It’s Pro-American to be Anti-Christmas
This is a guest post by Becky Jaffe.
I know what you’re thinking: Don’t Christmas and America go together like Santa and smoking?
Why, of course they do! Just ask Saint Nickotine, patron saint of profit. This Lucky Strike advertisement is an early introduction to Santa the corporate shill, the seasonal cash cow whose avuncular mug endorses everything from Coca-Cola to Siri to yes, even competing brands of cigarettes like Pall Mall. Sorry Lucky Strike, Santa’s a bit of a sellout.
Nearly a century after these advertisements were published, the secular trinity of Santa, consumerism and America has all but supplanted the holy trinity the holiday was purportedly created to commemorate. I’ll let Santa the Spokesmodel be the cheerful bearer of bad news:
Christmas and consumerism have been boxed up, gift-wrapped and tied with a red-white-and-blue ribbon. In this guest post I’ll unwrap this package and explain why I, for one, am not buying it.
Yesterday was Thanksgiving, followed inexorably by Black Friday; one day we’re collectively meditating on gratitude, the next we’re jockeying for position in line to buy a wall-mounted 51” plasma HDTV. Some would argue that’s quintessentially American. As social critic and artist Andy Warhol wryly observed, “Shopping is more American than thinking.”
Such a dour view may accurately describe post WW II America, but not the larger trends nor longer traditions of our nation’s history. Although we may have become profligate of late, we were at the outset a frugal people; consumerism and America need not be inextricably linked in our collective imagination if we take a longer view. Long before there was George Bush telling us the road to recovery was to have faith in the American economy, there was Henry David Thoreau, who spoke to a faith in a simpler economy:
The Simple Living experiment he undertook and chronicled in his classic Walden was guided by values shared in common by many of the communities who sought refuge in the American colonies at the outset of our nation: the Mennonites, the Quakers, and the Shakers. These groups comprise not only a great name for a punk band, but also our country’s temperamental and ethical ancestry. The contemporary relationship between consumerism and Christmas is decidedly un-American, according to our nation’s founders. And what could be more American than the Amish? Or the secular version thereof: The Simplicity Collective.
Being anti-Christmas™ is as uniquely American as Thoreau, who summed up his anti-consumer credo succinctly: “Men have become the tools of their tools.” If he were alive today, I have no doubt that curmudgeonly minimalist would be marching with Occupy Wall Street instead of queuing with the tools on Occupy Mall Street.
Being anti-Christmas™ is as American as Mark Twain, who wrote, “The approach of Christmas brings harrassment and dread to many excellent people. They have to buy a cart-load of presents, and they never know what to buy to hit the various tastes; they put in three weeks of hard and anxious work, and when Christmas morning comes they are so dissatisfied with the result, and so disappointed that they want to sit down and cry. Then they give thanks that Christmas comes but once a year.” (From Following the Equator)
Being anti-Christmas™ is as American as “Oklahoma’s favorite son,” Will Rogers, 1920’s social commentator who made the acerbic observation, “Too many people spend money they haven’t earned, to buy things they don’t want, to impress people they don’t like.”
He may have been referring to presents like this, which are just, well, goyish:
Being anti-Christmas is as American as Robert Frost, recipient of four Pulitzer prizes in poetry, who had this to say in a Christmas Circular Letter:
He asked if I would sell my Christmas trees;
My woods—the young fir balsams like a place
Where houses all are churches and have spires.
I hadn’t thought of them as Christmas Trees.
I doubt if I was tempted for a moment
To sell them off their feet to go in cars
And leave the slope behind the house all bare,
Where the sun shines now no warmer than the moon.
I’d hate to have them know it if I was.
Yet more I’d hate to hold my trees except
As others hold theirs or refuse for them,
Beyond the time of profitable growth,
The trial by market everything must come to.
We inherit from these American thinkers a unique intellectual legacy that might make us pause at the commercialism that has come to consume us. To put it in other words:
- John Porcellino’s Thoreau at Walden: $18
- Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass: $5.95
- Mary Oliver’s American Primitive: $9.99
- The Life and Letters of John Muir: $12.99
- Transcendentalist Intellectual Legacy: Priceless.
