CHRISTIANITY IN THE MARKETPLACE: CHRISTMAS AND THE CONSUMER CULTURE

Joy to [Some of] the World

by Leigh Eric Schmidt

In a much publicized shopping trip, George and Barbara Bush headed off to J. C. Penney's and the mall the day after Thanksgiving last year to buy some Christmas gifts. More than the usual photo opportunity, their holiday excursion was a morality tale for the nation, a model for emulation. Christmas shopping was cast as an act of good citizenship, a way to jar the country's lethargic economy out of the doldrums. From the perspective of civic faith, the trumpeted visit of the president and his wife to a department store served to inaugurate and solemnize the Christmas season. The mall, not the church or the White House, was the recognized venue for this rite.[1] In American culture the marketplace serves all too obviously as a primary arena for Christmas preparation, observance, and enthrallment--a central location for the commemoration and promotion of one of Christianity's highest holy days. The consumer culture exercises a formative influence on a wide range of American holidays and celebrations, but the peculiar ironies of this commercial puissance are never more poignant than during the season of Jesus' advent.

Over the last three years I have been working on a book (reviewed below), Consumer Rites: The Buying & Selling of American Holidays (1997).  In this essay I want to share some of my conclusions and reflections, sampling four themes in particular.   The first is an historical overview: When did this alliance between the consumer culture and the holidays emerge? The second theme concerns the subversion of religious meaning: How does the rendering of Christmas in the marketplace threaten to displace the churches' celebrations? The third part turns this last issue around and addresses the potential complementarily of commercial and Christian versions of the holiday: In what sense did a symbiosis between Christianity and the market develop? Finally, the fourth theme focuses on critics of commercialization: What figures or groups have shown disenchantment with the modern Christmas and why? Together this mix of motifs offers a taste of the historical brew still percolating in my study.[2]

Jacques Le Goff, writing of time and work in the Middle Ages, observed that "against the merchant's time, the Church sets up its own time, which is supposed to belong to God alone and which cannot be an object of lucre." In theory and in ideal, "the time of business" and "the time of salvation" were counterpoised worlds in medieval Christianity. Christian worship set up a time apart, a time distinct from worldly business, a time of the soul. In practice and actuality, however, the line between the church's time and the merchant's time was never so clear. Fairs, markets, and amusements often competed very directly with divine worship on Sundays and other important holy days. At times, wares were peddled in the churchyard or even at the church door as the confluence of people for church festivals became an ideal occasion for haggling and trade. In some sense, medieval and early modern chapmen, peddlers, victualers, and tavern-keepers long knew what nineteenth-century retailers eventually discovered for their own purposes: Holidays and festivals were superb commercial opportunities. The predilection for turning holy days into market days and for transforming places of pilgrimage into open-air marts has deep roots in popular culture and popular Christianity.[3]

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries forward-looking merchants envisioned a new kind of market that would burst the confines of local fairs and celebrations. With their enterprising economic vision, they cast a wary eye on traditional holidays. As times of indolence and drunken carousing, popular festivals were seen as inimical to the new patterns of work discipline, self-control, and frugality that underpinned the advance of modern industry and commerce. Indeed, it was almost a pastime of Enlightenment thinkers to tabulate the pecuniary costs of holy days and holidays, and a common conclusion was that economic growth and productivity necessitated the diminution or even suppression of popular holidays. When subjected to the gauges of civic prosperity and social utility, the traditional round of church holy days and folk celebrations looked decidedly backward. This seemed especially the case with Christmas whose leisurely feasting and frolicking often stretched over two weeks or more. The modern impulse to rationalize time and to streamline the calendar took a very practical toll. In England, for example, there had been forty-seven bank holidays in 1761; by 1834 there were only four.[4] Time is money--so went Benjamin Franklin's maxim for the modern tradesman. In holiday terms, that meant curtailing such festivities, not promoting them.

