In the country in which I abide, the United States of America, there is a bit of well-deserved cynicism surrounding the way in which holidays are used as ways in which to sell a ton of stuff rather than celebrate the actual holiday itself. In America, “holidays” become “seasons,” and a “season” is just another word for a period of time in which you will be spending a buttload of hard-earned money for other people because that commercial before the YouTube video told you to.
And, along with this cynicism, people like to joke about how as soon as Halloween/October is over, the fall shit is immediately replaced with the Christmas shit, even though Christmas is over a month away. And I, like most people, laugh about this while also realizing that it isn’t really much of an exaggeration. I laugh to escape feeling a little disturbed.
But, upon reflecting on the way America handles the holidays, I’ve come to realize that there is a reason for it – a reason apart from rampant materialism, which of course is the leading factor. You see, rampant materialism, when it works best, has another reason attached to it. Holidays wouldn’t sell if there wasn’t something else that’s driving people to spend, spend, spend.
I, unlike the folks over at Tumblr and Upworthy, do not believe the world is full of narcissistic, shallow morons that care about nothing except looking good in front of other people. For example, I read an article that declared the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge a way for horrible people to latch onto a trend in the name of charity, that it was nothing but an internet gimmick and that it, like other internet gimmicks, had no true source of compassion or concern. In my opinion, the $100 million dollars raised by this internet gimmick would beg to differ, as well as the fact that if you spend any time on the internet and you’d never heard of ALS before, you sure have now.
Of course there are horrible, shallow people out there who take advantages of trends to get attention in the name of charity. But there are also people who donated, and $100 million dollars came from the pockets of people who more likely than not have no association to the disease, whether personally or through a loved one. ALS, though horrible and expensive to treat, isn’t the most common disease, after all.
My point is, the world is not full of narcissistic morons who only care about stuff. If that were true, then holidays wouldn’t sell.
Let’s look at Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas.
Now, Halloween is probably the most materialistic of the three, since its original purpose is rarely highlighted at all in today’s society and you could probably go your whole life thinking that Halloween has always and only been about dressing up in costumes and getting candy. But there’s still a sense of community to that. If you go trick-or-treating, you’re probably not doing it by yourself. No one buys a costume and wears it only in the presence of themselves. If you give candy to kids at the door, you have willingly gone out of your way to buy unhealthy treats for people you might not ever see again.
Looking at it from an outsider’s perspective, that really doesn’t make much sense. Why on earth would millions of people each year purposefully spend money on candy and silly costumes? What possible purpose could it serve?
If Halloween was a holiday that had come out of nowhere, that would make it the most materialistic day of the year. But the fact that it has origins in a very real celebration of the dead and that it comes a day before All Saints Day and the Day of the Dead gives it ties to very real traditions that celebrate legitimate things. I do not think Halloween would have developed into the money-making phenomenon that it did had it not been rooted in something that transcended materialism altogether, something which still exists even in the chaos of the costume-buying and the candy-giving.
We might be onto something here. Let’s move on to Thanksgiving.
Thanksgiving is probably the least materialistic of the three, simply because there’s only so much you can do with turkeys and leaves (although it is a very good time for grocery stores). But that again brings up an interesting point. Thanksgiving is a holiday founded on a series of misconceptions. The connection people feel to its origins are flimsy at best, since the Pilgrims and the Native Americans, well, did not really seem to get along after the three day festival (in case you weren’t sure, that was an understatement), and the Pilgrims never had turkey, pumpkin pie, stuffing, or anything that we normally associate with a Thanksgiving dinner.
The marketability of Thanksgiving has really become muddled with the marketability of fall, because, well, no one buys presents for people on Thanksgiving. No one dresses up as anything (unless you’re in a school play). No one writes songs about it. There isn’t even much of a religious connection any more.
Thanksgiving is an example of a holiday that doesn’t benefit from materialism, even though materialism could in theory benefit from it.
And yet, there’s still an enormous amount of focus placed upon Thanksgiving. We even get days off because of it, which isn’t the case for Halloween. There’s something about Thanksgiving that our society felt necessary to take advantage of and make room for.
But of course, there is no better demonstration of the power of holiday materialism (and my point) than Christmas.
Christmas is more than a holiday; it’s a phenomenon. Its identity has been expanded so much that its religious origins are, I think, less important to the national consciousness than some people would like to believe. Simply put, Christmas has become something more than a celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ.
When you ask a normal person what the meaning of Christmas is, they’ll probably say something along the lines of “caring for others, spending time with family, celebrating your loved ones, etc.” You’ll find that’s the subject of most Christmas specials, Christmas movies, and Christmas songs. It’s a message that’s hammered into us again and again, even though the advertisements grow more numerous and the pressure to start buying shit gets harder.
There’s a reason why the message of Christmas and the materialism associated with Christmas exist hand in hand. It’s because the materialism needs the message to function. The same is true of the other holidays as well. Holidays sell not because they’re about the selling, but because they’re about something else entirely.
It’s entirely possible that an outsider would conclude that Christmas is all about present buying and rampant materialism, even though we would deny it and wave around a copy of How The Grinch Stole Christmas just to prove otherwise. Because…what if that’s actually what it’s all about? What if things like It’s A Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street are only driving the materialism forward, despite their anti-materialism message?
Because when you claim to be selling something in the name of family and compassion and the most wonderful time of the year, isn’t it helpful to make people feel good about it? Doesn’t it sell more when people claim to be buying in the name of something greater, either because they’re doing it for someone else or simply because they want to spread a little Christmas cheer? At what point do the two become separate and distinct? When did the world stop being How The Grinch Stole Christmas and start becoming The Christmas Shoes?
No wonder people with no money get so depressed during the holidays.
“Holiday Clusterf*ck” was made by Doug Walker (aka the Nostalgia Critic) and is part of ThatGuyWithTheGlasses.com. The images came from Google Images and I hope nobody will get mad at me for using them because, well, that would be very sad indeed.