‘Tis the season of consumerist delights and gratifications. Chicago native Mel Tormé crooned that “Christmas was made for children,” but the current age of excess and inequality encourages well-to-do adults to wish true their materialistic dreams. Lexus and Mercedes have new commercials that show adults taking the traditional place of children as the recipients of seasonal goodies. Whereas the Mercedes commercial effectively uses farce to get its message across, the series of Lexus commercials (four in all) is over-the-edge cynical in its depiction of ambitious adults who successfully manipulate children and the patron saint of all things materialistic, good ol’ Santa, in the pursuit of perfect holiday plunder.
American-style holiday gift giving – focused on children – has been around about 150 years, necessarily coinciding with standard of living advances achieved during the Second Industrial Revolution. American Christmas as an import of the St. Nick tradition from Europe is a convenient myth that helps keep a religious veneer on the American holiday season. More historically accurate, however, is the explanation of today’s American Christmas as the modern manifestation of the ancient rhythms of rest and indulgence connected to Northern Hemisphere winter solstice.
The practice of misrule – common in Europe and early America – was a moment of social inversion centered around the solstice (December 21st) and its accompanying spoils of gathered harvest, freshly slaughtered meat, and fermented drink. Misrule gave social permission – during a few days in December and January – for the poor to enter the homes of the well-to-do demanding to be served with food, drink, and money as if the peasants themselves were the well-to-do. Misrule consisted of rowdy public displays of excessive eating and drinking, the mocking of established authority, and demands made upon the rich by the working class. Now bring us some figgy pudding . . . We won’t go until we get some – and bring it right here! The Puritans of New England – yes, it’s true – banned the celebration of Christmas in the mid-1600s not because they had issues with the legendary December birth of Jesus, but because misrule had a tendency to get out of hand. So bring it right here!
Misrule, a social bargain whereby peasants agreed to give their goodwill and deference to the wealthy and powerful for the remainder of the year, became domesticated in mid-19th century America: peasant and working-class folks were pushed aside as children became the season’s focus of charity and display of social inversion. Christmas celebrations would newly consist of private family gatherings inside homes; roving bands of young men pounding on doors and demanding the spoils of misrule eventually disappeared. Gift giving – ah, the memory of good St. Nick – was rerouted and the church was most pleased to be part of a toned-down, family affair focused on another child, the babe of Mary. Not all churches in mid-19th century America held Christmas services, but soon enough, the tide turned and the modern Christmas holiday emerged – the often contradictory mix-match of the baby Jesus, consumerist greed, lights, excessive consumption, hymns and songs, a silent night, and an awfully noisy morning with gifts for the children (and some adults). Historian Stephen Nissenbaum astutely observes that “Christmas has always been an extremely difficult holiday to Christianize.” Absolutely correct – now more than ever!
There’s nothing wrong with owning a Lexus or Mercedes – they’re good cars to get from Point A to Point B in style. The same goes for Cadillac. The above commercials (follow this link for my take on a similar Caddy commercial), however, instill an alternative reality: possession supersedes function. Notice that none of the six commercials I’ve tagged actually showcases the promoted car in action, driven by the owner. What’s marketed and sold is not function but wished-for superlative status. During the Gilded Age – another age of excess and inequality – economist Thorstein Veblen coined the term conspicuous consumption to describe spending by the richest Americans to build up their prestige and image. Veblen criticized conspicuous consumption as characteristic of a regressive society, similar to the stratified European aristocracies that many American immigrants had left behind.
When we teach our children – by propaganda, creed, and example – that wealth and possessions determine status more so than service, commitment, and character we only perpetuate the regression of American society.
Santa, the quintessential icon and patron saint for a highly consumerist society, reveals much about our societal character and identity. The gift giving tradition of St. Nick sought out needy children. Today’s American Santa does it all – taking care of children and even affluent adults. When possessions for this latter group serve the primary purpose not of utility, but of self-aggrandizement, there’s an attached danger the adult Jesus warned of numerous times and in various ways . . .
On second thought – blog post title be damned – I think I’ll keep tooling around in my ’07 Accord for the foreseeable future. Merry Christmas!
If you’re a member of a faith community – Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, or other – consider a book study series of Just a Little Bit More. The full-length book (257 pgs.) is intended for engaged readers, whereas the Summary Version and Study Guide (52 pgs.) is intended for readers desiring a quick overview of the work. It also contains discussion questions at the end of all eight chapter summaries.
Readers of both books can join together for study, conversation, and subsequent action in support of the common good.
The Spanish version of the Summary Version and Study Guide is now available. ¡Que bueno!
¡El librito de JaLBM – llamado Solo un Poco Más –está disponible en Amazon y el sitio web www.blueocotillo.com!