Over the course of the nineteenth century, these dampering suspicions often gave way to warm espousal as more and more merchants discovered the potency of holidays within a burgeoning consumer culture. The market and its institutions increasingly turned to folk and religious celebrations for merchandising purposes, linking a range of new gifts and goods to the holidays. New Year's Day was among the first to be used in this way. An occasional advertisement for New Year's presents cropped up even in colonial newspapers, and gifts for New Year's rivaled, or even surpassed, Christmas items in the first half of the nineteenth century. St. Valentine's Day was not far behind in commercial aggrandizement, being virtually reinvented by stationers, booksellers, and printers in the 1840s and 1850s. The vogue for commercially produced valentines--bedecked variously with satin, velvet, lace, flowers, feathers, gilt, and even jewels--reached epidemic proportions in these decades. This fashion inspired, in turn, the Christmas card fad of the 1870s and 1880. After the Civil War various trades tapped into the holidays with growing sophistication and systematization. By 1900, joining the spirit of celebration to the spectacle of consumption was a commercial commonplace. Holiday symbols were used both to dramatize and to ritualize shopping.

Christmas soon emerged as the leading consumer fete. In the 1820s and 1830s, American booksellers already offered special gift books and souvenirs for the holiday season. one account of Christmas in New York City in 1832 suggested the dawning wonder of Christmas shopping:

Christmas eve, in the city of New-York, exhibits a spectacle, which, to a stranger, must be highly pleasing and effective. Whole rows of confectionery stores and toy shops, fancifully, and often splendidly, decorated with festoons of bright silk drapery, interspersed with flowers and evergreens, are brilliantly illuminated with gas-lights, arranged in every shape and figure that fancy can devise. During the evening, until midnight, these places are crowded with visitors of both sexes and all ages; others merely lounging from shop to shop to enjoy the varied scene.[5]

In the 1840, some shops were already trying to establish themselves as Kris Kringle's headquarters, even employing displays of America's newly emerging patron, Santa Claus, who fittingly looked more like a peddler with a bag of goods than a saint

In the expanding consumer culture of postbellum America, Christmas gifts and goods proliferated at a bewildering clip, so much so that by the turn of the century the commercial promotion of Christmas was pervasive. The trade journal Advertising World marvelled in 1904 that "there is scarcely any sort of store that does not make a special effort to capture Christmas trade." Running through a long list of stores or departments that profited from Christmas advertising, the writer urged ever "bigger and better" advertisements for the season, all "seductively worded" and "saturated with the Christmas spirit."[6] In the 1920s Macy's and Gimbel's added their Thanksgiving Day parades--grand extravaganzas that helped demarcate and lengthen the Christmas season. From there the race for Christmas business was run each year with ever-rising stakes.

In some sense the new prominence accorded the consumer-oriented version of Christmas meant a diminution of its religious celebration. Market forces created their own renditions of the holiday that at some level competed with, obscured, or subverted church-centered festivities. In particular, the department stores, which arose and crested in the decades after 1870, seemed to threaten the churches with displacement as the new cathedrals of urban America and as new centers of holiday celebration.

The palatial emporiums were the greatest promoters of Christmas, regularly surpassing the churches in preparation and zeal, especially in comparison with low-church Protestants who often still carried a residual Puritan suspicion of a feast day long considered popish and pagan. Emerging out of the simple dry-goods establishments of antebellum America, the department stores grew after the Civil War into the behemoths of modern retailing, major bulwarks in the skylines of urban America and primary institutions in the rise of the consumer culture. Typifying this growth was the massive expansion of Edward Ridley & Sons in New York City. The firm grew from a 12'-by-30' dry-goods shop in 1849 to a seven-floor palace of goods with 115 different departments in 1889, spanning a city block and employing 2550 people. Benefiting from rapidly enlarging and improving networks of urban transportation and from new technologies in lighting, plate glass, and ventilation, the immense stores became feasible and throve. Through huge inventories, low mark-up, fixed prices, money-back guarantees, customer credit, and home delivery, the stores revolutionized modern retailing. Without peer in advertising and publicity, the department stores led the way with daily full-page newspaper advertisements and with an endless wealth of creative and fantastic promotions.[7]

