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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

The Mass Media

Ho, Ho, Hogwash Christmas Unwrapped author gives lecture

On December 11, with only two weeks left to shop for Christmas presents, Jim Tracy, the co-author of Christmas Unwrapped held a lecture of the same title, talking about the commercial experience of Christmas, a lesson neatly wrapped into a straight forward history of both religion and the U.S. economy.

The truth is, Christmas has never been claimed as “Jesus’ real birthday,” as it started off as the pagan worship of the winter solstice, a sexual fertility-fest that the Roman empire couldn’t shake off. Thus, they shimmied next to that sunny turning point and over the centuries, the end of December went from being “the return of the sun” to “the return of the Son.”

How simple. Yet, Christmas, until the 19th century, was so very far from hokey that it resembled something more like Halloween. As a matter of fact, Christmas was outlawed in the Mass. Bay colony in 1630, but it was apparently just too much fun to give up.

Until the advent of the big, impersonal cities of the Industrial Revolution, Christmas was a time when everyone would get totally drunk, dress up the town idiot as a priest and mock him, and elect a “King and Queen” of the village to fornicate on a stage. Then, all of the factory workers would get together and bust down their scrooge-like boss’s door, where they’d demand a treat of some sort. Figgy pudding seems to have been a favorite, and thus led to a song that may sound a bit more lucid to you now. Sadly, with the age of the big city came a gang of Christmas crooks, whose demands for figgy pudding, from other people’s bosses and not their own, led to the switchover from gift giving class to class, to all in the family, generational giving.

According to Tracy, that’s why Santa Claus was invented, less than 200 years ago. At that time, everything (not just Christmas presents) was being made from machine, not handcrafted as it had been in the past.

Thus, at Christmas time, as parents had taken on the slightly less dangerous task of gifting their children, their Puritanical hearts had a hard time being convinced that buying cold, sterile machine made stuff was cool.

Santa, a patriarchal icon with a stubby pipe symbolic of the craftsman class got people to buy the new breed of goods, and nursed the concept of spoiling children once a year, instead of a drunken mob banging at the door.

By the 1900s, America had a surplus of goods, and to avoid a glut of over-production, created artificial markets based on artificial needs. Citizens needed something to do with all their cash, and in this transformation from scarcity economics to surplus spending, the concept of consuming beyond our needs went far, far beyond December 25. Every day experience was turned into a commodity.

Tracy said that culture explains and constrains, and in this case, the culture of excess has led to a present day average-family owning 12 credit cards, with $8,000 in 18% interest in monthly credit card debt.

In the last several months, Americans have been encouraged to spend as they have never spent before. “It’s your duty. Keep America rolling,” says Ford Auto. That, of course, is a slam dunking of President Bush’s emphatic “Let’s roll” closing line in a speech of late. Profit and corporate support is not questioned anymore. Consumers have come to identify with corporate interest, finding a sense of security in the taste of Coca Cola, and the drive of a Chevy.

There is a reason we search for security like this: since only 5% of the population grows our food, the other 95% have to do something else, and the service-based job market produces a lot of intangible products, ones that realistically one can survive without.

Thus, we find a perpetual purpose and instinctual drive to buy and spend, and work overtime paying for our redemptive splurges.