The Holiday-Industrial Complex

In the article that I recommended yesterday, one of my favorite parts is a quote from Eve Sedgwick:

The depressing thing about the Christmas season—isn’t it?—is that it’s the time when all the institutions are speaking with one voice. The Church says what the Church says. But the State says the same thing: maybe not (in some ways it hardly matters) in the language of theology, but in the language the State talks: legal holidays, long school hiatus, special postage stamps, and all. And the language of commerce more than chimes in, as consumer purchasing is organized ever more narrowly around the final weeks of the calendar year, the Dow Jones aquiver over Americans’ “holiday mood.” The media, in turn, fall in triumphally behind the Christmas phalanx: ad-swollen magazines have oozing turkeys on the cover, while for the news industry every question turns into the Christmas question—Will hostages be free for Christmas? What did that flash flood or mass murder (umpty-ump people killed and maimed) do to those families’ Christmas? And meanwhile, the pairing “families/Christmas” becomes increasingly tautological, as families more and more constitute themselves according to the schedule, and in the endlessly iterated image, of the holiday itself constituted in the image of ‘the’ family.

The thing hasn’t, finally, so much to do with propaganda for Christianity as with propaganda for Christmas itself.

Christmas is the American master-signifier, the quilting point at which everything comes together — and as such, it’s radically meaningless. Getting into the spirit of Christmas means nothing more than not resisting. The happiness and joy you’re supposed to feel is nothing but the joy of conforming. It’s pretty sinister, and I think it’s become more sinister within my lifetime as the one thing that religion traditionally brings to the table has become increasingly eclipsed: caring for the poor.

There are basically two references to povery that I noticed in all the Christmas festivities this year. The first is a lone line from one of the most annoying of Christmas songs, “The Little Drummer Boy”: “I am a poor boy too.” Other songs imply it, but this seems to be the only point at which we hear explicitly the reason behind the famous birth in a manger, which can otherwise come across as a kind of brute fact, just “how it happened.” The other is in Scrooge’s refusal to give a donation for poor relief at the beginning of A Christmas Carol, but ultimately his generosity is poured out on the Cratchit family, whom we might recognize as “middle class” given the father’s white-collar job.

It seems to me that when I was growing up, some form of volunteer work or donation to the poor was a routine part of Christmas, even if it amounted to little more than a token gesture. Now, however, a charitable donation is something that your asshole self-righteous liberal uncle gives on your behalf because he’s too good to buy you a real gift. Now the family becomes increasingly self-enclosed, and to the extent that the weak economy has reined in the consumerism, what has replaced it isn’t a form of service, but greater enjoyment of “time with your family.”

Meanwhile, the Holiday-Industrail Complex has expanded to fill the entire last third of the year. Whereas previously Thanksgiving was a kind of warm-up for Christmas, inaugurating the holiday season, we now have to contend with a new abomination: Halloween as a holiday for adults.

The regressive childishness that the adult Halloween encourages serves to reinforce the sentimentality surrounding Christmas, while the emphasis on “sexy” costumes reproduces one of the most oppressive aspects of Christmas, namely, the degree to which it totally and utterly sucks to be single during the holiday season. For most of the year, one has a normal reaction to a state of singleness — perhaps it’s a welcome break, perhaps it leaves one feeling lonely, etc. — but during the holiday season, one invariably feels like a failure. The sexualization of a childhood activity lays the groundwork for these feelings by reinforcing the link — which has always struck me as strange and creepy — between the childhood nostalgia of Christmas and the imperative of romance.

The inclusion of Halloween into the holiday season also brings the oppressive spectacle of New Year’s Eve more sharply into focus. Not only are we obligated to have fun on that night — ensuring that we won’t — but the hapless single person gets one last kick in the teeth, as they ring in the New Year with no one to kiss.

In this depressing dynamic which seeks to keep us all at the level of children, Thanksgiving remains a welcome respite. As opposed to the totalitarian holidays, Christmas and Halloween, which require not only that you conform but that you like it, Thanksgiving is reassuringly authoritarian: to fulfill your duty, you need only to have a meal with some kind of group, which at least gestures toward certain traditional items. While one does see attempts to “go around the table and say what you’re thankful for,” such outbreaks of oppressive sentiment remain episodic rather than pervasive and obligatory. Perhaps most importantly in this context, Thanksgiving does not enjoin us either to have fun nor to spend time with our family — having a meal with friends is totally acceptable and even normative, rather than being an inferior “substitute” for the real thing.

One can already see efforts to bring Thanksgiving more fully within the orbit of the holiday-industrial complex. The creation of a new quasi-holiday known as “Black Friday” out of what was formerly known as “the day after Thanksgiving” certainly helps here, but even more insidious is the sense that the “thanks” we should be “giving” is owed to “the troops” — integrating nationalism more firmly into the celebrations. This element of nationalism is obviously also present in the summer “eating” holidays that otherwise share many of the desirable attributes I’ve pointed out in Thanksgiving, but the gesture toward the troops is often superficial. The advantage of eliciting such feelings on Thanksgiving is that it is folded into the totalitarian atmosphere of the holidays, where sentiments must be sincerely present or, at worst, their absence must be explicitly marked by replacement feelings of guilt.

One should probably expect troop-focused piety to increasingly characterize Thanksgiving in coming years, and it is likely that “Black Friday” shopping will also come to encroach more and more on Thanksgiving Day itself — I wouldn’t be surprised if we even learned that shopping is a great way to work off those Thanksgiving calories. Those of us seeking low-key holidays with simple and clear obligations will have to wait until summertime, when we can enjoy our grilled meats and fireworks without feeling guilty for not loving our family enough or not having found true love or not having enough fun.

6 thoughts on “The Holiday-Industrial Complex

  1. Another thing to chew on: a common theme in Christmas movies is the imperative to believe in Santa Claus, whom everyone admits is fake, simply because believing is salutary in itself.

  2. The experience of reading this is one of “oh yeah, *that* is what I hate about the holidays.”

    One thing I’d add: The nationalism of Thanksgiving is even worse than this. It involves, after all, the ritualized re-telling of a national origin story. To children.

    I could be wrong, but I seem to remember Black Friday being used both as what we, the people, could do against the terrorists and against the economic collapse.

  3. Santa is obviously a bizarre figure who deserves more thought. For example, you mention the sexualization of childhood – what then do we make of the strange song I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus? In this song the child is voyeuristically enjoying watching his mother “tickle” and “kiss” Santa Claus? I’ve always thought Santa is the perfect representation of the Oedipal father in our society. First, he’s never around except one day of the year. Second, he doesn’t do anything for the family and leaves the mother responsible for the child’s well-being. Third, he even takes credit for the shit mother does do and is of course idealized as this omnipotent (yet unavailable) father by the child. Fourth, he is constantly watching the child from afar to make sure he does not step out of line otherwise the child is threatened with castration (i.e. coal in the stocking) and judgment. Finally, the child is rewarded with worthless presents that occupy the child’s times, which encourages the child to maintain distance from the desired Oedipal mother.

    Your point about charity and self-righteousness is especially salient. My parents were telling me about some evangelical friends who asked their kids if instead of receiving presents they would like to spend Christmas giving away presents to people in need. Surprisingly, the kids were able to resist the oppressive moralism and declined the offer, which I found encouraging.

  4. Jeremy: there’s also the song about grandma being run over by one of Santa’s reindeers and the song I hate most of all, “Santa Baby,” which seems to be the prelude to “I Saw Mom Kissing Santa Claus” with mom promising to prostitute herself to Santa in exchange for a variety of consumer goods. On the Oedipal issue, see “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” quite obviously.

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