‘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.
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.
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.