The department stores were imbued with a luminous, almost sacral quality. The metaphor of "cathedral" was often used to describe them, and it was not loosely applied. Connections were apparent in architectural styles, the prominence given decorative glass and dramatic lighting, the sheer scale of the buildings, and the inclusion of cathedral-like organs. John Wanamaker, for example, financed construction of the world's largest organ as the centerpiece of his Philadelphia store, comparing it favorably in store publicity to the organs of various European cathedrals; he even brought in the organist from the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris to perform a series of concerts in the store. A collection of souvenir poems for Marshall Field and Co., in which the grand Chicago emporium was heralded as the "Cathedral of all Stores," drew out these themes of sacrality in detail:

Watchman, Day on day, Through the wide portals of the wondrous mart-- As eager pilgrims to a beauteous shrine-- Presses the multitude.
Watchman! Fain would I Solve the mystery of the Great Shop's charm Which, like faint incense from far censer swung, Pervades the spacious floors.

Marshall Field's, like the other great department stores, was envisioned as a place of dreams and untrammeled expectations, a place of awe and pilgrimage, where "merchandise in festal piles" was the new object of veneration and wonder. At Christmas and Easter, window and interior decorations played on these numinous connections in the creation of stained-glass windows, cathedral facades, and displays of flowers and greenery drawn directly from the art of church decoration. The stores, in short, offered their own holiday rituals, their own sacral symbols and myths.[8]

One of the best places to see how the rituals of the consumer culture could displace religious observances is in women's diaries of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Women, long the majority of church members, increasingly took on in these decades the new, expansive role of consumers--a part that could compete with as much as complement their activities as churchgoers.[9] Take the example of Clara Pardee, a middle class Protestant in turn-of-the-century New York. Spanning the years from 1883 to 1938, Pardee's diary offers a helpful, if laconic, chronicle of her Christmas preparations. There was a great deal of excitement and energy for her in the two weeks before Christmas as she went downtown repeatedly to shop, browse, and admire. For December 15,1885, she commented: "Down town all the morning for Xmas. . . & went down town again in afternoon[,] a regular gad about all day." Though she often came home exhausted or felt "rushed to death," she was clearly pleased to be out of the house day after day and to be so engaged in such enlivening activities. Her Christmas outings for 1893 were both typical and revealing:

December 12 Went down town looking for Xmas
December 13 out to market & then down town & again in afternoon. everything is gay for Christmas.
December 14 out to market & down town until lunch time.
December 18 out to market & thence down town morning, afternoon & in evening to Bloomingdales.
December 19 out shopping to finish up in afternoon....Am dead tired tonight.
December 20 out to market then took Harold, Gertrude & May down town to see Xmas.... Fixed my gifts in afternoon.
December 21 Went out with sister "a Christmasing." E[nsign] and I went up 8th Ave for stocking treasures.
December 22 With sister down town for a few more errands.
December 23 out on errands until lunch time.... out with Ensign in the evening for Christmas.
December 24 Went to church after taking a short nap. Went to Sunday School in afternoon & trimmed tree, house &c &c in evening--dead tired but ready for Xmas.
December 25 Had a royal good time all day especially the little ones. All had fine presents too. I got silver tea kettle & lovely sofa pillow & bureau set, gloves, after dinner coffees, powder box &c &c--the tree was fine, the dinner good & all happy.

This series of holiday rituals were repeated from year to year, and Christmas shopping was an absorbing and satisfying part of Clara Pardee's life.[10]

Indeed, for Clara Pardee Christmas had become in many ways synonymous with shopping arid presents. To go "a Christmasing" was in her diary an expression for going downtown to shop; for her, to take in all the "Xmas sights" meant to see all the festive decorations of the New York department stores. on 8 December 1894, for example, she noted in typical phrasing that she headed out "with the children for Macy's to see 'Christmas.'" The next year when she took her son Harold shopping with her for Christmas presents, she noted that he "saw all the Christmas he could." Though a regular churchgoer (it was a matter of note to her when one of her children missed Sunday school for the first time in eight years), Clara Pardee had come to experience the holiday largely in terms of shopping and gifts. At Christmas 1895, she commented with dear satisfaction on the Christmas she had orchestrated: "So many presents we could not count them & all so happy, so merry & so well. I had 13 presents & I cannot tell how many the Babes had." The theater of the stores and the joy of familial gifts--not church services, Sunday school celebrations, or even elaborate church decorations--captured almost all her attention and imagination.[11]

