“It drew us out of our private bubbles and compelled us to confront the reality that a pristine, smiling photo on Facebook doesn’t convey.” Janine Rudder
Over the past 10 years, I’ve become increasingly disillusioned with Christmas. The suffocating consumerism, frenzied pace, and pressure to overspend began defining the holiday season for me. Immediately following Thanksgiving, my favorite holiday, the coupons would flood my inbox, and multiple renditions of the same 5 Christmas songs become life’s soundtrack. I find none of it uplifting. To me it is all a distraction from what really matters.
While talking to my father sometime in the spring of 2018, I shared an idea that I’d been examining internally for the previous few months – what if we made Christmas really, really meaningful for one person in the family every year, while at the same time, reducing stress, hassle, and expenses for everyone else? He was intrigued and wanted to hear more. I proposed a holiday sou-sou.
Essence magazine defines a sou sou as an informal rotating savings club, where a group of people get together and contribute an equal amount of money into a fund weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly (in our case, we did it annually). The total pool (also known as a “hand”) is paid to a member of the club each time the group contributes. The hand rotates until all members have received their share.
The roots of the sou sou are west African. Sou Sou is derived from the Yoruba term “esesu.” The sou sou traveled west to the Americas from Africa through the slave trade and remains a popular practice among many Caribbean and African cultures today.
As the child of Trinidadian immigrants, I grew up with the sou sou as a regular part of life’s landscape. Although I had never formally participated in one, I knew how the mechanics worked; and that it is a powerful tool for building savings and community.
My father was interested, and sought my aunt’s opinion. Once she was on board, we spoke to a few cousins. At a family gathering for my grandmother’s birthday in the fall of 2018, we all agreed that instead of gifts that year, we would “throw a sou sou.” We also decided that the person in most need at the time we contribute would get the hand.
We are two years into the sou sou and the experience has been pretty transformative both for the recipients of the funds and the givers. Below I outline the three biggest impacts the sou sou has had on my family dynamic and how I perceive the holidays.
1. Financial Benefit
The decision to distribute the hand based on need in real time was a pivotal one. Receiving a lump sum of money at a critical time helped family members navigate potentially traumatic experiences with dignity. For example, the first two hands went to people enduring serious health conditions, which required some time out of work. Instead of falling behind on bills, or worse, resorting to a predatory lender, the recipients of the hand were able to purchase necessities without having to pay interest.
Unforeseen circumstances are a part of life. Unfortunately, some companies make their livelihood by betting against peoples’ ability to support themselves through those times by charging exorbitant amounts of interest for small loans. The sou sou provided enough of a financial buffer to evade high interest loans or late payments, which are central to good credit, helping to preserve financial health.
2. Increased Family Connection
Introducing the sou sou as a new Christmas tradition brought the family together in unexpected ways. For one, we now have a family group text that we use throughout the year to update our loved ones of momentous occasions. However, the most significant shift has been the heightened level of vulnerability. In order to know who is most in need, people must divulge sensitive circumstances in their lives. It drew us out of our private bubbles and compelled us to confront the reality that a pristine, smiling photo on Facebook doesn’t convey. We had a deeper understanding of each other’s truth in that moment; and were able to offer each other more grace and compassion as a result.
3. Expanded Horizons
Typically our Christmas gifts fit into one of the following categories - clothing, toys, or small electronic devices. If that list didn’t give it away, children are the primary Christmas gift recipients. Because most people spend between $25 and $75 dollars per child, each would walk away with a few outfits, some books, a couple pairs of shoes and a few toys on average. This is totally reasonable and has been the case since I was a small child.
Imagine what’s possible now that someone has access to a couple thousand dollars more than normal - an international family vacation, state of the art laptop, investments, college savings, a car. Those funds can significantly change the way someone is experiencing their life in that moment. It may even change the trajectory of their lives altogether. That’s what the Christmas sou sou did for my family. It expanded the confines of what’s possible.
Janine Rudder is a coach and Co-Owner at Manifestara LLC - https://manifestara.com/