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It began about as subtly as Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, with all the discretion of the under-age drinking at the Harvard-Yale tailgate. Even before the first of those great end-of-the-year festivals centred on the death and consumption of a turkey—namely, American Thanksgiving—shop displays all over Harvard Square, and doubtless across America, began to display the early symptoms of their great annual malaise: the infusion of décor with vibrant reds and greens. With Christmas roughly a month away, the holiday shopping season has already hit its nauseating stride.
For weeks, generic gimmicks and average advertisements have been undermining the unique charm of Harvard Square. The younger siblings of the bells that wake Yard-dwellers every morning at quarter-to-nine now chime constantly on street-corners and, consequently, in nightmares of every description. Indeed, any attempt to clear one’s head and get some fresh air is foiled by the unchecked proliferation of tinsel. The best part: these little pre-fabricated, plasticized pieces of pure pleasure won’t go away for weeks. When it comes to commercial Christmas decorations, the silver lining isn’t only apparent—it’s the problem.
Many would call me a poor sport for being so quick to take issue with what’s clearly done in the spirit of holiday good cheer; but when I get upset that my Starbucks coffee now comes in a paper cup adorned with colorful Christmas decorations, I do so out of a genuine concern for the fate of what ought to be a very nice holiday. Not being Christian myself, I fear that my understanding of the true meaning of Christmas is grounded more firmly in Dickens than in reality, but there are a few things I know for sure.
The holiday season is a happy one. Students are freed from quotidian school obligations so that they might be happy (looming final examinations notwithstanding). Professionals take time away from work to spend time with their families. People tend to smile a little more, breathe a little more, and relax a little more. The Marlon Brando of our lives take a little time off and is replaced by Jimmy Stewart. Bells ring. Angels get their wings.
Perhaps it’s little more than a sad statement about our culture, but North Americans seem to be unable to let sleeping dogs lie when presented with the opportunity for relaxation that is the holiday season. We seem overly keen to fill the void in our daily stress-level with a craven consumerism that obligates one to find the perfect gift at the perfect price for just about everyone. According to a study by the American Research Group, the average American will spend just over $1000 on gifts this season—more than double the average individual in 1991. Ever since Coca-Cola introduced our modern image of Santa Claus to the world, consumers have been held hostage yearly by their own expectations and by the advertisers who have come to understand them. The tinsel in the window is not an expression of good will; it is a declaration that there are things to be bought within.
But what’s the problem with buying gifts? Everyone loves a present, regardless of the occasion, so surely one ought to applaud retailers for reminding us to bring a little sunshine into the lives of those near and dear to us. I don’t mean to suggest that there’s anything inherently wrong with exchanging gifts at Christmastime—it’s a tradition that can’t be argued with. However, when corporations exploit what was once, believe it or not, a religious tradition for financial gain, marketing the idea of a holiday and the traditions that accompany it and using their advertising to turn the exchange of gifts into an obligation rather than a gesture of love or friendship, they detract from the holiday and from the spirit of the season. It’s enough to make even an eggnog latte taste bitter.
The commercialization of the holiday season, represented so clearly by the decorations in the store windows of the world, takes away from the season to be jolly to the extent that the holiday scarcely resembles the ideal to which some of us non-commercial sentimentalists still cling. On the sidewalks of this country, it wasn’t the Grinch who stole Christmas—it was consumerism.
Adam Goldenberg ’08, a Crimson editorial comper, lives in Grays Hall.
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