but in the caring, giving and taking care of others who are less fortunate.

Graphic by Brahm Wiseman

To Contact The Focus Department: gazette.focus@julian.uwo.ca

Copyright © The Gazette 1998