Saturday, November 24, 2007

'Tis the Season to be Spendy

Now that Thanksgiving is over, and Black Friday led retailers into the black by 8% over last year, the real shopping season has begun. Being Jewish, I watch from the sidelines as the national rush to find by December 25th the perfect gift for sisters who live across the country and grandmothers who have everything commences. And I am both amused...and appalled.

In my Thanksgiving newspaper, fattened even more than the two turkeys I served by advertising supplements, appeared a full-color booklet from Bed Bath and Beyond. This is the store that eschews commas in its name and offers
practical items like towels and bed linens and curtain rods. But not for Christmas. This is definitely the season for "beyond."

For just $39.99 you can purchase a Marble Coaster Kit that allows you to "customize coasters with your own photos." You get four white ceramic tiles, a liquid and a foam brush (worth, oh, 2 cents). You cut your photo to fit the tile, brush on the liquid (glue, I'd bet) and...VOILA! You've paid $40 for four tiles with your photos glued on them! Something everybody needs.

Just below it I see the "Golf Bag Bar Set," just $29.99. Looks like a metal golf bag. Inside sits a metal shaker, the knob on which has little circle indents like a golf ball. The corkscrew has a metal flag on it--like the hole! Four little metal stirrers are shaped like clubs, and you even get four Olive Picks shaped like tees! An amazing must-have 11-piece set for all the inebriated golfers on your list!

On the same page is the $29.99 Globe Dispenser. This is a clear glass world globe set at an angle in a silver metal globe stand. Where Antarctica should be is a spigot for dispensing your favorite beverage. Useful for those holiday
parties: "Hey Mable, time to refill the globe! The punch is down to Australia!" It appears you need a funnel, however, to infuse your world with imbibables.

Have you noticed your cupboard getting cluttered with single-function kitchen appliances? Why not add to the pile your very own "As Seen on TV" Vacu Seal? For just $29.99, those who don't trust ziplocks or sliders can crimp closed plastic bags of leftovers. Of course, like a computer printer, the money's in the consumables--replacements are $4.99 for five one-gallon bags. Somebody's got to pay for all those infomercials.

Marketed for the little princess on your list who collects Pez dispensers, there's the Pez Princess Collector's 8-piece set for $19.99, eight candy holders with all the Disney princesses from Snow White to Ariel, complete with candy. But you know this "limited edition" is really for savvy ebay vendors, and that none of these boxes is destined to be opened, ever.

The exercise nut can receive "Leg Magic," a pogo-stick with a wide stance that "tightens and tones with a simple gliding motion" for just $129.99. Do you think Bed Bath and Beyond shows a flabby person on it?

Here's something if you're really stumped: The "exclusive" Wooden Tea Box. One hundred forty-four assorted tea bags in a black lacquer box with a clear top. Fifty dollars.

More: a blow-up bath pillow for $20, a bamboo tray that fits across the bathtub to hold your novel and a stemmed wine glass (!) for $40, pieces of reed you stick in a bottle of perfume, $20, a foot massager for $40, and the 20Q hand-held game that "tries to guess what you are thinking," $20. If it actually works, it's worth a lot more.

Perhaps my favorite, however, is in the true spirit of the first "As seen on TV" sensation, which was of course, Popeil's Pocket Fisherman (below). That was a telescoping fishing pole that compacted to the size of a ruler, the first direct market product, and a huge smash. Now we have the "Coleman Fishpen" which
has taken Popeil down a notch--in fact, several, to the size of a PEN. You have to carry the reel with line, three hooks, bobber, 3 line weights and practice casting weight that come in the kit separately, I'm sure. They couldn't possibly all fit in that pen. Just $19.99.

What do I make of all this? It's true that Americans have far more than we need. Who remembers when Christmas gifts were sox and underwear, because it was a treat to have new ones? Who remembers when a birthday gift was a new pair of shoes? We are so blessed to live here, where abundance can be taken for granted.

I also feel for those who have to come up with clever gifts for many people. Uncle Jack likes golf, so why NOT get him the olive spears shaped like tees? A dad wishes he had time to fish with his son...and so buys two Fishpens with the message that even if they never actually whip them out of their pockets at some river, he loves his son enough to. It's tough coming up with something material to express something spiritual, such as "I'm grateful for your business," or "I appreciate our friendship," or even "You're my sister and I acknowledge that link between us."

All these frou-frous are just symbols, but perhaps important ones. Because through this materialism we do communicate our connections. We even had an example of this in the Torah portion this week as Jacob sent his brother Eisav flocks of animals, each separated by herders and some space. He was trying to convey that despite stealing Eisav's blessing from their father, he recognized that his older brother deserved honor and respect, shown by his elaborate gift. It's also a Jewish principle to give gifts to those you dislike, in order to improve your feelings toward them. There is no greater gift than parenthood, and no love like that of a parent for his child.

So in a sense, the more gifts given, the more harmony is created. Perhaps it doesn't matter if you give a globe beverage dispenser or a food-bag sealer--the giving ingratiates your recipient to you, and that makes life for all of us more rewarding. That might be why this month of shopping and wrapping feels so festive. Maybe my disdain for lavish spending on what I consider to be junk items is misplaced, and instead, in this season of generosity, I should join the happy retailers--and their customers--in celebration.


  1. Interesting post. America has definitely taken consumerism too far, yet you're right about gifts as relationship-builders. Another example is mishloach manot, meant to promote good fellowship. about sending gifts to beloved college students far far away?

  2. I dunno about the gifts, necessarily, when it comes to friends. For special occasions, maybe - but in general? As you noted, gifts are meant to create harmony. So does giving a gift imply a lack of harmony? Well, no, not necessarily, but it can still be unnecessary. (Though I'm sure you'll always take chocolate. :P )

  3. SJ, yes, gifts can be sent to beloved college students far, far away though the best one is an airline ticket to come home...
    Ezzie, unnecessary, perhaps, but sometimes the desire to show one's spiritual caring by bringing it into the physical world is just overwhelming. Gifts create harmony but they also reiterate and strengthen it.
    And chocolate is a health food.

  4. I know. As I said to another friend last night, it's easier to argue your side than mine...

  5. Hello, Northern Light! It was loads of fun to watch this post wend its way from the ridiculous to the sublime. And thank you, btw, for the many gifts, both useful and utterly, delightfully useless, that you have given us over the years. I'll be so bold as to believe, gulp, that it's not because you DISlike us.... :)