by Jeffrey Cavanaugh
BAMSouth.com Contributing Columnist
This past week brought the opening salvo of the wintertime holiday season – Thanksgiving – to America. It also, conveniently enough, provides an annual opportunity to examine the effects of an ongoing social experiment in American culture that has gone on unabated since the turn of the last century.
The experiment in question, of course, is the triumph of commercialism over an increasingly large fraction of our collective lives. Nowhere is this more evident, I would argue, than in the stark contrast that exists between the two major holidays – Thanksgiving and Christmas – that serve as bookends for America’s end-of-the-year celebrations. Indeed, contrasting one with the other highlights not just the difference between them, but provides insight into how commercialism influences other aspects of our larger culture as well.
Consider first, for now, Thanksgiving. Officially instituted in the United States by President Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War, the holiday has since evolved into a sort of post-modern version of many ancient end-of-harvest celebrations that are found in most, if not all, cultures around the world. Accordingly, the emphasis on Thanksgiving is on sharing a meal with friends and family in a communal setting and everything – from production of the meal itself to the slow, steady way in which post-meal socializing rolls out over football and soft conversation – is aimed at creating a community – no matter how small – between otherwise solitary individuals.
Moreover, Thanksgiving is a decidedly private affair that, though given public recognition, is nonetheless mostly a concern of families and friends themselves. Commercial enterprises do not intrude into the holiday itself, for the most part, except to aid Americans in creating that special time and space in which to have that all-important Thanksgiving meal. All that is useful, of course, but one could easily have Thanksgiving without it because the holiday is in essence about things close to the heart – going home, seeing loved ones, sharing, if only briefly, a few moments with people to whom you feel close but may not have seen in months or even years. Thanksgiving, more than anything else, is about connecting and, through it, recharging.
Christmas, on the other hand, is very different, and while it may at one time have had religious significance to Christians of various sects, its commercialization – much further advanced than that with Thanksgiving, has transformed it into a holiday that looks more like its pagan ancestor Saturnalia than a church feast day. To be sure Christmas, like Thanksgiving, may also emphasize togetherness, but overwhelmingly the message transmitted by our culture is that it is really about getting and receiving gifts and not about private time with family or, God forbid, the birth of Jesus Christ.
This gift-giving activity, too, has pre-modern roots in various cultures and modern Christmas as it is actually practiced in America; in fact, it resembles very much the competitive potlatch celebrations found in many tribal societies around the world. In these events, tribe members would gather in annual feasts where food, trinkets, and luxury items were exchanged amongst members. The tribe’s big men, seeking to demonstrate their wealth and social position, competed amongst themselves to give away more and better gifts to family, friends, and associates, and in so doing establish the social pecking order for the coming new year.
In America, of course, this competition has been taken to an extreme. Instead of furs and beads we give each other diamonds and Playstations, egged on as we do so by advertising-driven media which commands us to buy and consume as much as we can each year. Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving and so called because it is traditionally the day the nation’s retailers go from loss to profit in a given fiscal year, exemplifies the very worst of this trend. In a carnival atmosphere that seems to inevitably lead to unruly mobs brawling over half-priced towels and cheap flat-screen TVs, Americans—zombie-like—camp out around malls and big-box retail outlets in hope of purchasing gifts for the friends and family they just shared a meal with the previous evening.
To be sure Christmas, like Thanksgiving, may also emphasize togetherness, but overwhelmingly the message transmitted by our culture is that it is really about getting and receiving gifts and not about private time with family or, God forbid, the birth of Jesus Christ.
What’s more, this pressure to shop and conform with Christmas’ mandatory good cheer, no matter what, lasts for an entire month and comes in the form of a constant barrage of commercials, decorations, television shows, movies, and public exhortations to be jolly. Like Big Brother’s speeches in 1984, holiday messaging is simply impossible to escape and those who actively dislike the grossly public nature of Christmas or its appeals to crass consumerism are deemed Scrooges and Grinches- subversives that, like Winston Smith, must be sidelined lest they undermine all the holiday hoopla and the profits associated with the hoopla.
Thus, what was once a time of authentic celebration that marked out first the winter solstice and then the birth of Christ has since, once capitalism was attached to it, become a secular high holy day in an American civil religion that sees commerce as princely and its prophets as principled. All it asks, aside from your good cheer, is to disregard the trinket-obsessed mobs that swap out cash and dignity for super-cheap consumer electronics or the stultifying, society-killing economic inequality that has come about as a result of it.
Likewise, look only at the gifts under the tree left there by an invisible fat man swaddled all in red, and don’t think of the equally invisible army of sweat-shop laborers, many of them no more than children, toiling away in authoritarian countries that made those presents possible and affordable. They’re elves, you see, and the more you look at them the less magical and wholesome those presents end up being. Put up a tree and throw up some decorations – preferably night-destroying light displays of some sort – but don’t think of the environmental impact of all those decked-out halls, especially when white Christmases seem to become rarer and rarer with every passing year.
Don’t think of all that and certainly don’t look it up online lest you be put on the naughty list instead of the nice. For thinking leads to pondering, and pondering gets to dissenting, and dissenting could damn well be the death of us all – or at least the system as it exists now. No, we here in America have learned that when times get rough the roughed-up go shopping lest malcontents begin all that dangerous thinking to begin with. So, put all those unhappy thoughts aside and make merry ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, for whatever else may be happening here at home and in the rest of the world – Christmas time is here.
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