I paused when I saw the first set of Christmas decorations going up this year. “Is this early?” I asked myself. It felt early, but I have a skeptical cast of mind, particularly when it comes to popular wisdom. Repeat it often enough, and I will start to doubt any assertion, even those that I made in the first place.
For as long as I can remember, people have been saying that the holiday season starts earlier every year, so naturally, I’ve begun to doubt that, too. The day after Halloween felt early, but maybe that’s a trick of memory. Did the collective “we” of American society ever really hold out as long as Thanksgiving? It’s almost inconceivable. Certainly I can’t remember a time when November ended without Christmas trees going up across the city, but maybe it has always started earlier than that.
Maybe; but probably not. Probably, November 1st really is early, Thanksgiving having fallen victim to Christmas Creep. Soon, too, the 24-hour cable news networks will trot out their yearly talking points purporting to cover the War on Christmas. If there is a war, though, it is one of attrition, fought not on Christmas, but against the rest of the year. November has already been assimilated; October is next on the itinerary.
I don’t hate Christmas, but I do suffer from chronic Christmas fatigue. I love music, and music is a big part of why I can’t cozy up to with the season. Used with discretion, garlands and twinkling lights sink comfortably into the background, but by the beginning of December we can all count on hearing the same dozen or so Christmas standards piped into nearly every retail outlet in the country, ad nauseam.
It certainly doesn’t help that the secular lot, which retailers generally prefer as less partisan, have the grinding cheerfulness of an advertising jingle. They have tried to cycle in some less grating fare—John Lennon’s “So This Is Christmas”, for example, or the Vince Gurauldi tune “Skating” from Charlie Brown specials. Anything is better than “Jingle Bell Rock,” I suppose, but no matter how sedate or new the song, sheer repetition of the basic holiday motifs quickly makes them all but indistinguishable from one another. Insofar as they’ve essentially become tools of retailer aggression, the music cannot help but twist relentlessly in the consumer’s psyche.
Consider “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” a song that continues in heavy rotation, despite the fact that we’ve almost entirely lost touch with the traditions it recounts. Singing the song is an act of endurance that few complete. By the time you get to “six geese a laying,” you’re guaranteed to wonder why there are so many damn days of Christmas. But the twelve days (which traditionally start with Christmas and end, in January, with Advent) are celebrated only in song. In contemporary society, we push the holiday back in the opposite direction and observe it over the span of entire months.
That matters because it’s virtually impossible to sustain the spirit of a holiday over so long a period. There are simply too many mundane concerns in legitimate need of our attention. That’s why religious holidays tend to have precise durations. Those constrains allow celebrants to put aside time in which to concentrate on the spirit. So important is that precision that it encouraged the construction of our modern calendar, motivated by the Catholic church’s need to order its holidays in proper relations around the fixed point of Easter.
Without a proper timeframe, the holidays grow thin and mealy. The endurance they require takes a psychic toll, making us ill-tempered or simply ambivalent. It may also help explain why the holidays are peak season for depression and suicides. No doubt seasonal affective disorder plays a large role, but so, too, does our culture’s repeated insistence that the season should be spent with loved ones. The marathon of the season affects most of us, I am convinced, but none so much as those estranged, by death or by circumstance, from the people whose company would make the holiday most meaningful.
Confined to a day or a week, those reminders might be tolerable, but we drag them out over more than a month. Abstractly, we know who to blame for that circumstance. No doubt there are a few Christmas die-hards—the sort of people so enamored with the season that they greet with enthusiasm every calendar day that can be added to its side of the ledger. They leave strings of red and green lights on the eaves of their houses through January; they display porcelain elves on end tables year round. Presumably, most of them ultimately succumb to a kind of Christmas morbidity, opening remote North Pole-themed museums that allow them to revel in the holiday 365 days a year.
For the most part, though, it isn’t your average person who’s responsible for Christmas creep. We’re complicit, no doubt, but most of the work is done by retailers. It’s they who have the most to gain from extending the season, since Christmas encourages a loosening of the belt and an increase in discretionary spending.
