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Co-Opting? T’is the Season

I hate travelling for the holidays, but there I was, crammed into the middle seat on another airplane on Christmas Eve while a pinch-faced male flight attendant in a Santa Claus hat huffily reminded people that their primary storage space was under the seat in front of them, NOT in the overhead bins, as if the *travelers* were the ones who had overbooked the flight and instituted fees for checked baggage. The fairly large, middle-aged lady sitting next to me, and coincidentally also wearing a Santa Claus hat, sighed dramatically and said, “He’s got no respect for what that hat stands for.”

I tried hard not to register in any way that I had heard her comment or was the least bit interested in beginning a conversation.

“There’s so little Christmas spirit in the world today,” she continued. “It’s like people have completely forgotten what Christmas is all about.” She paused in an apparent attempt to leave me an opening to interject.

“I’m Sally, by the way,” she said after a long moment. I glanced around at the nearby seats, considering my options.

“Let me remind you all, this is a completely full flight,” the pinch-faced attendant barked, cutting off any possibility of escape.

“Hi Sally, I’m Jim,” I offered reluctantly.

“Good to meet you, Jim,” Sally said. And then, without further preamble, she launched into an impassioned tirade about the commercialization of Christmas, which, she suggested, was a relatively recent development that had begun sometime after her own golden childhood and which was now reaching an unbearable peak.

Not that my eyes glazed over, but this got me thinking of a way we commonly fool ourselves with story. It seems like, down through the ages, we humans have repeatedly told ourselves the story that *commercialism, exploitation and cynical thinking are recent developments and becoming more pronounced as time goes on.* You can find laments about this in ancient Greek, Latin and Egyptian, and yet we continue to perceive the issue as being about the specific things going on in the world around us rather than the things going on inside all of us, always.

An example is our belief that the commercialization of Christmas began within our own lifetimes. I hate to say it, but most of the current Christmas tradition celebrated in America seems to have been fabricated starting around 1820 as part of a successful attempt, mostly spearheaded by merchants, to refocus the boisterousness of a population at loose ends and flush with unaccustomed abundance away from rioting and looting and toward buying things.

You see, prior to modern times, January was a very interesting month. The arrival of January meant that the crops were harvested, so there was less farm work to keep people busy and they had time to party. The livestock had just been butchered because it was cold enough for the meat to keep but there was a short window of time in which it was at its peak of palatability, so there was a lot of feasting. Also, the first batches of beer were ready to be drunk, which is what vast swaths of the population were at the onset of January–ready to be drunk. They had too much time on their hands, a short-lived overabundance of food that was going to be followed by a long period of want, way too much alcohol and they were facing the prospect of a long, bitter winter. Plus, they were coming out of thousands of years of a feudal tradition in which January was the “season of Misrule” during which masters and servants reversed roles and the poor could accost the well-to-do and demand gifts of food, alcohol and money as a kind of social-pressure-relief valve. This is actually the basis of many Christmas carols, which otherwise seem kind of inexplicable. *Now bring us our figgy pudding and bring it right here! We won’t go until we get some!*

However, the seasonal traditions of drunken over-indulgence and ritual extortion of the wealthy that filled a functional social role in monarchies didn’t go over very well in democratic America with its burgeoning middle class and its capitalist economy. In America, drunken revelers didn’t accost noble lords and ladies who’d earned their fortunes based on inherited land and holdings, but hardworking business people who didn’t feel like they owed any particular debt to the masses. The great experiment of American democracy, coupled with the beginnings of the industrial revolution, caused great social upheaval that was profoundly affecting everything, including Christmas. The holiday frequently turned into an excuse for licentious behavior, rioting in the streets and looting of shops that generally made the season such an unsafe time to go outdoors that the celebration of Christmas was actually officially outlawed in some major cities.

And so a conscious effort was brought to bear in the early 1820’s, spearheaded by business owners, to change Christmas from a drunken carnival of public excess into an idyllic domestic celebration built on a foundation of “selfless generosity” that would require the exchanging of gifts. They hand-selected and outright fabricated “traditions” like hanging stockings to be filled with presents and exchanging Christmas cards. Commercialism isn’t the bane of our current Christmas tradition, but its foundation. Even our modern version of Santa Claus was formulated as the figurehead of this domestic/commercial movement, built from a combination of the gift-giving Saint Nicholas, the British Father Christmas and various pagan figures including Odin, Cernunnos and the Green Man. Santa’s fur-lined suit and cap are both holdovers from the wild Green Man, as are his reindeer Donder (Thunder) and Blitzen (Lightning). His red hat is probably a corrupted blend of Saint Nicholas’ bishop’s mitre, Odin’s pointy wizard cap and the Green Man’s hooded cloak.

Which is what I was thinking as I watched the white fluff ball at the tip of Sally’s Santa hat bob energetically while she emphatically shook her head. “It just seems so wrong that all these brands and stores and everybody are glomming onto our Christmas traditions, using them to sell stuff and then not even wanting to call the holiday by its proper name,” she concluded. She sighed mightily and then stared at me expectantly, perhaps waiting for me to commiserate. I briefly toyed with telling her that Christmas, as she knew it, really was about commercialism. That there really was a Santa Claus, but he wasn’t the selflessly generous and sprightly old elf from her childhood, just an odd combination of ancient Norse Gods, pagan nature spirits and misappropriated saints invoked by merchants to sell presents and Coca-Cola. That what was bothering her was that she was getting older rather than that the world was changing. That her perception that the state of the universe was devolving into corruption and commercialism was a story as old as humanity and one we all tell ourselves in order to avoid facing the harsh reality that we are sliding into old age.

So I did.

And let me tell you, it is possible to make a four-and-a-half-hour, middle seat, Christmas Eve flight significantly more uncomfortable than it has to be just by saying the wrong thing. Even if it is true.

P.S. If you are interested in learning more about the American Christmas tradition and the origins of Santa Claus, check out The Battle for Christmas written by Stephen Nissenbaum and Santa Claus, Last of the Wild Men by Phyllis Siefker, both books to which I am deeply indebted for much of the information in this post.

“Character gets to the heart of what good storytelling is all about. They’ve helped Wendy’s focus on what makes us unique, different and special and that’s helped us to get people’s attention, keep their interest and keep the business growing. We compete with much larger brands, but by being overt about how we want to attack those differences, we’ve been able to have a lot of tension and conflict in the story that we are telling. That allows us to keep the story fresh and to fuel it. The more we do that the more positive attention we get as a brand and the more the brand continues to grow, which, in turn, builds our confidence in our storytelling and keeps the courage level high.”

—Kurt  Kane, President U.S. & Chief Commercial Officer, Wendy’s Corporation

“I’ve been through Character’s story framework process four times in my career, and it has always added extraordinary value. It was a central piece of Walmart’s rebranding effort in 2006, as we sought a new articulation of our brand narrative and our purpose. It’s an equally powerful tool for us now, as Walmart defines its place in a rapidly transforming retail environment. And we are currently using it to do the same for Sam’s Club.”

—Tony Rogers, Chief Marketing Officer, Walmart

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—Stephanie Gallo, Chief Marketing Officer, E&J Gallo Winery