As evidenced in Clara Pardee's diary, the consumer culture created a new way of celebrating that reflected a transformation of traditional religious and moral systems. Her Christmas rituals disclose a larger cultural transition charted by T. J. Jackson Lears and other scholars: An older Protestant and producer ethic was increasingly eclipsed by a new therapeutic ethic that stressed self-fulfillment and domestic consumption.[12] The marketplace offered its own dreams and allure; its own ruling discourse of abundance, display, fashion, style, and affluence; its own vision of elaborate gift-giving and familial prosperity. This new faith had its own foundational texts in the Sears Roebudk and Montgomery Ward catalogs; its own monumental places of congregation in the department stores (and eventually in malls); its own calendar of celebrations; its own soteriological ideals. In this regard, Daniel Boorstin lifted up a character's remark from Arthur Miller's play The Price, and the lines are worth reiterating: "Because you see the main thing today is--shopping. Years ago a person, he was unhappy, didn't know what to do with himself--he'd go to church.... Today you're unhappy? Can't figure it out? What is the salvation? Go shopping."[13] In many ways the consumer culture developed its own secular surrogates for religion.

The sharp redefinition of Christmas in terms of consumption suggests the formative power of the market in American religion. Even protests over this commercialization often become subsumed by the market: Mugs that proclaim "Jesus is the Best Gift," sweatshirts that insist "Jesus is the Reason for the Season," or slap bracelets that announce "Jesus is the Heart of Christmas" suggest that the anticommercialization sentiment is itself marketable and consumable. The persistent emphasis on the marketing of evangelism in American religion from George Whitefield to Charles Grandison Finney to Dwight Moody to Billy Sunday is another kind of testimony to the shaping power of the market. The emphasis on church growth, church management, and church advertising suggests how the logic of the marketplace has come to inform much of American religion. Perhaps, as a number of scholars have suggested, this free market in religion has underwritten the vitality of American religious traditions, but this vitality, of course, has carried a price. The values and institutions of the marketplace have become a dominant part of America's public faith. As the Millinery Trade Review, which had no small stake in the celebration of Easter, observed approvinlgy in a "Sermonette" in 1886, "We suit our religion to our business, not our business to our religion."[14]

All was not displacement and subversion, however. Christianity also shaped commerce, its repertory of symbols, its public expressions of faith. The marketplace was not wholly inhospitable to Christianity and the churches' versions of Christmas. Indeed, celebrations that meshed harmoniously with those of the churches were regularly staged in the marketplace. often commerce did not displace Christianity, but instead built upon its associations and power. In many ways the commercial aggrandizement of Christmas only served to make religious symbols all that much more public and pervasive. Ironically the market value of Christmas gave this Christian feast heightened prominence in public discourse-a year-to-year foodhold from which the religious meanings of the celebrations could be recurrently broached. At minimum this meant annual reminders chat Christmas involves far more than the tinsel and gewgaws of trade; at maximum it meant that commercial festivities enlarged, echoed, and enhanced Christian celebrations. often outdid the churches in religious adornment and symbolism. All along, of course, the stores throve on mammodh Christmas Toylands, thrones for Santa Claus, and enchanted seasonal scenes of winter and evergreens. Yet the stores turned to Christianity for many of their grandest effects. With pipe organs, choirs, religious paintings and banners, statues of saints and angels, crosses and lilies, and miniature churches in show windows, the stores were often brimming with Christian symbols. Printers' Ink, for example, ran this telling evaluation of "New York Holiday Windows" in 1898:

The prettiest and most dainty window display this season is in O'Neill's department store on Sixth Avenue. It is a model of a church and the title is 'Christmas Eve.' The church is probably ten feet long by four feet high, with a tower at either end and a large arched entrance in the center. The ground and the buildings are covered with snow, while the lights within stream through the stained glass windows and give a beautiful effect. But the wonderful part of the show is that the church is entirely built of lace handkerchiefs.

