By Javin Dana
CatlinSpeak (Portland, Oregon)
It is all too easy to get wrapped up in the presents, gift-making, seasonal treats, and jingles pervading American holiday culture, especially as we enter the heart of the season itself. However, consumption and profiteering have overtaken the holidays, and thus it is duly important to consider what has happened to these traditions some of us hold near and dear.
The “invention” of Santa Claus, dates back to 19th-century New York, where secular, working-class individuals used the myth as a means to unite the diverse, but disparate, population. Christmas quickly transformed into a holiday that espoused ideas of merriment, charity, and community because of the, primarily religious, diversity of American cities. Throughout the mid-1830s, the divide between Protestant church traditions and the newly growing Christmas culture in New York meant that many secular laborers were barred from celebrating within their communities. As such, they needed a new figure to represent the growing secular nature of Christmas, both to impart charity and good will, and to ensure their survival through the winter. This led to the conception of Santa as a cultural icon.
The image of Santa Claus, as we commonly know it, mirrors the lively festivities and altruism we associate with Christmas. The lumbering and child-like nature of Santa, with his rosy cheeks and rotund figure, represented a broader cultural ideal of camaraderie and comfort during the coldest, harshest season of the year, and his image remained this way for decades.
Santa has rapidly transitioned to being a marketing icon for commercial goods and services across the U.S. (Photo: Javin Dana ’17/Piktochart)
As Coca-Cola’s profits and ad-production grew in the early-20th-century, the company latched onto different cultural traditions to help peddle its products. One such figure, as many already know, was our very own man in red and white. Santa Claus quickly transitioned from being an icon of charity towards being a model of material goods and products as the Coca-Cola Company used his figure to further their own holiday sales.
Now, granted, Coca-Cola helped redesign the image of Santa Claus for the better initially, commissioning some of the most recognizable paintings of St. Nick to date. At the same time, however, the actions they took altered the original purpose of Santa Claus to such an extent that many today believe that Coca-Cola “created” Santa Claus. The stark contrast between modern holiday culture and the initial purposes of Christmas in America reveals a fundamental flaw in markets cultural and historical celebrations for profit.
In 2013, ABC decided to celebrate the winter season by producing a three-part special named, “The Great Christmas Light Fight.” No longer was the idea of humility relevant, but rather, in order to commemorate the season, families were pit against each other and evaluated on their ability to generate the largest carbon footprint in the most vain manner conceivable (with some other pertinent limitations). Christmas lights no longer represented an, albeit overly exuberant, expression of hope and goodwill. Rather, they served as means for individuals to flaunt their grandiose light shows, while having a chance to win $50,000 on the side.
And these are not the only traditions and customs being cheaply repurposed for corporate gain. The annual War on Christmas touted by representatives of FOX news helps to engender enough outrage amongst their mass swaths of viewers (ironically about secularism poisoning Christmas) that they will continue watching. This rise in ratings helps expand their own profits, as they can sell more commercial space within their news hour to various corporations, who will, in turn, subject the viewers to a barrage of holiday gift sales.
In a survey conducted by Pew Research, 33 percent of users explained that the thing they “liked the least” about the holiday season was the rise in “Commercialism/Materialism.”
While this was the top response, the second highest rated answer explained that the worst part of the holidays for 22 percent of users is how “expensive” shopping can be. Although individuals recognize the vanity and devaluation of Christmas, they still participate in the markets themselves. Just looking at the countless, Disney-esque specials and Christmas-related products peddled out year after year, it is evident that individuals are still fueling the holiday market by buying products and following cheaply-constructed programming that devalues the holidays
Black Friday is one example of crude materialism wholly superseding the reason we celebrate the winter holidays in the first place: to provide good will, charity, and comfort for our communities, especially those in need. On its own, Black Friday has claimed the lives of seven—that’s right, seven—individuals since 2006, and has caused severe injuries to approximately 98 people in the U.S. alone, all in the name of buying goods at marginally lower prices.
Christmas no longer represents the cheer it used to, nor the positive, comforting image we as children once affixed to it. Santa is no longer a figure of comfort, but rather a reassurance that the new Xbox One hoped for will be under the tree in just a few weeks time. Christmas traditions are not in place to promote a grander sense of altruism and moderation, but rather to champion vanity, excess consumption, and profiteering. And, unfortunate as it may be to realize, we caused these problems, and it is our burden to repair the damage our winter holidays have sustained.
In order to retake the holidays we cherish, we must remedy our consumerist affliction through awareness of the avarice-ridden markets milking the cookies out of Christmas. We must actively participate in disincentivizing the growth of these industrial markets. In short, rather than championing the sales on Black Friday, we should focus on spending time with our families and communities during Christmas. We should challenge ourselves to demonstrate charity and good faith during the season of giving in order to regain its value, because if we don’t do it, Santa won’t be here much longer, and soon we’ll forget the reason we celebrate Christmas in the first place.
Photo Credit: Unsplash