One of my pet irritations about Christmas is the zombie mall frenzy, when shoppers go into a kind of trance amidst the glitz and glitter of the mall and start shelling out cash for chintzy consumer items made of cheap plastic. Most of these gee-gaws break 28 seconds after being unwrapped, and by 29 December they’ve been packed off to the landfill.
Following these shoppers around muttering “braaaaains….” has become a kind of sport, though for me it won’t be happening this year because the largest mall in the district has been hit by an earthquake and is being partially demolished.
So I thought this year I’d explain where this Christmas shopping frenzy actually came from. It’s less than two centuries old, a product of the industrial age and the way that emotional desire and self-worth were harnessed as devices for improving profit. That particular phenomenon gained momentum in the 1840s across a wide range of areas, and it is still with us today: witness the way that self-worth has been entwined with body image and products or programs – such as diets – that promise the buyer ways of meeting the cultural ideal. The only real beneficiary of most of them is the bank balance of whoever’s selling the product. Christmas is no different, even down to the way that cultural values are used as a device to cause us to part with our hard-earned cash.
The rise of Christmas as a commercial enterprise also dates to the 1840s – by no coincidence – and the way it was sold then, in turn, fed back into the way the festive season is seen culturally. That’s still true today. The first ever Christmas card, released in 1843, speaks volumes, portraying a prosperous, insular, middle-class family – an institution that was socially idealised and exalted at the time, more so than today – enjoying Christmas, but flanked by imagery of charity. In those welfare-less days, the groups dispossessed by the industrial upheaval often had to rely on alms.
Things haven’t changed greatly today – the general ‘frame-setting’ of the 1840s, in which Christmas was wrapped with present-buying and appeals to nuclear family values – is still the way Christmas is for us today, by and large: a frenzy of gift-buying in which the quantity of money spent has been linked, culturally, to social values and cohesion of family and friends. It’s been industrialised, commercialised, and sold to is in subtle ways that aren’t obvious because they play upon deeper social values.
Santa Claus was eventually also picked up in the mix, particularly by the Coca Cola company who ran advertisements between 1931 and 1964 connecting a red-and-white ‘Father Christmas’ with their red-and-white branded product. Santa Claus had been portrayed in red before; but it seems to me that the specific advertising concept by artist Haddon Sundblom of a fat, jolly, red-and-white Santa Claus played due part in moulding the current US cultural vision, particularly, of Santa Claus. Prior incarnations also portrayed Sinterklaas (derived from ‘Saint Nicholas’) as a skinny guy, sometimes in green – an image that is still used in Europe alongside the red-and-white one.
As I’ve said, this is not the only way our personal and cultural frameworks have been moulded by commercial intrusion. Christmas is only one example. And in a most general sense, when we look at all the ways that self-worth has been hijacked as a marketing tool, it seems to me that the values of care, of kindness, of consideration for others – all of which are given power, to greater or lesser extent, from one’s own sense of genuine self-worth – have been hijacked in some respects along the way. They don’t have to be. And yes, present-buying and present-giving has its place, as does the fair right of manufacturers to make a profit. No question there. But it seems to me that there has to be a balance – a balance that, certainly in the last thirty-odd years, hasn’t been obvious.
And that, my friends, is why I tend to get a bit cynical about the whole thing, and walk around after Christmas shoppers in malls muttering ‘braaains’…
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2016