We Wish You a Commercial Christmas

With the holiday season comes celebration, community, and cash.

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Santa Claus Chocolate Figurines Pixabay

On average, America’s malls spend just over twenty thousand dollars on Christmas decorating, although regional malls may spend as much as one hundred thousand dollars for a major display. The average mall adds one full-time employee and four part-timers to help them with holiday preparations. So if “it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas,” it’s largely because America’s shopping centers are setting the stage for the season. No other institution, except perhaps the American home, does so much to establish the look of the holiday. The “old and lovable” motifs and mall decorations include light strings, stars, poinsettias, snowflakes, snowmen, Christmas trees, wreaths, pine cones, cardinals, ornaments, Santa Claus, elves, reindeer (especially red-nosed ones), sleighs, gift boxes, bows, and nutcrackers. Each of these motifs has a story of its own, and each works within the larger narrative of an American Christmas.8

One important motif in mall displays and promotions is children. Christmas is a holiday for children, and for adults who wish to recall the wonder of their own childhood. At Christmas, therefore, shopping centers love to cater to children, whose acquisitive instincts are presumed to be innocent. Store designers use fairy tales and folk stories, and their commercialized equivalents—like Disney movie motifs—to attract the attention of the juvenile mind. Stores create magical Toylands to appeal to the younger set and often tie in a proprietary stuffed animal with a storewide promotion. Malls bring in Santa Claus to get children thinking about their unmet material desires.

But there aren’t enough real children to make Christmas really profitable, so one of the functions of Christmas displays is to make metaphorical children out of all of us. “How better to ‘Celebrate the Season,’” Martin Pegler says, “than through the eyes—the mind—and the heart of a child.” For a child, Pegler says, Christmas “is a time to celebrate and to thoroughly enjoy being young and innocent and being the receiver of the many good things Christmas promises to bring.” In this formulation, being young and innocent is connected to the “joy of getting.” And, of course, childish innocence also means being oblivious to the commercial causes of our joy.

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A related theme of commercial Christmas displays is the family. As Pegler suggests, “Home for the Holidays strikes a deep responsive chord in many viewers’ hearts.” Even though Christians go both to church and the mall during the holiday season, the holy place of the holiday is the home. So designers evoke our family feelings then sell them back to us in material form. In a society with millions of homeless people, and with millions more whose homes are a mere rest stop between frenetic activities, the ideal of home is still a potent one. In a society where 70 percent of us don’t know our neighbors, the promise of home entertaining at Christmas is a way of dealing with our astonishing loss of social capital.

While Pegler develops a long list of contemporary themes that keep Christmas ever green—childhood and the family, lights and evergreens, Santa Claus and his bag of gifts, reindeer and elves, and the North Pole—he also highlights a few important traditional themes. Pegler notes, for example, that many store displays use Renaissance and Victorian motifs to promote their products. These motifs work in several ways. The Renaissance motif usually involves reproductions of paintings of the Madonna and Child, the three kings, or the manger scene. It hints at the religious meanings that cannot be foregrounded in a mall, as religious art allows a secular culture to display beliefs it has largely banished from public life. The Renaissance motif also helps to make the occasion more sublimely aesthetic. When store designers invoke classic artwork, they associate the department store with the museum, with established aesthetic traditions, and with the refined taste that can appreciate art that’s not painted on black velvet. Renaissance motifs make it seem like all our commercial activity is somehow aesthetic as well as materialistic, religious as well as economic. The process basically makes advertising spokesmen of Renaissance artists, transforming their paintings into contemporary commercial art, and suggesting that if an all-American Christmas was good enough for Michelangelo, it should be good enough for us.

Victorian motifs work a little differently, evoking “the good olde days” of the nineteenth century, when Christmas was a holiday unsullied by commercial activity. As Martin Pegler says, “Old-fashioned seems to be synonymous with Christmas.” Although one of Victoria’s secrets is that the contemporary American Christmas was invented by Victorians and that it was always commercial, we conveniently forget this history in our nostalgia for the warm feeling of a family like the Cratchits. By identifying our Christmas with the prim and proper Victorians, we can perhaps displace the doubts we feel about participating in the new-fashioned Christmas that violates so many old-fashioned values.

It’s not just visual merchandisers who help to create the spirit of Christmas in the shopping center: aural merchandisers also loop their tracks. We shop to the beat of our favorite Christmas carols and novelty songs. AEI Music, a Muzak competitor, suggests, for example, that “seasonal music can strengthen all your efforts and bring the holiday to life for customers. Create an atmosphere that promotes gift-buying and merry celebrating with a smart assortment of AEI’s Holiday programs.”

The American shopping center sets the stage for an American family Christmas. But shopping centers elsewhere also get dressed up for the holidays. As Melanie Conty suggests in Shopping Centers Today, “Because American culture has spread around the globe, North American-based holiday designers are finding their services needed in Europe, Africa, Asia, and South America, where Christmas is also a big deal.” During the 1990s, one Brazilian mall spent more than $3 million on Christmas decor. And a mall in Kobe, Japan—a country with only a handful of Christians—employed Center Stage Design of Paterson, New Jersey to create their Christmas look. So it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas around the world, with evergreens and holiday lights helping to keep people in the spirit of shopping.