In such revealing juxtapositions--a church built out of a commodity to help sell it and ocher commodities at Christmas--one sees the subtle, evocative power of religious symbolism in the marketplace. Religious symbols sacralized and mystified Christmas gift-giving; such displays bathed consumption in the reflected glory of Christianity.[15]

It is easy to be cynical or sardonic about such displays or to dismiss such public uses of religious symbols as sinister manipulation, but it is word taking a second look. In this regard the celebration of Christmas in the Wanamaker stores in Philadelphia and New York comes as a revelation. For John and Rodman Wanamaker, builders of Sunday schools and churches, the stores were simply their loftiest temples; indeed, John referred to his emporiums as "a pulpit for me." Wanamaker's Grand Court in Philadelphia became at Christmas almost literally a church. There was carol singing twice a day, and the store printed up its own hymnals for use by its customers (this was true from at least the 1910s through the 1950s with a new edition printed each year). Religious carols--such as "O Come All Ye Faithful," "Hark! the Herald Angels Sing," and "All Hail the Power of Jesus' Name"--predominated over merely seasonal selections. The carol books often carried a prayerful message from John Wanamaker himself (two collections of his religious writings were published posthumously). "No day ever equalled the birthday of Mary's Son in the stable of the little inn at Bedllehem," one of Wanamaker's typical Christmas messages read. "To get right with Christmas would make men right with one another, nation with nation, and put . . . right this old world, almost falling to pieces." Beyond the caroling, the interior decorations were spectacles of spirituality. Paintings of the Nativity and the Three Magi, wood-carved statues of the apostles, banners of Christian crusaders, cathedral vaulting made of greenery, and a monumental re-creation of a rose window from Westminster Abbey--all found a place in the Grand Court in 1932 alone.[16]

People found such decorations awe-inspiring. Like nineteenth-century farmers who wrote to Montgomery Ward's as if the mail-order house were part of the family, twentieth-century urban shoppers wrote to Wanamaker's as if in the stores they had discovered religious community. "Dear Friends," one woman wrote on the back of a Christmas card to Wanamaker's in 1950, "I certainly want to congratulate you on your Christmas Decorations. It made me feel that Christ my Lord and Savior was in the midst of it all." A Catholic nun and schoolteacher, Sister Franceline, wrote warmly that seeing Wanamaker's at the holidays each year had become part of her "Christmas ritual." "I loved it all," she wrote, "beginning with 'Christmas in old Philadelphia' and ending--really not ending, for I can still see it all--with the lovely, lovely panels."[17]

Others were similarly moved. one man, in distinctly Wesleyan diction, said that he found his heart "strangely warmed" amid the Christmas carols and religious decorations. Another found in the store's "beautiful decorations honoring Jesus Christ" a glimpse of the ineffable; they were "beyond human expression." Indeed, upon entering the Grand Court at Christmas, many men were reported to have removed their hats in instinctive reverence. As one woman concluded in a thank-you note to Wanamaker's, "You have taken a big step in dispelling the fear that so many of us have these days--that of a completely commercialized Christmas. You have shown that it is possible to combine merchandising with a religious background. I feel sure that your Christmas Sales will not suffer because of your effort to bring a feeling (if not a reality) of Peace into the hearts of those who gaze upwards from your Grand Court." In such a context Christmas shopping was hardly a secular surrogate for religion. Instead the marketplace itself took on sacral qualities that dovetailed with the churches' celebrations. In the great department stores, like Wanamaker's, Christianity was brought into the marketplace for praise and homage; religious feeling coalesced with consumer desire.[18]

Admittedly one would be hard-pressed to find such monumental and explicit interweavings of Christianity and commerce in a contemporary department store. These days in Wanamaker's Grand Court for Christmas no cathedral is erected; instead there is a Dancing Water show comprised of colorfully lighted fountains. only such seasonal and folk symbols as reindeer, candy canes, Santa Claus, and snowmen remain. Perhaps the primary reminders of religion are outside on the sidewalks in the form of Salvation Army cadets, those sentinels of holiness amid the slough of holiday shopping. Perhaps, as is the case with public schools or public squares, religious symbols have been increasingly removed from the marketplace. But the marketplace is hardly naked. If rarely as grandly fused as in Wanamaker's, Christianity and commerce continue to merge at Christmas. Religious symbolism, ritual, and myth continue to find expression in and through the marketplace. A confluence of Christianity and commerce has been a characteristic part of American public life, and this has been especially so at Christmas.

