Monday, November 21, 2011

Santa Claus is Coming to... Wait, He's Here?

As I have a friend who has a modicum of disposable income and I’m sometimes able to afford bus fare, the time I spend with her allows me to go places I would not go on my own, like shopping malls. Of course, I don’t much care for the places, but I’ll take anything that’s outside the realm of my day-to-day experience. Poverty aside, I’m quite an anti-consumerist person, so I wouldn’t buy much even if I could, and I recoil at the insane ravenousness with which some people shop. I actually enjoy going to the mall for the sake of watching the passersby and speculating about their lives, exploring the cultural trends and modern fashions on display in storefronts, and generally observing everything at one step removed. But from time to time, some absurdly over-zealous advertisement or sudden mad dash of customers will tear me violently away from my enjoyment of the scenery and leave me burning with aggravation at the worst of my culture.

It’s the way that corporations and ad agencies and salesmen push us in certain directions, and it’s the way we happily and thoughtlessly run straight in the direction we’re being pushed. Nothing provides a more lasting impression of that than the way in which consumerism manipulates the very passage of the seasons. The calendar seems to run a little differently each year, though the change is unidirectional. And as obvious and discomforting as it is to me, I see no means of stopping it. Indeed, I see no one expressing interest in it stopping.

I went to the local area’s largest mall with my friend over the weekend. I’d hoped that I’d be able to lose myself in the crowd for a while and generally forget about the nature of the place, but about twenty feet from the door, I realized that there was no escaping the consequences of my stubborn non-conformity. For it was about twenty feet from the door that I saw Santa. A little further in, I could make out the Christmas music being piped across the mall concourse, and I tried to override Paul McCartney’s voice, changing the words to “simply having a wonderful nineteenth of November.”

I take it for granted that people are expected to start their Christmas shopping earlier each year, and that they tend to act in accordance with that expectation. It frustrates me to no end, but I take it for granted. When I worked in a wholesale club a few years ago, I was dismayed to see that our Christmas displays went up on September 17th. This year, I saw autumn displays in a Rite-Aid in early August, and jokingly asked the employee working in that aisle how long it would be before all of that was cleared out to make way for the Christmas merchandise. He replied, “Actually, we got our first shipment this week.”

After Halloween was over, I was in a store that mostly sells seasonal merchandise and I saw that Christmas immediately sprang into full commercial blossom when October ended. I recall commenting that it now seems that from the point of view of retailers, Halloween ends in September and Thanksgiving simply doesn’t happen. How right I was, based on this weekend. And how unfortunate that the stores set the tone for everyone else. Two radio stations in my area began playing Christmas music 24/7 at the end of the first week of November.

I don’t like the emphasis on consumerism attached to all of our traditions. I make no secret of that. But what bugs me on a deeper level is way that this rampant commercialization of everything increasingly threatens to rob people of the actual experience of holidays and distinct seasons. I sometimes imagine that we’re spiraling towards a future in which citizens are constantly preparing for one upcoming holiday or another, but never pause to actually celebrate or enjoy any particular event. Perhaps someday the question “When is Christmas Day?” will be met with a quizzical look and the bemused response, “What are you talking about? Christmas goes from now until Valentines.”

The way I remember it, wasn’t the end of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade always the first appearance of Santa Claus? Weren’t we all supposed to have a collective feeling of warmth at that moment, knowing that the Christmas season began that moment? Even as a child and even living in the suburbs, I had a certain understanding that Thanksgiving marked the turning point at the end of harvest time, when the enjoyment of winter began. Because the parade was televised, all the children in America were able to enjoy the first glimpse of Santa together, and no one was able to lay first claim to the magic of the Christmas season the way they are able to lay first claim to a Blu-Ray player or laptop on Black Friday.

The only reason I can see for why a parent would take a child to see Santa Claus at a mall in the middle of November is out of a sense of opportunism. “Come on, Sally,” I imagine some young mom saying between gulping swills of coffee while holding out her watch, “let’s go see Santa now so we can beat the lines. This way he’ll know exactly what he needs to get when the stores open at eleven o’clock on Thanksgiving. So let’s go plop you on the man’s lap and get this shit over with.”

I think it’s awfully hard for adults to remember that the same things can be seen much differently through the eyes of children. Whereas standing in a line to declare your desires to a bearded fat man in a red suit may seem hellishly monotonous to many parents, for many children, though they may not be aware of it at the time, the prospect of having to wait with other children in order to talk to Santa makes the satisfaction of reaching him all that much more thrilling. And it’s a community experience, subtly reminding both parents and children that every reasonably fortunate family in the country will be getting much of what they want come December 25th, and that it’s not just a private, one-household glut of loving avarice.

I guess what I’m saying is if we have to define our traditions by orgiastic consumption, can we at least do it in a way that encourages us to recognize that we’re part of a shared society? But make no mistake, I’d rather we tone the consumerism way, way down. I know that it’s unreasonable to expect our consumerist impulses to be overturned. I know that well enough to be okay with hanging out at malls. But I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect us to show capability for valuing something other than consumerism, as well.

Making our purchases and listing our material expectations in a more structured way may give us a chance at integrating the remnants of a few other traditions or experiences into our shopping. But no matter how we go about it, the more we shop, the less attention we’ll pay to the other elements of each season. Amidst the increasing primacy of money, it seems to me that the first thing we stand to lose is the seasonal benchmark of Thanksgiving. And with consumption as the defining characteristic of every celebration that surrounds it, it seems to me that a holiday of gratitude and remembrance is what we can least afford to lose.

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