Oprah's Listing Leads Us Further Into Holiday Materialism

While some stores began blasting out Feliz Navidad the very second they took the Halloween decorations off the shelf, for many the trigger was pulled signaling the race to the holiday season this week when Oprah Winfrey released her list of Favorite Things for 2015. As one of the nation's key tastemakers, Oprah's annual litany of materialism simultaneously provides an insight into Oprah's world, and offers 87 chances for us to purchase a piece of it. But why is this a list of things?

The list makes for fascinating, often hilarious, reading and each item is accompanied by a personal commentary by Ms. Winfrey. These commentaries transform the list from a litany of products to a list of experiences and foods that Oprah has tried personally, decided not only that we would like them but that they would change our lives, and she is now sharing them benevolently with us all. Her favorite things are our favorite things. She is nice like that. Some of the commentaries give us an insight into Oprah's life: "My neighbor across the fence in Santa Barbara invites me over for pasta" (presumably after she has finished hanging out her laundry), to "Stedman can't get enough" (of her meaty crab cakes). Others demonstrate her multi-cultural friendship group: "Adam Glassman is always kvetching about the lack of cute Hanukkah treats" (I like to think he mentioned it the other day at Shabbat), and some are worrying: "They're dangerous" (ok, this was in reference to the potential addictive powers of black truffle chips, but I was still alarmed). But they all serve the same purpose. She has experienced these. And if we want even a tiny slice of her life, then we should experience them too. We should buy them.

In terms of content, the list is a satisfying mix of the practical and the bizarre. At the more practical end of the list are household items, including kitchen scales, cheese knives and chopping boards, small electronics and high-end luggage. Reflecting Oprah's predominantly female fan base, items of clothing are focused towards women, with cashmere sweaters and some suspiciously comfortable looking sweatpants (I can wear those, right?). Jewelry, books and gift sets of body creams and lotions are other popular items. It is the holidays after all, and everyone needs a bit of pampering; especially if you have spent the year leaning over a fence and being terrified by truffle chips. But then there are the strange items. The items that I am not sure I want. A faux fur coat for your dog? Fake deer antlers for your dog? (What exactly did your dog do to you this year, Oprah?). Plates decorated with pictures of birds in hats. And a set of "Animal Shot Glasses" (I guess the dog needs a drink if he is going out in that coat).

Food appears frequently on this list: in the few days since the list came out word has already spread of the $500 chocolate turtle basket containing fifteen pounds of chocolate truffles. But other food items include; the best cherry pie Oprah has ever tasted, challah bread in the shape of a menorah (Oprah is fully inclusive, remember Adam Glassman?), an Elvis cake, a set of barbeque sauces, a Xocolatti tower (don't ask, I have no idea), a box set of six artisan cheeses, and a box of 12 savory Bruffins (again, no idea). And don't forget the $120 box of chocolates in the shape of famous icons covered in 23k gold leaf, and the $135 crab cakes. But you get eight of these, so it's totally worth it. And Stedman will eat at last six. Still hungry? Then you can always finish this off with a bite of the 11-Pound Wheel and Trio of Panforte Marabissi Mix with Fig and Walnut Chocolate (a bargain at $340) and for those with a sweet tooth you can drizzle over some ginger infused honey ($30).

But in terms of cost, the list runs from the sublime to the ridiculous, skips swiftly around ridiculous and stretches all the way out to the ludicrous. Not everything on the list is outrageously priced. The least expensive is an $8 Barbie Fashionista doll, and to be fair, there are a number of high quality gifts in the $50-$100 range. But reading through the list, it is impossible not find yourself constantly asking, "Who would pay that?" The sweatpants whose comfort I am so coveting come in at $155, and then there is the $475 set of three cheese knives, and the $800 iPhone. The list contains many high-end versions of everyday items; a $70 cherry pie, $135 crab cakes, and a $155 box of flowers. I know, I know. It's the holidays, and there is nothing wrong with splashing out if you can afford it. But this brings me to my first issue with Oprah's list of favorite things; the cost.

Oprah has teamed up with Amazon to make shopping for her favorites things even easier. So I did a quick experiment. I put the entire list in my cart to see what it would cost to buy them all. For clothes I chose a size that I figured I could squeeze into if I really tried. For the items not listed on Amazon, I took the prices as listed on Oprah's website. The total cost of purchasing all $87 items? $12,700.52. That is an average of $146 per item. And that includes free shipping and all Amazon discounts.

To be fair, Oprah is not telling us to buy the entire list. I very nervously had to delete items from my basket before I accidently checked out and had to explain to my partner why I am wearing a pair of very comfortable lady's sweatpants around the house. But Oprah is more than a media icon. She is a lifestyle. An aspirational brand. When she says these are her favorite things, the nation listens and wants them to be their favorite things too. And with that comes responsibility. $135 crab cakes are not within reach of the average American household. Rather than encouraging over-spending or making people feel bad that they can't be like their icon, surely there are less expensive crab cakes out there?

My second issue is simple; this is a list of things. Oprah has effectively kicked off the holiday season with a list of material goods for us to buy. Don't get me wrong, I buy Christmas gifts and love receiving them. But what would happen if Oprah released her list of "Favorite Holiday Experiences"? Imagine a list that included activities or experiences you could share. Personally I would include Cake Wars: a small gathering to which all guests bring a cake they have made, and everyone gets to try all the cakes to decide which one is the winner. And I bet it would be cheaper than those crab cakes (I just can't let that go). Pajama wearing movie nights, scavenger hunts, making decorations, or staging your pets in hilarious holiday scenes and photographing them to use as holiday cards. Activities for families, couples, single people, children only - the possibilities are endless.

I'm not telling Oprah to stop listing her favorite things. I am not telling Ms. Winfrey to do anything; I am a little afraid of her. And the list does contain some great items (I look amazing in those sweatpants). I am just saying mix it up a little. If Oprah told us to bake a pie with our grandma we would listen. So why not use that power to shift the gaze of myopic materialism that dominates the holiday season to encourage shared experiences? A fifteen pound basket of truffles sounds great. But a list of Oprah's Favorite Experiences for 2016 sounds even more delicious.