This confluence was evident in the famous legal example of the Pawtucket, Rhode Island, creche in the early 1980s. When the ACLU challenged the constitutionality of the community's publicly financed Nativity scene, merchants in downtown Pawtucket were among the creche's most consitent backers. The creche, it was argued, was part of a much larger series of displays and decorations, all of which helped attract shoppers into the downtown and contributed, in Mayor Dennis Lynch's words, to the overall "economic well-being of the city." The Christmas display was one part of the city's larger cooperation with the business community, a small piece of a redevelopment plan for the downtown area in which the municipal government coordinated its "Christmas observance with the activities of merchants." If not the focus of legal concern, the economic rationale was nonetheless an important subtext in the case. The market was offered as a legitimation for the use of religious symbols in public arenas. The Nativity scene, rather than being viewed as an anomaly in the marketplace or in a public park, was accepted as a vital cultural symbol in America's public celebration of Christmas.[19]

The marketplace, in sum, does not simply subvert the religious meanings of Christmas. Instead, it often brings them into the public eye and repeatedly makes Christianity a matter of public expression and recognition. Combined with all the other public ways Christmas is celebrated in the culture--in schools, in town squares, in the White House's national Christmas tree, in television specials, and in churches--the marketplace helps raise, for a few days a year at least, the tattered remnants of the old banner of a Christian America. At no other time in the year are the tensions over religious pluralism more evident: Christmas is set up as an all-embracing cultural holiday with only passing sensitivity to those whom the holiday marginalizes. Certainly the December dilemma for American Jews and American Muslims is made all the more difficult because of the inescapable presence of Christmas in the marketplace. Like the erstwhile flow of people out of the churches into the concourse of the Easter parade, Christian celebration and the consumer culture have often been confluent, the one enlarging the other.

This conflux of commerce, consumption, and Christmas has provoked its share of critics and prophets for more than a century. The antagonists have spanned the denominational spectrum from Protestant social gospelers like Washington Gladden, who feared that the Victorian Christmas was degenerating into "a pig's feast," to Roman Catholic priests like James Cotter, who thought that "in America, Santa Claus is rapidly usurping the Babe's throne... making the holy name of sacrifice a term for greed." Innumerable pastors, priests, and lay people have wondered in exasperation at the loss of the gospel amid the commercial hoopla. "At Christmas time, when spiritual values should be uppermost in the minds of people," J. Harold Gwynne preached in 1938, "the land is inundated by a tidal wave of commercial activity and materialistic self-seeking that quite obliterates the quiet, peaceful, spiritual meaning of the birth of Christ." Scholars and social critics have sometimes joined the refrain of condemnation. Josef Pieper, for example, speaks of the "sham festivals" that have overtaken "true festivity," singling out the modern Christmas as his exemplar: "As everyone has observed, the real festival is almost disappearing behind the commercialized folderol that has come to the fore." Likewise, the ecumenical Christian group Alternatives, based in Ellenwood, Georgia, takes as its original charge the assailing of Christmas consumerism, asking insistency from one year to another, "Whose Birthday Is It, Anyway?"[20]

