Thursday, December 08, 2022

Commercialized Holidays

Recently I saw a Facebook post lamenting the materialistic nature of the Christmas season nowadays. The holidays focus too much on buying and receiving presents. Advertisers swamp us with messages encouraging greed. Oh, for the old-fashioned, gentle, family-centered Christmases of his youth. Well, this person appears to be around my age (mid-70s), and I remember childhood holiday preparations characterized by frenetic seasonal advertising and feverish anticipation of presents. (Of course, we were ad-bombed by less sophisticated technology, and the store displays probably went up slightly later in the year, but it was the same general kind of atmosphere.)

In A CHARLIE BROWN CHRISTMAS, first broadcast in 1965, Charlie famously asks what Christmas is all about, as he despairs over the commercialization of the holiday, with even Snoopy embracing the hype.

In 1957, C. S. Lewis published an essay called "What Christmas Means to Me" (a title I'm almost certain wasn't chosen by Lewis himself, but that's beside the point). He says three things "go by the name of Christmas": First, the Christian religious festival. Second, "a popular holiday, an occasion for merry-making and hospitality." The third is "the commercial racket." Read this short essay in full to note how little that cultural aspect has changed, aside from the technology, since Lewis complained of it in the 1950s:

What Christmas Means to Me

A CHRISTMAS STORY (the BB gun movie), based on episodes in Jean Shepherd's fictionalized memoir IN GOD WE TRUST: ALL OTHERS PAY CASH, takes place in 1940; the real-life incidents underlying it probably occurred in the 1930s. The film shows a department-store Santa in an extravagantly decorated setting, with an assembly line of children waiting to declare their wishes.

According to Stephen Nissenbaum's THE BATTLE FOR CHRISTMAS, an analysis of the shift from the REAL old-fashioned Christmas of drinking, carousing, and house-to-house begging (wassailing) to the domestic, child-centered holiday we think of as a "traditional Christmas," concerns about commercialization sprang up concurrently with the cultural shift. Even before the mid-nineteenth century, merchants aggressively advertised their wares as perfect for seasonal gifting, while troubled moralists warned of Christmas becoming "laden with crass materialism" and producing a "generation of greedy, spoiled children."

In short, every era's nostalgic imagination relegates the traditional, unspoiled Christmas of bygone years to their parents' or grandparents' day, or maybe the generation before that. More accurately, that ideal holiday never existed in the first place.

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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