The intellectual and spiritual founders of our country caution us to value our long-term natural resources over short-term consumptive titillation. Unheeding their wisdom, last year on Black Friday American consumers spent $11.4 billion, more than the annual Gross Domestic Product of 73 nations.
And American intellectual legacy aside, isn’t that a good thing? Doesn’t Christmas spending stimulate our stagnant economy and speed our recovery from the recession? If you believe organizations like Made in America, it’s our patriotic duty to spend money over the holidays. The exhortation from their website reads, “If each of us spent just $64 on American made goods during our holiday shopping, the result would be 200,000 new jobs. Now we want to know, are you in?”
That depends once again on whether or not we take the long view. Christmas spending might create a few temporary, low-wage, part-time jobs without benefits of the kind described in Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By In America, but it’s not likely to create lasting economic health, especially if we fail to consider the long-term environmental and social costs of our short-term consumer spending sprees. The answer to Made in America’s question depends on the validity of the economic model we use to assess their spurious claim, as Mathbabe has argued time and again in this blog. The logic of infinite growth as an unequivocal net good is the same logic that underlies such flawed economic models as the Gross National Product (GNP) and the Gross Domestic Product (GDP).
These myopic measures fail to take into account the value of the natural resources from which our consumer products are manufactured. In this accounting system, when an old-growth forest is clearcut to make way for a Best Buy parking lot, that’s counted as an unequivocal economic boon since the economic value of the lost trees/habitat is not considered as a debit. Feminist economist and former New Zealand parliamentarian Marilyn Waring explains the idea accessibly in this documentary: Who’s Counting? Marilyn Waring on Sex, Lies, and Global Economics.
If we were to adopt a model that factors in the lost value of nonrenewable natural resources, such as the proposed Green National Product, we might skip the stampede at Walmart and go for a walk in the woods instead to stimulate the economy.
Other critics of these standard models for measuring economic health point out that they overvalue quantity of production and, by failing to take into account such basic measures of economic health as wealth distribution, undervalue quality of life. And the growing gap in income inequality is a trend that we cannot afford to overlook as we consider the best options for economic recovery. According to this New York Times article, “Income inequality has soared to the highest levels since the Great Depression, and the recession has done little to reverse the trend, with the top 1 percent of earners taking 93 percent of the income gains in the first full year of the recovery.”
For the majority of Americans who are still struggling to make ends meet, the Black Friday imperative to BUY! means racking up more credit card debt. (As American poet ee cummings quipped,” “I’m living so far beyond my income that we may almost be said to be living apart.”) The specter of Christmas spending is particularly ominous this season, during a recession, after a national wave of foreclosures has left Americans with insecure housing, exorbitant rents, and our beleaguered Santa with fewer chimneys to squeeze into.
Some proposed alternatives to the GDP and GNP that factor in income distribution are the Human Progress Index, the Genuine Progress Indicator, and yes, even a proposed Gross National Happiness.
A dose of happiness could be just the antidote to the dread many Americans feel at the prospect of another hectic holiday season. As economist Paul Heyne put it, “The gap in our economy is between what we have and what we think we ought to have – and that is a moral problem, not an economic one.”
Mind you, I’m not anti-Christmas, just anti-Christmas™. I’ve been referring thus far to the secular rites of the latter, but practicing Christians for whom the former is a meaningful spiritual meditation might equally take offense at its runaway commercialization, which the historical Jesus would decidedly not have endorsed.
I hate to pull the Bible card, but, seriously, what part of Ecclesiastes don’t you understand?
Better is an handful with quietness, than both the hands full with travail and vexation of spirit. – Ecclesiastes 4:6
Just imagine if Buddhism were hijacked by greed in the same fashion.
Or is it axial tilt?
Whether you’re a practicing Christian, a Born-Again Pagan celebrating the Winter Solstice (“Mithras is the Reason for the Season”), or a fundamentalist atheist (“You know it’s a myth! This season, celebrate reason.”), we all have reason to be concerned about the corporatization of our cultural rituals.
The meaning of Christmas has gotten lost in translation:
So this year, let’s give Santa a much-needed smoke break, pour him a glass of Kwanzaa Juice, and consider these alternatives for a change:
1. Presence, not presents. Skip the spending binge (and maybe even another questionable Christmas tradition, the drinking binge), and give the gift of time to the people you love. I’m talking luxurious swaths of time: unstructured time, unproductive time, time wasted exquisitely together.