From this critical vantage point, commerce is viewed as intrinsically profaning: the boundaries chat mark out holy time are overwhelmed through advertising and merchandising, through the secularism of business. The machinations of the marketplace are seen as subverting free participation in the effervescence of the festival; manipulation and obligation displace spontaneity and sincerity. Both the profit-making of merchants and the gift-seeking of individuals are viewed as supplanting community celebration; the integrative, unifying powers of festivity are lost amid the impersonal world of malls and the private dreams of consumers. More than chat, the homogeneity of mass-produced gifts and goods are seen as shearing celebration of imagination, originality, and self-expression. This concern plays upon an essential nostalgia of modern industrialized societies for the genuine, the hand-crafted, the authentic, or the real.[21] Hence modern holidays and their rituals are often thought to be sadly insubstantial, ersatz, or hollow; they are never as good or genuine as they used to be. The widespread ambivalence about Christmas epitomizes this unease; in comparison with the joys and comforts of Christmas Past, Christmas Present always pales. The suspicion that the holidays have somehow been worked up by Hallmark or Macy's, that the holidays are not our own, hangs like a shadow over modern American celebrations.

Perhaps most insistently, the fundamental religious meanings of Christmas are seen as being lost in a sea of goods. Spiritual, nonmaterialistic teachings are thought to be overwhelmed in a consumer culture enthralled by abundance and self-gratification. In this view, the transcendent claims of Christian time, the revelatory power of the Incarnation and the Resurrection, are dwarfed before the mundane claims of merchant's time, which are puffed up in modern American culture like a big balloon in a Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade. More than that, feasts celebrating affluence and indulgence are seen as standing the liberating message of Christianity--good news for the poor and the downtrodden--on its head: Santa Claus and the promise of material reward, not the Christ Child and the divine humility of the manger, become the ultimate symbolic measure of American time. From this critical vantage point, the modern version of Christmas manages to sacrifice consumption, even as the feast itself is desacralized and distorted. Much the same has been said, too, about the American version of Chanukah as it has become increasingly engulfed in and enlarged by the merchandising reclame of the American Christmas. Commercial contrivance, in short, is thought to erode the religious significance of the holidays, disconnecting them from the transcendent and disemboweling them of their true meaning. As J. Harold Gwynne preached, "the commercialization of Christmas" crowds out"the real Christmas."[22]

The American marketplace has served for more than a century as a site of competition over the meanings of Christmas. The contest has revealed deep ambiguities in the culture--fundamental tensions between sacrifice and indulgence, simplicity and affluence, piety and spectacle, Christianity and consumerism. often the tensions have seemed to dissolve as in Clara Pardee's diary or in Wanamaker's Christmas cathedrals; at other times the tensions have remained taut as in the prophetic utterances of ministers and social critics. Christianity's presence in the American marketplace at Christmas has proved time and again to be densely ironic--ironies born of America's unfolding encounter with the commercial revolution. "A nation with the soul of a church" took on the trappings of the consumer culture and headed, like George and Barbara Bush, on an Advent pilgrimage to the mall.

Notes

[1.] See New York Times, November 30, 1991, 1.

[2.] For an additional sampling of these themes, especially regarding Mother's Day, see Leigh Eric Schmidt, "The Commercialization of the Calendar: American Holidays and the Culture of Consumption, 1870-1930," Journal of American History 78 (1991): 887-916.

[3.] Jacques Le Goff, Time, Work, and Culture in the Middle Ages, trans. Arthur Goldhammer (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980), 29-42. A good account of how religious holidays combine seamlessly with market days can be found in Robert J. Smith's ethnography of a Peruvian Catholic fiesta, The Art of the Festival, University of Kansas Publications in Anthropology, no. 6 (Lawrence: n.p., 1975), 124-30.

[4.] J. A. R. Pimlott, The Englishman's Christmas: A Social History (Hassocks, Sussex: Harvester Press, 1978), 77.

[5.] Samuel Woodworth, "Appendix: American Festivals, Games, and Amusements," in Horatio Smith, Festiuals, Games, and Amusements (New York, 1832),341.

[6.] L. Quackenbush, "Capturing Christmas Trade," Advertising World, Nov. 15, 1904, 1-2.

