Christmas Cheer - Capitalism's Cousin?
Listening to Mariah Carey’s proverbial “All I Want for Christmas is You” while writing this has been borderline satirical, yet, it got me thinking: has Mariah been trying to tell us something all along? Have we taken the meaning of Christmas, given it steroids and lend it to corporations to use against our pockets?
The evolution from religion to capitalism
Christmas and the winter festivities have evolved alongside aggressive capitalist advertisements. Can we reshape our understanding of Christmas and the holiday cheer by detaching from the notion that the holidays are defined by our overconsumption?
Few of us have not been touched by the holiday shopping rush - a trend that is prominent and ever growing in Europe and the US. Santa Claus has often been characterised as the “Patron Saint of Capitalism”, and his nemesis has been Scrooge. Do you see where I’m going with this? The Patron Saint of Capitalism has been contrasted to his ‘antagonist’ and has encouraged us to go out this season and buy gifts for our loved ones, unlike his dissenter.
Christmas - initially a Pagan holiday which was later reshaped to become a celebration of Christianity - has now evolved hand-in-hand with capitalism since the 19th century to mean an entirely different thing than initially envisaged. It has now become a profit-maximising opportunity for companies who often see the highest earnings coming from Black Friday sales, and the holiday season. The shift to a lot of ‘overs’ - overindulgence and overconsumption being two examples - was prompted in the UK in the early 19th century when the government legislated for Christmas to become a universal holiday. The US followed a few years later. In turn, Christmas carols, cards, new-year-gifting and a week of holiday festivities were popularised, and we have since evolved.
Santa Claus and Aggressive Advertisements
Going back to Santa Claus and his role in this capitalist (r)evolution. The notorious figure was first designed by Thomas Nast, and the urban legend tells us that Coca-Cola reinvented Santa Claus in the early 20th century. Haddon Hubbard Sundblom designed Santa Claus based on Nast’s and others’ illustrations a century earlier, and in 1931, Coca-Cola conquered Christmas and redefined Santa. The campaign was a way to tackle the low profits made in the winter, and it suggested that Santa wants a glass of Coca-Cola rather than a glass of milk when he arrives. Unfortunately, the advertisement did not catch on. Yet, all Coca-Cola had done was bottle out the memory of the symbol and give it a modern look.
It is impossible to overlook the role that Santa Claus has played as a symbol in aggressive capitalist advertisements to encourage consumers to keep on consuming. The holiday cheer has now been redefined to mean spending money, while a lot of this joy hangs on to receiving new gifts, new things. If we take a trip down memory lane, a lot of Christmas advertisements see kids asking Santa Claus for a new refrigerator/hoover/kitchen for his mom to be able to provide better care for the family, or women having epiphanies that include sewing machines.
We have seen Christmas evolving from a religious holiday in Western Christianity, Europe and the US to mean something completely different: a sort of commercial coming together based on shopping. This is part of the reason why non-secular persons, including children, have attached the holiday spirit not just on Christmas but also the entire week running up to New Year’s Day. Buying and exchanging gifts has become an integral part of our understanding of the festivities - which yes, I will keep on repeating.
Aside from advertisements, we see the holiday cheer in so many other - profitable - areas, spanning from fast-fashion brands producing our (new) New Year’s festive outfits and telling us we must re-wear the latest letter of (what they define as) fashion, to new Christmas movies and books coming out every year like photocopies: the same spirit and plot - a single person finally finding love on Christmas day, with a scene (of course) describing the annual gift exchange.
It is now obvious that Christmas and capitalism rose together from the flames (and the pollution) of the Industrial Revolution like a phoenix that came to redefine the holiday spirit. Has the time come to reconsider the meaning of the festivities to something closer to nature?