I’m talking about turning off the television in preparation for Screen-Free Week 2013, and going for a slow walk in nature, which can create more positive family connection than the harried shopping trip. And if Richard Louv’s thesis about Nature Deficit Disorder is merited, it may be healthier for your child to take a walk in the woods than to camp out in front of the X-Box you can’t afford anyway.
Whether you’re choosing to spend the holidays with your family of origin or your family of choice, playing a game together is a great way to reconnect. How about kibitzing over this new card game 52 Shades of Greed? It’s quite the conversation starter. And what better soundtrack for a card game than Sweet Honey in the Rock’s musical musings on Greed? Or Tracy Chapman’s Mountains of Things.
Or how about seeing a show together? You can take the whole family to see Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping at the Highline Ballroom in New York this Sunday, November 25th. He’s on a “mission to save Christmas from the Shopocalypse.” From the makers of the film What Would Jesus Buy?
2. Give a group gift. There is a lot of talk about family values, but how well do we know each other’s values? One way to find out is to pool our giving together and decide as a group who the beneficiaries should be. You might elect to skip Black Friday and Cyber Monday and make a donation instead to Giving Tuesday’s Hurricane Sandy relief efforts. Other organizations worth considering:
3. Think outside the box. If you’re looking for alternatives to the gift-giving economy, how about bartering? Freecycle is a grassroots organization that puts a tourniquet on the flow of luxury goods destined for the landfill by creating local voluntary swap networks.
Or how about giving the gift of debt relief? Check out the Rolling Jubilee, a “bailout for the people by the people.”
4. Give the Buddhist gift: Nothing!
Buy Nothing Do Something is the slogan of an organization proposing an alternative to Black Friday: On Brave Friday, we “choose family over frenzy.” One contributor to the project shared this family tradition: “We have a “Five Hands” gift giving policy. We can exchange items that are HANDmade (by us), HAND-me-down and secondHAND. We can choose to gift a helping HAND (donations to charities). Lastly and my favorite, we can gift a HAND-in-hand, which is a dedication of time spent with one another. (Think date night or a day at the museum as a family.)”
Adbusters magazine sponsors an annual boycott of consumerism in England called Buy Nothing Day.
5. Invent your own holiday. Americans pride ourselves on our penchant for innovation. We amalgamate and synthesize novelty out of eclectic sources. Although we often talk about “traditional values,” we’re on the whole much less tradition-bound than say, the Serbs, who collectively recall several thousand years of history as relevant to the modern instant. We tend to abandon tradition when it is incovenient (e.g. marriage), which is perhaps why we harken back to its fantasy status in such a treacly manner. Making stuff up is what we do well as a nation. Isn’t “DIY Christmas” a no-brainer? Happy Christmahannukwanzaka, y’all!
6. Keep it weird. Several of you wrote with these suggestions for Black Friday street theater:
“Someone said go for a hike in a park, not the Wal*Mart parking lot. But why not the Wal*Mart parking lot? With all your hiking gear and everything.”
“I’d love for 5-6 of us to sit at Union Square in front of Macy’s and sit and meditate. Perhaps passer-bys will take a notice and ponder. Anyone in? Friday 2-3 hours.”
Few pranksters have been so elaborate in their anti-corporate antics as the Yes Men. You may get inspired to come up with some political theater of your own after watching the documentary The Yes Men: The True Story of the End of the World Trade Organization.
However we choose to celebrate the holidays in this relativist pluralistic era, whatever our preferred religious and/or cultural December-based holiday celebration may be, we can disentangle our rituals from obligatory consumerism.
I’m not suggesting this is an easy task. Our consumer habits are wrapped up with our identities as social critic Alain de Botton observes: “We need objects to remind us of the commitments we’ve made. That carpet from Morocco reminds us of the impulsive, freedom-loving side of ourselves we’re in danger of losing touch with. Beautiful furniture gives us something to live up to. All designed objects are propaganda for a way of life.”
This year, let’s skip the propaganda.
We can choose to
Yes, we can.
Happy Solstice, everyone!
(If only I had a Celestron CPC 1100 Telescope with Nikon D700 DSLR adapter to admire the Solstice skies….)