Christmas, Consumerism, and Holiday Season Hypocrisy

Stephen Lendman

Posted Dec 20, 2007      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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Holiday Season Hypocrisy

by Stephen Lendman

Christmas is observed December 25 by Christians and
others celebrating the spirit of the season while for
those of the Eastern Orthodox faith the holiday falls
on January 7. It’s to honor the birth of Jesus Christ
even though it’s widely acknowledged not to be his
birthday.  Along with its religious significance, the
season is also for other celebratory events like
winter festivals, parties, family get-togethers and
Kwanzaa from December 26 - January 1 for Africans
Americans to reconnect to their cultural and
historical heritage. Jews as well celebrate the season
with the Hanukkah Festival of Lights. It’s to
commemorate their struggle for survival, but for
Jewish children it’s their Christmas with gifts from
parents like their Christian friends get.

Christmas is also the time when the national obsession
to shop and consume reaches its zenith. It
traditionally begins the day after Thanksgiving, runs
through Christmas eve, and after the holiday continues
into January with plenty of extra buying power from
holiday gift cards, year-end bonuses and other
resources gotten or borrowed. It’s for everything
people never knew they wanted until creative
advertising wizardry made their lives incomplete
without them. 

Perhaps this single dominant trait characterizes
American culture more than any other. It’s a variant
of the kind of consumerism economist/sociologist
Thorstein Veblen called “conspicuous” in his 1899 book
“The Theory of the Leisure Class.” F. Scott Fitzgerald
explained that “the very rich….are different from
you and me.” Veblen wrote about their spending habits
and coined the phrase “conspicuous consumption.”
Today, it’s called “keeping up with the Joneses” or
consumerism, and it’s practiced by status-seeking
people obsessed with personal gratification. But not
just by the rich. Most people, except the poor, do it
and to excess.

The term “consumption” originated hundreds of years
ago. Then, it referred to infectious tuberculosis or
TB. But its original meaning is relevant in today’s
acquisitive society where consuming for essentials is
worlds apart from gluttonous consumerism. This variant
refers to overindulgent shopping and spending for
things people buy irrespective of need but not without
consequences for themselves and society.

Untreated TB, or consumption, consumes its victims in
a slow, painful death. Consumerism mimics it with it’s
similarly harmful fallout: ecological destruction;
unhealthy and unsafe consumer products; corporate
empowerment; profits pursued over people; militarism
and foreign wars; health, education and other
essential needs neglected; and democratic decay in a
corporatist state disdaining the public interest.

People take pride saying “when the going gets tough,
the tough go shopping” - but not without consequences.
The personal fallout is over-indebtedness millions
can’t handle in the wake of unexpected medical
emergencies or loss of employment. The toll: since the
early 1980s one in seven families forced into
bankruptcy, over 2 million in 2005 alone (30% above
2004), and millions more ahead from unchecked borrow
and binge-spending made worse by the subprime crisis.

Overindulgent spending is what clinicians call an
obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). At its worst,
it’s pathologically characterized by obsessive,
repetitive thoughts that need compulsive tasks and
rituals to relieve. For addicted consumers, it’s an
obsession to shop and spend and a compulsion to buy
and accumulate. In excess, it’s clinically
pathological and destructive when it causes

In America and the West, tens of millions of otherwise
normal people shop excessively for what they never
knew they wanted until Madison Avenue mind
manipulators convinced them. Economist Paul Baran
described the process as making us “want what we don’t
need (all unessential consumer goods and services) and
not….what we do (good health care, education, clean
air and water, safe food, and good government
providing essential services).” 

Future insolvency is risked, but few consider the
possibility until it’s too late. It’s worst at
Christmas when it becomes a pathological orgy of
frenzied spending dismissively called getting into the
holiday spirit. Maybe for merchants, but not when
bills come due with growing millions unable to pay
them or needing more debt to delay for later what they
can’t handle now.

Institutionalized consumerism also plays into social
control. It’s empowered when people are focused on
bread and circus distractions that include the sights
and sounds of the season. Media theorist Neil Postman
once called Americans the most over-entertained and
under-informed people in the world and wrote about it
in books like “Amusing Ourselves to Death.” Attracted
to self-gratification and its reinforcing images,
they’re diverted from what matters most - challenging
wars of aggression, loss of civil liberties and human
rights, violations of law, gutted social services,
environmental harm, and policies benefitting the
privileged at the expense of beneficial social change.

Consumerism also lets corporate power prosper and
grow. It feeds unfettered capitalism and
out-of-control greed. It helps direct our tax dollars
to a militarized state instead of going for essential
social needs. It diverts the national wealth to an
imperial juggernaut that consumers finance through
overindulgence. The more we shop, the stronger it gets
and is better able to exploit new markets, resources
and cheap labor at the expense of the more expensive
kind at home whose future consumption is endangered by
today’s self-gratifying excesses.

Adam Smith was capitalism’s ideological godfather who
was also concerned about concentrated wealth and wrote
about it in “The Wealth of Nations.” He explained an
“invisible hand” of unseen forces worked best in a
free market with many small businesses competing
locally against each other. He contrasted them with
concentrated mercantilism and wrote about the
“merchants and manufacturers” who used their power to
wreak “dreadful misfortunes” and grave injustices on
the vast majority of people using the British East
India Company as a case study example.

Today’s monopoly capitalism would have been
unimaginable in his day, but he’d recognize it. He
wrote that throughout history we find the wreckage of
the “vile maxim of the masters of mankind….All for
ourselves and nothing for other people….unless
government takes pains to prevent” this outcome. No
invisible hand works in manipulated markets where
governments sanction Smith’s “vile maxim,” and the
greater good is nowhere in sight. Under neoliberal
rules, capital wins, people lose, and consumerism
makes things worse. It’s most extreme at Christmas
when shopping trumps the holiday’s meaning and
seasonal sights and sounds drown out everything else.

The toll is tragic. Whatever Christmas was, it no
longer is, and our behavior corrupts it and the spirit
of the man it honors. He spread it in deeds and
teachings from his Sermon on the Mount and message to
“turn the other cheek,” love thy neighbor, not kill,
and do unto others as you’d want them doing to you.
The consumerist ethic glorifies receiving, not giving;
condoning predatory capitalism and ignoring its harm;
neglecting the greater good; sanctifying
overindulgence while forgetting those most in need
throughout the year. In the spirit of the season,
thoughts should be on helping others and giving
thanks. In an unfettered marketplace, it’s impossible.

It’s a sad testimony to a society obsessed with greed
and gratification at the expense of beneficial social
change. At Christmas, it defiles the holiday spirit
and forgets the needy. For them, Christmas is “Bah
Humbug,” and Santa Scrooge - all take and no give.

New Year’s Day

New Year’s day is one week after Christmas and
concludes the long holiday season. It starts after
Thanksgiving, reaches a climax around Christmas, ebbs
for a day and builds again for a final celebratory new
year’s welcome with more overindulgent eating,
drinking, partying, and binge-shopping for

The new year is also a traditional time for
resolutions that include some with merit like losing
weight, quitting smoking and getting fit. Most are
forgotten, and those most important never made:
working for peace, good will toward others, loving
they neighbor, respecting everyone, and treating
people as we want to be treated in a society of caring
and sharing with equity and justice for all. Wouldn’t
that be a wonderful resolution for the new year. Long
ago in simpler times before the old world became
America, it was that way. It can be again, but wishing
won’t make it so. 

Stephen Lendman lives in Chicago and can be reached at
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