All I Want for Christmas is a New Car with a Big Red Bow

‘Tis the season of consumerist delights and gratifications. Chicago native Mel Tormé correctly 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. Numerous car companies showcase commercials where a spouse gifts a partner with brand-new wheels. Surprise! Ah, the new American Dream marriage: being able to make a $50,000-plus decision without having to consult your partner.

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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. The depiction of American Christmas as an import of the St. Nick tradition from Europe is a convenient myth, no more than religious veneer on the American holiday season. More historically accurate is the understanding that today’s American Christmas derives from 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 new and reliable car to get from Point A to Point B in style. The car commercials of this season, however, instill an alternative reality: possession supersedes function. Notice that hardly any of these commercials actually shows 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 – like today, 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.

St. Nick, tradition tells us, brought gifts and justice to needy children in the fourth century. We’ve strayed far from his example.

Is status determined by wealth and possessions or by service, commitment, and character? What we teach our children today – by propaganda, creed, and example – will determine the progression or regression of America society.

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This blog post and others on this website are representative of my views and writing in Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good, distributed nationally by ACTA Publications, and available at Amazon or any other bookselling venue.

My second book, There is a Balm in Huntsville: A True Story of Tragedy and Restoration from the Heart of the Texas Prison System (Walnut Street Books) will be released on April 1, 2019.

Lifestyle or Materialism Pornography, Part 1

You’re not satisfied with your body, are you? How about your living room? Or your phone? Or your smile?

These things can be fixed or replaced new. That’s the message, at least, transmitted to our very souls as colorful, seductive images flood our retinas via TV shows and advertisements, movies, and other avenues of visual communication. And remember, in this day and age, none of these images are touched up to look as pristine and enticing as possible. Ahem.

I live in Austin, Texas and one of the most representative billboards we’ve seen locally in this category is sponsored by a cosmetic surgery firm. It depicts the bikini clad back-side of a tall and shapely female model, probably all of twenty-nine years of age, torso slightly bent forward and leaning on a balcony rail, looking out toward a vast horizon. This image is simply accompanied by the name of the plastic surgery firm (withheld!). Did she have some work done to achieve the assumed bodily perfection projected by the image? Or, do you – who once upon a time blew out twenty-nine candles on a birthday cake – need to get some work done, so you can look a bit more like her?

I understand the need for reconstructive cosmetic surgery for accident victims, cancer patients, and people born with conditions such as cleft lip and palate. Thank God for cosmetic surgery in these cases which restores functionality, dignity, and confidence. But much of elective cosmetic surgery in the United States is an extension of what sociologist Thorstein Velben identified as a new type of consumerism during the Gilded Age in 1899: conspicuous consumption, carried out with the purpose of increasing one’s status and prestige. Oh yes, this type of consumption is also intended to increase one’s overall well-being. And as many of us know by personal experience, the rush of enhanced well-being from a significant purchase lasts about two weeks.

A big difference between Veblen’s day and our day: now our bodies, or parts of them, are things that can be subjected to consumer wants and desires. Your teeth might be relatively straight, completely functional, and cavity free. But, upon closer examination and comparison to pictures of other people’s teeth, they just don’t look good. The solution? Drop anywhere from $2,000 – $40,000 for a better smile. Two dentists (who used to be partners) alternate with regularity their advertisements on the back page of the first section of the Austin-American Statesman. I’m told that ad space goes for about $3,500/day. “Transforming lives, one smile at a time” – business must be booming to cover the cost of the ads. The before and after pics showcased in these ads, especially of older patients with bad looking teeth, demonstrate significant changes. Bravo. The numerous before and after pics of younger adults, only a few having bad looking teeth – do not demonstrate significant changes.

There are folks who are in dire need of reconstructive dentistry work. Again, we’re thankful for good dentists who do good work. And certainly the two dentists I’ve referred to have done plenty of good work alleviating patients of tooth-related pain and restoring necessary functionality. Yet, they do other work – and this is the work advertised – that appeals to conspicuous consumers. From one of the ads: “Walking into (name withheld!) of Austin is like walking into a luxury home” (image of luxurious office provided in the ad, of course). It’s not all that different from plastic surgeons who specialize in today’s most common cosmetic plastic surgery in the US, the boob job. The premise is lucrative: what you have and what you got are not good enough.

Dentists, plastic surgeons, and their patients are free to do as they wish in the realm of commercial exchange. No worries: I’m not advocating a shutdown of their business practices. As if . . .

The examples that I write about here are representative of a society that has its priorities out of whack. Kids raised in this society adopt these priorities, and learn its truth: What you have and what you got are not good enough. Part of this philosophy is good, but when it goes too far, there’s trouble.

Some of us can remember, decades ago, as teenagers, seeing a souped up ’67 Chevelle SS. Va-room, va-room. You said to your dad: “I want to get a Chevelle.” He answered: “Good for you – get a job!” And you did get a job and, back in that day, you could work and save toward reaching your goal. It was a great lesson – and a great car! Times change, however. The earnings of a part-time job today won’t get a seventeen year-old anywhere near a nice, used Mustang. But he, or she, is continually bombarded with visual images that communicate the prominence of conspicuous consumption.

The generic definition of pornography: a graphic image intended to stimulate immediate emotional or erotic response. I want that. I need that! Now!! The images of lifestyle or materialism pornography are all around us, beckoning our involvement in and commitment to conspicuous consumption.

Maybe someday I’ll buy some ad space in the Statesman or pay for a billboard, with the image backdrop of cool blue sky, that says: “Be at peace – You are fine simply the way you are.”

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This blog and website are representative of the views expressed in my book Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good. JaLBM, distributed by ACTA Publications (Chicago), is available on Amazon as a paperback and an ebook. It’s also available on Nook and iBooks/iTunes, and at the website of Blue Ocotillo Publishing.

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. Readers of both books can join together for study, conversation, and subsequent action in support of the common good.