Christmas and conspicuous consumption: “People want something that shows money”

Santa Claus / Thomas Nast, 1881

The commercialization of Christmas in the light of — and in the wake of — industrial capitalism in the UK and US during the 19th century is a very interesting subject matter. (At the end of this post there are several links to worth-reading researches on this topic). To make a point regarding an evolving meaning of Christmas Holiday in that period and its connection to market economy and culture, I would like to refer to a sharp essay “Concerning Christmas Giving” by Margaret Deland, that was published in 1904 in her book The Common Way and an American women’s popular magazine Harper’s Bazaar. Deland was a recognized and important American novelist and poet which wrote about various issues of middle-class domesticity, and was also a women’s rights activist.
In “Concerning Christmas Giving”, Deland vividly expressed her discontent with the changing essence of Christmas, and called on women to stand up against the consumerization and monetization of the holiday spirit and interpersonal relationships.

“When we look seriously at the flippant degradation of Christmas, which has suddenly become so marked, and at the spiritual decadence which accompanies it, we shall probably, most of us, say that it is time to call a halt. This miserable and foolish business of giving because we have received, encouraged as it is by shopkeepers, fed by our own mean ambition  and vanity, nourished by a paltry unwillingness to “be under obligations”, and  by the mere fashion of the period which decrees Christmas excesses — this silly  and fatiguing custom has got to stop —  and women are the folk to stop it! Here is a reform fresh to our hands. Here is a work waiting for us. It needs common-sense, not legislation; it needs reverent souls, not political power. And the time is ripe for it now. (pp. 175-76)…
Twenty-five years ago, Christmas was not the burden that it is now; there was less haggling and weighing, less quid pro quo, less fatigue of body, less weariness of soul; and, most of all, there was less loading up with trash. The statement of a certain shopkeeper in this connection may be taken as typical of the whole situation.
“Why”, inquired a customer, “do you have these dreadful things for sale?”
The shopkeeper laughed. “Yes, they are dreadful,” he admitted. And, indeed, they were– gift-books bound in plush, with  “hand-painted” landscapes enclosed in gilt filigree, fastened, somehow, to the covers.  They were, in every detail, a triumph of bad taste. And they were all ticketed $10. “Of course they are dreadful”, this intelligent man said, “but what can I do? People want something that shows money. You don’t know how many people come in at Christmas time and say ‘I want to buy a present for ten dollars — I don’t care what’. Then the clerk shows this gift-book, and they pay their ten dollars and walk out. Half of  them don’t even look inside; it’s the ten  dollars’ worth of cover they want.”
Now could there be anything more melancholy than such Christmas giving? — unless, indeed, it is the melancholy of the bargain-counters of department stores just before Christmas, or the melancholy of the out-of-town cars, crowded with weary women lugging home presents that they feel obliged to give to persons who do not wish to receive them. And each year more such presents are being given, more “debts” are being incurred (pp. 178-79)…
The next may be the assertion of our purpose to express the spirit of Christmas by gifts which shall signify one of three things (or, perhaps, all of them): Love; Friendship; Human kindness. Such gifts do not imply money; they do not necessitate fatigue; they have nothing to do with debtors and creditors; and they never know the secrecy which is shame. The moment we put our Christmas giving on this basis, we draw the first breath of freedom; for we shall not give a single present we don’t want to give. Think of that — giving only what our hearts prompt us to give! Why, it cuts that long list in half, right away. There is no lying awake at night to think how on earth we are going to repay Mary Robinson ; for if she loved us when she sent that spool-box, we are not her debtors..” (pp. 180-181) (bold emphasizes are mine, O.K.)

Deland, Margaret. 1904. The Common Way. New York and London: Harper & Brothers Publishers (various open-access formats)

Read also:
— Deacy,  Christopher. 2016. Christmas as Religion: The Relationship between Sacred and Secular. Oxford University Press.
— Hancock, Philip. 2016.  “A Christmas Carol: A Reflection on Organization, Society, and the Socioeconomics of the Festive Season.” Academy of Management Review 41 (4): 755–765. (open-access)
— Horsley, Richard and James Tracy, eds. 2001. Christmas Unwrapped: Consumerism, Christ, and Culture. Trinity Press International.
— Perry, Joe. 2010. Christmas in Germany: A Cultural History. University of North Carolina Press.
— Schmidt, Leigh. 1995. Consumer Rites: The Buying & Selling of American Holidays. Princeton University Press.
— Waits, William. 1994. The Modern Christmas in America: A Cultural History of Gift Giving. New York University Press.
— Whiteley, Sheil, ed. 2008.
 Christmas, Ideology and Popular Culture. Edinburgh University  Press

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