How Did It All Get To Be Such A Morass?
By Gregory McNamee
Consumer Rites: The Buying and Selling of American Holidays, by Leigh Eric Schmidt (Princeton University Press). Paper, $16.95.
THANKSGIVING PUTS A smile on the face of cranberry farmers, poultry farmers, sweet-potato farmers, and bookies. St. Valentine's Day gives the suits at Hallmark a warm fuzzy feeling. Come Mother's Day, florists are the happiest people in town, having jacked up their prices by orders of magnitude that would bring a federal suit down on any other industry. Easter is a holiday beloved of devout Christians--but also of chocolatiers and confectioners and egg farmers, to say nothing of the evil trolls who manufacture the cellophane grass that lines environmentally unfriendly baskets.
But Christmas is the time when capitalism doesn't pretend to wear clothes, when alienation blossoms, when America and much of the rest of the world succumbs to a frenzied potlatch of one-upmanship, debt and disappointment.
Ours is a revisionist age, and Leigh Schmidt, a professor of religious studies at Princeton, contributes to the spirit of the time by dissecting the course by which religious piety becomes just another marketplace trope. The very title of his book Consumer Rites gives his thesis away: The history of our holidays is one in which popular festivals have become ritualized, contained by capitalism, made into parodies of themselves. The process of religious or family piety made into cash-register song has come to affect nearly everyone in the global market. The children of Buddhists clamor for Christmas presents; in Mexico and France, to the horror of purists, Halloween is rapidly displacing All Souls' Day.
It's no good resisting the trend, Schmidt writes, for history is against you. "The dynamic discourse of consumption has all along displayed a striking capacity to absorb the counterdiscourses of anticonsumerism, simplicity, and preservation," he remarks. Translated from the academic, this means that, try as you will, the fires of holiday hell lick at the heels of even those who are pure of heart.
Schmidt holds that the origins of the secularized, cash-driven holidays are to be found in the early 19th-century American East, where a boom of industrialism and prosperity coincided with an influx of German immigrants who celebrated Christmas, rather than the New Year of the English. (Bob Cratchit wasn't singled out to work late into the evening on December 24; most other Londoners did the same.) Upholders of English tradition grumped that the transfer of the holidays to a date a week earlier would slow industrial productivity, inasmuch as workers used to New Year's festivities would celebrate them as well as Christmas, the lazy scalawags. The same opponents also complained that legislators would take the occasion to sneak a few extra days away from governing the country.
But Christmas prevailed, and with the new holiday came new trappings. In 1846 a Philadelphia merchant named William Maurice borrowed another German custom to install a "representation of old Kriss Kringle" in his emporium, the first department-store Santa known to history. Other merchants in other cities followed suit, offering their own versions of the magical peddler. It would take four more decades before they would settle on the standardized Santa that we know today, whose image owes largely to the holiday cover paintings Thomas Nast drew for Harper's Weekly each year between 1863 and 1886, all rosy cheeks and bulbous nose.
It would take only a little longer for Santa Claus to displace Christ as the leading symbol of the holiday that, after all, was meant to commemorate Christ's birth. That displacement offended some, and the growing commodification of the holiday would provide a subject for debate and commentary for years to come. A character in the 1947 movie Miracle on Thirty-Fourth Street remarks to the department-store Santa played by Edmund Gwenn, "Yeah, there's a lot of bad -isms floating around this world, but one of the worst is commercialism. Make a buck, make a buck....Don't care what Christmas stands for. Just make a buck, make a buck." But merchants and manufacturers countered that it was no sin to make money from the holidays; indeed, those celebrations, a 1914 editorial in American Florist magazine opined, were "made possible only through the fact that money was made from them."
Meaning, I suppose, that practical-minded America would dispense with any observation of tradition that did not bring a profit---Arbor Day, say.
The process of commodification continues today, Schmidt writes. Even the week-long African American festival of Kwanzaa, invented by sociologist Maulana Karenga in 1966 to resist "the high-priced hustle and bustle of Christmas buying and selling," has become increasingly commodified; a recent trade fair for Kwanzaa-related merchandise drew hundreds of exhibitors selling greeting cards, wrapping paper, and teddy bears wrapped in dashikis. It also drew representatives from Anheuser-Busch, Pepsi-Cola, and the ubiquitous Hallmark, among other capitalist concerns. Karenga was reported to have been outraged. But, one vendor countered, "This is what makes America tick."
And so it goes. The Christmas goose has already been slaughtered, and new holidays are in the borning, or perhaps should be: Grandmother's Day, Unwed Mothers' Day, the Feast of the Unregistered Voter. To read Schmidt's Consumer Rites is to feel no less a victim of the holidays, but it's an instructive act of resistance nonetheless.
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