I always breathe a sigh of relief when Christmas is over. Don’t get me wrong – I like Christmas carols, watching my kids open gifts, and the smell of Christmas trees, so I’m not a total Scrooge about the affair. But the logistics of travel, the cost of those gifts, the “We put up the decorations; We take down the decorations!” cycle is enough to leave me eager for January.
From a pop culture perspective this rather common feeling is particularly ironic, since most forms of holiday media already sent the very clear message that all of these things that generated such stress for many of us were, in fact, also supposed to be the source of our greatest happiness. Take, for instance, another sign of the season: the retail catalog. For those of us who were barraged by them (and I’ll choose Pottery Barn’s catalog for the sake of a specific example), the messages within unequivocally communicated that, with the proper décor accessories, one’s home can become the most idyllic, cozy shelter ever, capable of withstanding almost any sort of stress that either the holidays or the coldest assaults of winter might bring.
Now we all know on a cognitive level that buying that jumbo faux-fur arctic fox throw for the sofa would not, in fact, prevent us from wanting to strangle Uncle __________ (fill in the blank) when the conversation over Christmas dinner took an unfortunate turn. But the beauty of the Pottery Barn catalog is that Uncle ___________ is not there. Put differently, the reason why that home (or lamp, or armchair, or Egyptian cotton sheet set) is so lovely is because the circumstances under which we often imagine its use are circumstances absent of the workaday dynamics of human interactions. On a very simple level, then, what’s so lovely about such catalogs is that they allow us to think that we can own a reality that does not exist.
Of course, our identities as consumers are a key part — if not the central component — of this process. As a host of other social commentators have observed when regarding the dynamics of capitalist cultures, if I can be convinced that my existence is somehow inadequate when compared to others, then I (and everyone around me) am well-positioned to spend and consume in the pursuit of the ideal. Advertising’s job, then, is to manufacture and market an inadequacy of identity that can never quite be fulfilled.
One of my very favorite essays exemplifying this close relationship between the holidays, the economy, and social identity is Robert J. Thompson’s “Consecrating Consumer Culture: Christmas Television Specials.” Thompson observes that openly religious images hit mainstream American TV only once a year: the Christmas season. During this time (which, he notes, is marketed as one of family, love, and light), we also watch an inordinate amount of commercials interspersed between these highly romanticized Christmas images that remind one of childhood and home. These commercials suggest that our greatest fulfillment of family obligations is achieved through buying gifts, this despite the paradoxical (and simultaneous) religious message that the things worth the most are things that money can’t buy. In the end, Thompson remarks, the real “Christmas spirit” is guilt, for the function of TV commercials situated in the midst of highly emotional religious images is to encourage consumerism by preaching a continual message of one’s inadequacy and obligation to one’s family, children, or the otherwise perfect life that the holidays are supposed to represent.
What all of this means, I suspect, is that who we are is as much a function of who we (and others) perceive we are not. It is also yet another reminder that no matter how individualized our identities may feel, we are always a product of the many intersections of social life.