Buying the Holidays

It’s time to buy presents again, but not everyone is on board

HELEN CHEN (SHE/HER) // CONTRIBUTOR

Any student who grew up in the West associates holidays with money — it’s a time to be with loved ones, find comfort in old traditions, and enjoy some well-deserved time off. But what about international students? 

The Role of Consumerism in the West

In Western culture, people are born into a world of consumerism. They grow up to know that the holiday season is synonymous with gifts, presents and the pressure to buy. This can be an overwhelming experience for someone who has grown up in a society that celebrates holidays differently.

For the approximately 2500 International students who come to Capilano University each year, there’s often a mental readjustment needed to adapt to new holiday cultural norms, which can bring on a mixture of emotions. Some students may find Western celebrations to be too commercialized, sanitized, or that there is a newfound pressure to give gifts that they never had to go through previously —– which, on a student budget, can be a hard pill to swallow. For others, major holidays like Christmas or Halloween aren’t celebrated at all, and they may find the act of purchasing new things to keep up the aesthetic to be insignificant, or even alienating.

In the Instagram era, more apparent than ever is the expectation that Western holidays be celebrated through a pre-packaged aesthetic. For students from cultural backgrounds whose holidays center around rituals, tradition and an emphasis on the family, it can be difficult to keep up with the Joneses without consumerism eating away at the sanctity of the occasion. 

Christmas Around the World

Christmas is one of the most widely celebrated holidays in the world, and a good example of how the cultural shock of the Western Christmas impacts international students. 

In many Eastern cultures, Christmas is a more muted, non-religious family affair — a well-deserved break distant from the pompous Western traditions of carolling, drinking and fireworks. In Japan, Santa Claus, which is commonly associated in the West with gift giving with a moral compass to boot, simply does not exist as a symbol. Instead, schools and other institutions are decorated with rabbits and other animals from Japanese folklore.

For many Southeast Asian or Middle Eastern cultures, Christmas still holds a religious significance — but there is no cultural meaning behind it. In these countries, many Christians continue to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, while for Muslim children, it’s just another day off from school before they start studying again on Dec. 26. With all this in mind, moving to a place where the religious aspect of many holidays has been assimilated into the consumerist culture — or eliminated altogether — can be extremely jarring. 

Over four-fifths of Canadians reported that they shopped online in 2020, and the trend is forecasted to become permanently cemented with the rise of COVID. The cultural divide in holiday traditions is set to become increasingly apparent, especially as international students who have spent almost half of their degree online finally touch down in Vancouver for the first time. 

Therefore, It’s important to consider our own role in the spread of holiday consumerism, what we consume, and how we can balance this with a mindset of discovering the aspects of our traditions that are about more than just shopping and self-curation for social media. 

It’s time we stop buying our holiday experiences, and instead, start living in them.

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