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The Truth About Christmas: A Retailing Cancer Run Amok   (December 24, 2005)

It has become banal to observe that Christmas is now commercialized to the point that the Devil himself is chuckling with delight. But this doesn't make it less true. So by all means, despite the banality, let's speak truth to power and state that Christmas has metastasized into a retail cancer in the body of American culture, a runaway expression of consumerism-as-the-true-religion.

Like the proverb about the frog which never jumps from the pot of hot water because the temperature has increased so incrementally that the poor creature didn't notice, Americans are now being boiled alive by a holiday which has increased their stress levels and financial waste to degrees unknown to previous generations.

Perhaps it will strain the credulity of younger readers, but my Mom fondly recalls getting an orange in her stocking in the Great Depression years. Yes, a common orange, shipped all the way from Florida or California to distant Kentucky, was a treat. Now, food is throw-away cheap, along with most of the clothing, gadgets and gewgaws people are desperately buying to fulfill their sacred duty to give unneeded gifts.

Talk about inflation; when did it become standard practise to shower gifts on co-workers, customers, neighbors and relatives outside the immediate family? It was simpler in the 60s, I assure you, for the simple reason few had enough money to buy even small gifts for anyone outside the household.

Then there's the inflation of "retail time" from late November all the way back to August. If this isn't evidence of a pervasive cultural sickness, then what qualifies? Yes, there are plenty of other qualifiers--horribly violent, sexually explicit video games, the pornographication of advertising, the routine obfuscation of the truth by government officials and agencies--but certainly the acceptance of a deeply ugly retail consumerism as the new Christmas "holiday" norm is a cancerous cultural malady.

Is "cancerous" perhaps too strong, or an unsavory metaphor? As someone who has had a cancer surgically removed, I would call it apt. Like a cancer, this rampant consumerism has grown without the larger body even being aware of its destructive reach. Like cancer, it has stealthily tapped into the bloodstream of the economy, which is now dependent on the Christmas shopping frenzy for up to a third of annual retail sales.

The real clincher for the disease metaphor, though, is the astonishing array of unhappinesses which the "holiday" causes. What emotions do you witness in your fellow citizens during this "holiday"? Rage, frustration, stress, over-indulgence in self-medications to combat the high stress levels--is this a "happy time"? Far from it. It's the season every adult has learned to dread with every fiber of their being, a stress-a-thon of epic proportions which costs far beyond a typical family's means.

One other Depression-Era story. Fulfilling a great wish of his eldest son, my grandfather bought a bike for my uncle (my father's older brother) for Christmas. The bike was paid in weekly installments of $1. Remarkably--or perhaps not so remarkably--my Mom tells the same tale about her first bicycle and her Father's weekly payment of a single buck, back when a weekly wage might be $25.

Now, a few generations later, Mom or Dad are popping hundreds or even thousands of dollars for idiotic game consoles, big-screen TVs and assorted poorly made junk which won't even last as long as the credit card bills. Oh, and by the way, that big ATM you live in, otherwise known as the family house? It's stopped rising in value, so you might not be able to re-finance it and bleed off another 20 grand in equity next year to pay for holidays, vacations, etc.

So what's the solution? Easy, Just get off the merry-go-round. My good friend Steve summed up the alternative very well:
Call me scrooge, but outside of a few obligatory Christmas cards, I'm not participating this year and possibly forever. I mean when Christmas promotions start happening in June, something is definitely out of whack. I've had it with jazzed up versions of Christmas carols, and I'm fed up with "news" features of how commercialized Christmas has become. So, I'm actually having a stress free time...I guess that's one of the benefits of being a social misfit.
Misfit? More like expressing a truly remarkable sanity. And when sanity makes you a misfit, then it's the culture which is misfit: deeply, terribly and apparently irredeemably misfit.

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copyright © 2005 Charles Hugh Smith. All rights reserved in all media.

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