Holiday-themed paper shopping bags

Shopping centers and retailers advertise their Christmas specials; they decorate for the holidays; and they play host to Santa Claus—all to help us focus on Christmas gifts. With a gift list in hand (or in head), we traipse off to the mall in search of “the perfect gift” for spouses, children, relatives, friends, colleagues, and (sometimes) acquaintances. And we shop intensely. As sociologist Theodore Caplow notes, Christmas shopping “mobilizes almost the entire population for several weeks, accounts for about 4% of its total annual expenditure, and takes precedence over ordinary forms of work and leisure.” Christmas shopping and gift giving are a complex cultural activity, a blend of personal preferences and cultural rules, a combination of generosity and greed, a mix of spirit and materialism. Still it’s possible to unwrap at least some of the cultural meanings of the gifts we buy at the mall.

Like other elements of the “invented tradition” of an American family Christmas, shopping and gift giving haven’t been stable elements of the celebration. Early English settlers to America brought their tradition of giving gifts, not to each other, but to servants and the poor. In this incarnation, gift giving was a part of a carnival inversion in which standard social roles were suspended and reversed for a day. By the 1870s, charitable “fancy” fairs sold homemade gifts created by women. But commercial commodities and “Christmas shopping” still played just a small part in a “traditional” American Christmas.

In 1874, Macy’s initiated the promotion of manufactured goods with a window display containing ten thousand dollars’ worth of imported dolls. Between 1880 and 1920, department stores intensified this publicity, both with advertising and store displays. But Americans remained uneasy about the message of materialism in these self-serving promotions. So the department stores began to offer strategies for sacralizing materialism. Offering a commodity as a “Christmas gift” changed its character, because it blanketed impersonal manufactures with a cloak of personal generosity. Newly popular wrapping paper also covered the commodification of Christmas, especially if gift givers removed the price tags that marked the commercial exchange. And, of course, Santa Claus also served to decontaminate the commercial character of commodities. Together, these promotions helped Americans get into “the spirit of giving.

Over time, Americans have developed clear patterns of gift exchange. We generally think that we are following personal preferences in selecting our Christmas gifts, but Caplow suggests that there are social rules to Christmas gift giving, with lots of complicated corollaries. For example, the “rule of relativity” says that gifts are not given randomly, but to express and reproduce social relationships. We give gifts to people we relate to: sometimes these people are relatives, sometimes they’re friends; occasionally, they’re people we work with. Sometimes families or offices draw names to channel gift giving, but even such a lottery is an expression of the familial bond and boundaries.

The “scaling rules” demand that gifts be scaled to the emotional value of the relationship. During this holy season, feelings and sentiments are converted into commodities, and vice versa. The gift is both a way of pleasing the recipient, and a way of reinforcing social status hierarchies. The size of your gift has less to do, in fact, with your actual affection for people than it does with social expectations of affection in these relationships. Spouses come first, then children. Parents of adults are less important than immediate family, but more important than siblings. You can’t give a bigger gift to your secretary than to your husband; you can’t favor one child over the others; you can’t exchange with one set of in-laws but not the other. Most disputes over gifts can be traced to differing estimations of the value of relationships.

The rules of Christmas giving are complicated because gift giving is a complex social task. Structurally speaking, too, Christmas gifts fulfill complex purposes. They help us to deal with the fact that we are persons, human beings, living in a global economy characterized by competition, calculation, and human exploitation. In fact, according to James Carrier, Christmas shopping is the way we domesticate the global economy. Carrier contends that shopping for gifts is an essential component of an American family Christmas, because such shopping is not entirely materialistic—it’s also a protest against materialism. If globalization is the economic trend of the early twenty-first century, domestication is its counterpoint.

Carrier suggests that we know, at some level, that commercial capitalism is inadequate to the task of being fully human. We know that if we ask “What are people for?” commercial capitalism doesn’t have the answer. Christmas, he says, is the time when we ritually prove to ourselves that we can control the capitalism that mostly controls us. We do this by shopping, by transforming the cold commodities of an impersonal economy into something both personal and meaningful: we make things into gifts. In malls of America, the objects of our desire are still just objects. “They are manufactured in the world of work and express only the impersonal desire for profit by the company that made them and the impersonal acting out of work roles lightly adopted and in return for money, by the unknown people who produced them.” When we buy these objects, we engage in an impersonal exchange of money for commodity. But we also engage in an act of personal selection. We have chosen this item with that person in mind. When we present these gifts, wrapped with the price tags removed, we transmute them into expressions of personal affection and relationship. In the process, we personalize the impersonal; we domesticate the market.

This is why handmade gifts aren’t as popular as store-bought goods for Christmas giving. Only 2 percent of American Christmas gifts are homemade, and it isn’t just because we’re lazy or unskilled. It’s because homemade gifts can’t convey this important cultural message. They show us how to opt out of the commercial economy, but purchased gifts, and the rituals that accompany them, show us how to appropriate the commodities of American capitalism to our own purposes all year long.

Despite the commercialism of the season—and perhaps because of it—we Americans still get “Santa-mental” about Christmas.

One Nation Under Goods: Malls and the Seductions of American Shopping is available from Smithsonian Books. Visit Smithsonian Books’ website to learn more about its publications and a full list of titles. 

Excerpt from One Nation Under Goods © 2003, 2010 Smithsonian Institution