That’s how Thanksgiving became a casualty. More and more, emphasis fell not on quiet, family gatherings, but on the lunacy and occasional mayhem of Black Friday.
That seems like such a specific event—the timeframe is right there in the name! Yet Black Friday has burst its temporal borders. Some stores now begin their deals on Thursday evening, if not earlier. Dinner is practically overshadowed by the hype. And with Thanksgiving out of the way, there is no other calendar event in November to mark the absolute limit of the Christmas holiday season. So why not start immediately after Halloween?
Nor have Christian conservatives, whom you might expect to feel a vested interest in preserving holiness as part of the holiday, been much help. For all their posturing about a War on Christmas, they’ve focused far more on the iconography used by retailers than on preserving the form of Christmas. Looking at the frivolous rhetorical battles they’ve favored, you’d be forgiven for thinking that they’re less concerned with the de facto control retailers have assumed over declaring the start of Christmas than with what we call a tree that quite obviously comes to the holiday by way of pagan nature-worship. It’s hardly convincing to insist that Jesus is the reason for the season when the terminal points of that season are determined by the marketing calendars of Fortune 500 companies.
As such, it is no coincidence that rabid shopping has begun to displace Thanksgiving for many people. In a society largely divorced from that holiday’s agricultural roots, Black Friday is the closest we get to a harvest. There is a rubberneck appeal to its long queues and rude shopper hijinks, but more than that, the annual running of the bull-headed has become a market ritual, an invocation of hope for a year of economic prosperity.
Television and the news media have played a significant part in building that tradition. In part, that’s an effect of the eminent reportability of people behaving badly. For cable new outlets—which thrive on the ability to endlessly loop compelling bytes of video behind the patter of unfazed talking heads—clips of frenzied shopper rushing into department stores and fighting over the season’s hot toy are an easy sell. But the ups and downs of the economy are of genuine interest to news outlets, not least of all because a strong retail market means more advertising.
Black Friday’s tenuous connection with Christmas is a fig leaf, really, made possible by a tradition of gift-giving run amok. The sooner we decorate our homes, streets and stores with the traditional markers of Christmas, the more we can justify our market ritual on the premise that we need time to accumulate all of those presents. It’s all in the spirit of giving, we tell ourselves, despite evidence to effect that many Black Friday shoppers are buying for themselves. Which is, of course, their prerogative. The retailers certainly don’t mind, and neither would I, were it not for the thin fiction that all of this is somehow about Christmas.
In the meantime, Christmas Creep is virtually unavoidable. You can’t so much as go into a grocery store for a carton of milk, except to the accompaniment of “White Christmas” and the backdrop of a dozen Christmas-themed ads.
It’s ironic, then, that the internet provides a comparatively safe haven. There, at least, embedded songs have largely fallen out of fashion, and holiday iconography is more often (which is not to say often) displayed in moderation. For what little non-essential shopping I will do this season, I will instinctively gravitate toward ecommerce sites, simply to avoid the psychological warfare that’s being waged in stores.
For a consumer like myself, though, dismayed at the withering away brick-and-mortar retailers, that creates a dilemma. There’s much to appreciate about ecommerce, but I try to balance the convenience of ordering online with a properly civic concern for local business. The question is, am I willing to temporarily put those concerns aside for the sake of preserving the holidays, even if that means more than a month of shopping online or not at all?
Yes, I am, actually. I’m just not sure that will matter much to physical retailers. One person opting out doesn’t send a very strong message. Even a million people boycotting the stores that start Christmas early might fail to make themselves understood. Christmas Creep is such an ingrained part of our culture that it’s just as likely that those stores would start even earlier the following year, thinking their mistake was that they had insisted too little on the holiday. A good strategy is rooted in logic and responds to changing circumstances, but this isn’t strategy. It’s ritual.
What’s needed is a clear message that retailers can’t mistake: Keep the holiday decor boxed up until the week before Christmas, or you won’t see us again until New Year’s.