Posted by: Harold Knight | 12/20/2010

Why Christmas is SOOOO depressing for a few—too few—people

People who are depressed at Christmas are to be praised, not pitied. They may well (whether or not they realize it) simply want to live autonomous, free, choiceful lives, and they know that’s impossible between Thanksgiving and December 26. They want freedom from the orgiastic worship of capitalism in which “Christian” society is caught up, but which has nothing to do with religion, save the cult of spending money. Overweening consumerism is the dominant (absolutely mandatory) religion in the West, and one can avoid it only by making oneself an anti-social, anti-American outcast.

That’s why Christmas is depressing.

I sometimes mock the 17th-century Massachusetts Puritans for not allowing Christmas celebrations. But they understood. Their only mistake was making as absolutely mandatory the other extreme—no excess at all. That was oppressive, too—and equally depressing.

The modern religious fetish of religion as belief. . . . prevents recognition of the consumer-capitalist Holidays as the imperial religion that constitutes power relations today. Belief, however, is as irrelevant to Christmas as it was to the Roman imperial cult. Several features of Christmas, of course, require a certain “suspension of disbelief.” Yet, despite pervasive disbelief (e.g., in Santa Claus or in ads), the symbols and images of Christmas are highly effective in achieving the desired result: the massive purchasing of (unneeded) commodities for the orgy of gift giving and consumption. What does belief matter when the presence of the power, in spirit and image, is so pervasive that consumption is simply unavoidable? One participates like everyone else, with no real choice or faith response involved. (1)

My late partner decorated a Christmas Tree yearly. I mean, decorated! I have still about a hundred of his ornaments—special ones I saved when I gave away the two thousand or so I knew I’d never use. Gave them to a Metrocrest Social Services to put in Christmas food baskets or to give away however they see fit. Make someone else’s Christmas brighter. No, it’s not generosity on my part—I just wanted to be rid of them.

Both Jerry’s tree and the Metrocrest food baskets are to the point.

Jerry said he wanted to recreate that ideal Christmas Tree we all carry around in our memory/imagination from childhood, but never actually saw—or had in our homes. And he did! Our apartment had a 13-foot vaulted ceiling, so the tree was always twelve feet tall. And full. We bought the tree on the First Sunday in Advent, and Jerry immediately began decorating. He gave it the last touches on Christmas Eve, listening to the Bach Christmas Oratorio as he worked. Christmas had officially begun. (I have pictures on my dead computer, and hard-copy pictures but no scanner, so you can’t see it. None of our friends will be surprised to know that I can’t find on the internet –Google images—a tree that even approaches in amazement one of Jerry’s trees).

Jerry had an ideal of childhood Christmas in his mind that he had to bring to fruition. Year after year. Once was never enough.

And now those ornaments will help someone else bring to fruition some ideal they have in their mind of Christmas. I trust it is not condescending to say that person is likely to be a single mother of a couple of kids who simply can’t afford the baubles of Christmas. That’s probably less true in these times when the rich are getting richer and the poor—of all races and situations—are getting poorer and poorer.

And what is this childhood Christmas idea? We are hooked as children to expect a lavishness that at any other time in the year would seem absurd to our parents. Late in the 19th century, Western societies saw a

. . . shift in the pattern of gift-giving to children. . .  it became the norm for adults to gift children seasonally (Christmas especially) . . . Christmas giving to children had become a central rite of the season since the 1880s when toy and novelty makers successfully tapped the ethic of free and unconditional spending on children that was so effectively symbolized by Santa Claus. (2)

We all—despite any religious association we might have with Christmas (Christ Mass)—are caught up in the consumer society that says, essentially, “If you cannot show enough love to your children to lavish upon them (a bizarre number of) gifts at Christmas, you are not a good parent, most likely a financial failure, and not a contributing member of American capitalist society.”

How much more depressing a life could one have? Failure as a parent, failure as a responsible adult, and failure to contribute to and fit in with society.

It is likely that very few people can believe (understand?) the lies inherent in that formulation. I’m certainly not one who lives the kind of choiceful life one might possibly live between Thanksgiving and December 26. I will be in California (spending money on plane tickets and hotels I really can’t afford if I am thinking responsibly) to visit my family for the week surrounding Christmas Day. I will shop for gifts for everyone in the family (children are no longer the only recipients of the largess of Christmas to show our love: “Every kiss begins with Kay”).

Americans are not alone in our orgy of capitalistic consumerism. All industrialized countries are dependent on the civil religion of Christmas to maintain their GNP. Santa visits Tokyo as well as Terre Haute.

Mattel Toys recently discovered that it no longer had to produce Barbie dolls with Asian features and clothes. With the opening of Eastern Europe in the 1990s to aggressive marketing and the growing identity of the commercially savvy young in many third world countries, Mattel was able to sell Barbies in about 140 countries by 1997, but did so by assuming the dress and physical look of forty nationalities. (3)

With successful marketing, just four years later in 2001, Mattel was able to sell “Rapunzel Barbie, whose ankle-length blonde locks cascade down her pink ball gown” in 59 countries. (4)

Wal-Mart is the leader in the globalization of capital and the world-wide homogenization of desire. If it were a country, its GNP would be 22nd highest in the world. It operates on the principle that consumerism will win out over the “emporium” (Saks-Fifth Avenue) and Ma and Pa businesses, the two ends of the traditional capitalist system.

The Wal-Mart Superstore makes naked the bottom line, and it celebrates being cheap. It invites me—as it were—to screw the system, while binding me to its system. (5)

And so, Christmas depressives, give yourselves a break. You may be the only Americans NOT bound to a system that annihilates freedom of choice and makes us (mostly) un-self-conscious participants in rituals of the religion of consumerism that define our relationships to the society around us and—more depressing—to each other.

(1) Horsley, Richard A. “Religion and Other Products of Empire.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 71.1 (2003): 37.
(2) Cross, Gary, and Gregory Smits. “Japan, the U.S. and the Globalization of Children’s Consumer Culture.” Journal of Social History. 873-890. George Mason University, 2005.
(3) ibid.
(4) ibid.
(5) Farmer, David John. “Wal-Mart: Neo-Feudal (K)Night?” Administrative Theory & Praxis 28.1 (2006): 148-161.


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