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Oct 12, 2008

’Tis the Season …

Xmas Joy

I used to think that one didn’t have to be Christian to celebrate and appreciate the Christmas season. Yes, for the devout it marks the birth of Christ, and in that context it has an important spiritual significance that should not be scanted. But it also corresponds roughly with the winter solstice and, for the past century, at least in the West, it has been a secular holiday that celebrates the virtues of charity and selfless giving regardless of one’s religious affiliation. If it were only so simple!

Sadly, Christmas has also become a season for the gross accumulation of commodities under the sign of charity and giving. Children—in all of their innocence—are the primary beneficiaries of the holiday as they are indulged with all manner of toys and goodies distributed, somewhat magically, by an elfish deity who somehow distinguishes good from bad. And, of course, the more toys and goodies all the better. Or at least such is the myth of its representation in popular discourse. But truth to tell, there is something of a fetish to such giving that is more important to the adults who underwrite such indulgences than to the children who receive it—think of all the commercials you’ve seen where the parent’s satisfaction in observing their children far exceeds the joy of the children themselves. Put differently, the joy of giving in this scenario is more a justification for one’s own desire for the accumulation of goods than it is a desire to please the other.

The photograph above is only one of many representations of Black Friday, where adults camp out for hours in anticipation of the opportunity to accumulate commodities at a highly discounted rate. The supply always far exceeds the demand accenting the value of the goods and animating the desire for their possession, often leading to violence. Here, adults and children fight over a high definition television. There are many things worth fighting for, to be sure, but a television set? What is most revealing about the scene, however, is not so much the scuffle as it is the reaction of the spectators, some who have already claimed their own televisions. Some seem to be ignoring the scene altogether, not unlike the way they might walk past a homeless person as if they weren’t there, while others look on with a sadness that stands in marked contrast to what is supposed to be the joyousness of the season.

It is hard to know what to make of all of this, but perhaps there is a clue in the presence of the videographer who is capturing the scene for the nightly news. He knew exactly what was going to happen because what he is watching is a ritual event that takes place throughout the capitalist world (this scene is in a superstore in Wembley, England, but it could be in any Best Buy or Walmart in any city in the United States, or elsewhere for that matter), year after year, and as much as we might revile the greed that seeps through in such images we seem to celebrate it as well, casting such images each year as real time performances (advertisements?) of what we secretly  value the most—and that is not the joy of giving but the accumulation of goods.  As the bumper sticker says, “He who dies with the most toys wins!”

No, one does not have to be Christian to celebrate the Christmas holiday, and all I can say is … more’s the pity.

Credit: Luke MacGregor/Reuters



’Tis the Season …


4 Responses

  1. IanB says

    It’s not really the people with “the most toys” who are fighting over TVs on black Friday, though, is it? It’s the people who can only afford toys once a year because their wages are so stagnant. Okay, that’s a gross over-generalization. But I can’t help but notice that the footage of big lines and bizarre confrontations over commodities show are always taken from Walmart and Target, never Niemann Marcus or Cartier. And then there’s this: http://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2014/11/28/black-friday-brawl-videos-are-how-rich-people-shame-poor-ones/

    I mean, I’m all for busting down consumerism, but it’s a lot easier to understand why someone would get in a fight over a TV if you’ve had TVs waved in your face (and your kids’ faces) your whole life and told that the reason you don’t have one is because you’re lazy or immoral. In other words, I think that the Black Friday madness is indicative of something real sinister, I just don’t think that chalking it up to (poor people’s) greed and lack of personal character really gets at what that is.

  2. Lucaites says

    Ian: Point taken. So the photograph features the 99% not the 1%. Fair enough. But my point was not so much to chastise the lack of personal character of the poor (though I see how you would get there) as to how the ritualistic nature of this event is captured photographically as a spectacle that both puts our greed on display in somewhat prophetic fashion AND assuages any guilt we might have about accumulation of goods (whether we buy them at Wall Mart or Nieman Marcus).

  3. IanB says

    Hi Professor Lucaites, thanks for your reply and for the original posting! I see what you mean now about the weird ritual that Black Friday photography has become and the role that it plays in propping up guilt-free consumerism.

    PS, I reread my original reply and the language strikes me as a little more aggressive than I intended — my apologies, I tossed it off quickly on a break from work, which I should really have learned by now not to do 🙂

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