[7.] on Ridley's, see Edward Ridley & Sons (New York), "Programme of the Centennial Celebration of George Washington," 1889, in "Dry Goods Scrapbooks," Bella C. Landauer Collection of Business and Advertising Art, New-York Historical Society. The literature on the department storesisnch. See, for example, Daniel J. Boorstin, The Americans: The Democratic Experience (New York.. Random House, 1973), 101-9; Elaine S. Abelson, When Ladies GoA-Thu viny: Middle-Class Shoplifters in the Victorian Department Store (New York Oxford University Press, 1989); Susan Porter Benson, Counter Cultures: Salesroomen, Managers, and Customers in American Department Stores, 1890-1940 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1986); William R Leach, "Transformations in a Culture of Consumption: Women and Department Stores, 1890-1925," Journal of American History 71 (1984): 319-42. Boorstin is also suggestive on the transformation of Christmas into a "festival of consumption." See 157-64.

[8.] See Irvin Clay Lambert, Cathedral of All the Stores (Chicago: Marshall Field and Co., n.d.), n.p., in "Dry Goods Scrapbooks," Bella C. Landauer Collection of Business and Advertising Art, New-York Historical Society. on music in Wanarnaker's see Linda L. Tyler" 'Commerce and Poetry Hand in Hand': Music in American Department Stores, 1880-1930," Journal of the American Musicological Society 45 (1992): 75-120. on the department stores as consumer dream worlds, see Rosalind H. Williams, Dream Worlds: Mass Consumption in Late Nineteenth-Century France (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982).

[9.] on these issues, see especially Leach, "Transformations," 333-36.

[10.] Clara Burton Pardee, "Diary," New-York Historical Society, Manuscripts.

[11.] Ibid.

[12.] See T. J. Jackson Lears, "From Salvation to Self-Realization: Advertising and the Therapeutic Roots of the Consumer Culture, 1880-1930," in The Culture of Consumption: Critical Essays in American History, 1880-1980, ed. Richard Wightman Fox and T 1. Jackson Lears (New York: Pantheon Books, 1983), 3-38.

[13.] Quoted in Boorstin,Americans,89. on Sears and Montgomery Ward's, see ibid., 121-29.

[14.] "Sermonettes," Millinery Trade Review 11 (March 1886): 148.

[15.] Printers' Ink, December 21, 1898, 34.

[16.] See John Wanamaker to an unnamed friend, Dec. 27, 1881, Letterbook, Wanarnaker Collection, Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia. For examples of the carol books, see Box 25F, Wanamaker Collection. on the Grand Court, see Box 25E, Wanamaker Collection.

[17.] For these letters, see Box 7A, Wanamaker Collection.

[18.] Ibid.

[19.] Quotations from Mayor Dennis Lynch in Wayne R. Swanson, The Christ Child Goes to Court (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990), 34.

[20.] See Washington Gladden, Santa Claus on a Lark and other Christmas Stones (New York Century Co., 1890), 176; James H. Cotter, Straws from the Manger: or Thoughts on Christmas-tide (Milwaukee: Diederich-Schaefer Co., 1917),38; J. Harold Gwynne, The Gospel of Christmas (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1938), 36; Josef Pieper, In Tune with the World: A Theory of Festivity, trans. Richard and Clara Winston (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1963), 45; To Celebrate: Reshaping Holidays and Rites of Passage (Ellenwood, Gal: Alternatives, 1987); Whose Birthday Is It, Anyway? (Ellenwood, Gal: Alternatives, 1991).

[21.] on this theme, see especially Miles Orvell, The Real Thing: Imitation and Authenticity in American Culture, 1880-1940 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989).

[22.] Gwynne, Gospel, 23.

By Leigh Eric Schmidt

LEIGH ERIC SCHMIDT, assistant professor of church history in the theological and graduate schools of Drew University, is the author of Holy Fairs: Scottish Communions and American Revivals in the Early Modern Period (1989).

Books by the author:
Holy Fairs: Scottish Communions & American Revivals in the Early Modern Period (1990)
Consumer Rites: The Buying & Selling of American Holidays (1997)

Copyright of Cross Currents is the property of Association for Religion & Intellectual Life and its content may not be copied without the copyright holder's express written permission except for the print or download capabilities of the retrieval software used for access. This content is intended solely for the use of the individual user.
Source: Cross Currents, Fall 1992, Vol. 42 Issue 3, p342ff.