Co-Opting? ’Tis the Season

The middle-aged woman in the Santa hat sitting next to me on the plane sighed dramatically. “Seems like people have completely forgotten what Christmas is all about,” she announced to the air. She paused in an apparent attempt to leave me an opening to interject. I steadfastly did not.

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.

Actually, merchants fabricated most of the current American Christmas tradition around 1820 as part of a successful attempt to refocus the boisterousness of a population at loose ends and flush with unaccustomed abundance away from rioting and looting and toward buying things and quietly staying home to give them to each other.

You see, in ancient times, January was a more interesting month. The arrival of January meant that the harvest was complete, which meant less farm work to keep people busy. The cold weather kept butchered livestock from rotting, but there was a short window of time in which to enjoy it at its peak of palatability. So there was a lot of feasting. The first batches of beer were also 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 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,” when 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. 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 overindulgence and ritual extortion of the wealthy that filled a functional social role in monarchies didn’t go over very well in democratic, capitalistic America. In Europe, drunken revelers accosted noble lords and ladies who’d inherited land and other holdings, but in America, they harassed hardworking business people who didn’t feel as if 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, making the season such an unsafe time to go outdoors that the celebration of Christmas was actually officially outlawed in some major cities.

And so, spearheaded by business owners, a movement grew in the early 1820s 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 or outright fabricated “traditions,” like filling stockings 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 Donner (Thunder) and Blitzen (Lightning). His red hat is probably a corrupted blend of the bishop’s miter of St. Nicholas, 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 my seatmate’s 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 that he wasn’t the selflessly generous and sprightly old elf from her childhood, that he was instead 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 flight significantly more uncomfortable than it has to be just by saying the wrong thing. Even if it is true.