As I join many in my community in the annual post-feast January slim-down, it occurred to me that this is a fitting moment to reflect on how expansive market culture is damaging the health of our families.
For Christians, like me, there is no time during the year when the gap between who we say we are before God and the world and how we comport ourselves is more pronounced and visible than the long month of December (long in the sense that it has thirty-one days, seems to go on forever, and somehow now starts two months earlier). This special time used to be known by Christians as Advent but is increasingly called “Christmas shopping season” or “the most wonderful time of the year.” For many parents and their children, the hypocrisy of this gap only adds to the confusion and anxiety we deal with the rest of the year.
The symbolism of the religious spirit and the commercial frenzy of the holiday season are now thoroughly intertwined. Have you noticed references to Santa in religious settings, secular efforts to remove images of Santa from public settings and Christian resentment for that push (as if he were a religious icon), models of the crèche lying next to models of the sleigh, or radio stations playing medleys that blend hymns about presents for Jesus and songs about presents from Santa? The idea of Jesus has been subsumed in the materialism of Santa. The Christ Child is increasingly absent from the vast array of cultural products associated with commercial Christmas. Think of “Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer,” “Jingle Bells,” “White Christmas,” Frosty the Snowman, The Night Before Christmas, The Polar Express, or for that matter, A Christmas Carol. “Keeping Christmas well,” Ebenezer Scrooge’s triumphant lesson, is now much more about the material trappings than the spiritual reflection.
Without much consideration of this conflation, some Christians condemn “the attack on Christmas.” They blame secularists or other faith traditions. Have you seen this button? “It’s OK, Wish Me a Merry Christmas.” The irony of the imperative to defend Christmas and “put Christ back in Christmas” is that this problem is mainly a struggle between the Christian Jesus and the “Christian” Santa. It is not Jews (or atheists) hassling Christians to spend weeks scurrying around worrying about stuff (which used to jumpstart on the hideous day of shopping after Thanksgiving known as Black Friday but now seems to begin after Halloween). If anything, the cultural imperialism of Christmas seems to have enabled a sort of Christianization or really Santafication of Chanukah. It has made that minor holy day into a major retail event. Santa is teaching us that any people can forget who they are.
Needless to say, there have been vast commercial interests with a stake in “Christmas” for a long time. Indeed, the likes of Coca-Cola, the Saturday Evening Post, and various department stores helped invent the modern American version of Christmas. Those of us with normal levels of discipline, perspective, and traditionalism have a hard time resisting the pressures those interests assert. There are obviously interfaith tensions this time of year, but this struggle between Jesus and Santa is in some sense an intrafaith battle played out between Christian parents and their children, between Christian spouses, and between individual Christian impulses. As the allure of Santa encroaches into other religious traditions, some parallel intra-household disagreements no doubt unfold there too. We opt to amble through the world in short-term steps led by the clear signs of advertisers, peer pressure, keeping up with the Joneses, and our current understanding of “success” or we steer purposefully towards more subtle yet durable, spiritual guidance of sacred texts, communities of faith, and fidelity before God.
So, what are the real challenges American families face? And what do they have to do with Christmas? First a bit of context. The issues of middle- and upper-class families in the top three income quintiles are different from the challenges faced by poor and working class families in the bottom two quintiles. That is, low-income households mostly grapple with the problem of scarcity. Needs exceed resources. Even here in the richest country in the history of the world. Despite a broad sense that we don’t have everything we want, the issues for affluent Americans revolve around the problem of abundance. Resources exceed needs. Is that possible? Is it a problem? As rare as this circumstance is in human history, it is common in modern society. Just ask a drowning man if he wants a glass of water or a recovering alcoholic if she wants a beer. Note that the obesity epidemic is correlated with the dramatic rise in available calories that began in the 1970s. Ask American parents if decisions about which, when, and how many technological devices will be purchased for their children is tricky business. Or read The Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz.
Four themes related to this problem of abundance run through the lives of most middle class families with children, which are year-round dilemmas that become acute at Christmas. The first is consumption in general. The material comforts, gadget, toys, luxury vacations, large homes, and all the rest seduce us. A personal example close to home comes to mind. The amazing New York City Ballet holds a month-long residence in my hometown each summer. There is a special night for kids (especially girls) that revolves around American Girl Dolls. Parents and their children are invited to enjoy the evening along with their American Girl Dolls (each of which costs more than $100). It is unthinkable to encounter this amazing artistry without bringing this expensive toy (or so my daughters insist). Blending fine art with common toys is one of many new tactics in the sophisticated marketing apparatus. The estimated $15 billion annually spent on marketing to children, the 20,000 advertisements the average American child encounters each year (fifty-five per day!), are not rendered casually. Multinational corporations now have armies of neuroscientists, advertisers, and other trained experts studying how to attract and retain the attention of children. And they know what they are doing. According to recent research, average first-graders can identify 200 brands. Kids aged 4-12 influenced (directly or indirectly) some $670 billion of adult purchases in 2004. For a lot of girls, coming down stairs on the morning of December 25 to find an American Girl Doll is just a taste of what is to come.
The second theme that helps define modern Christmas is the rapidly changing role of media technology. As we come to terms with the cultural transformation of the information revolution, we have not yet figured out who is going to determine the ideals, laws, and manners around technology use and media exposure. I know many families in my community who feel outgunned in this regard. This is especially important as we shift from optional use of digital technology to basic dependence. The implications include self-reported addiction, problems of multi-tasking, sleep deprivation, distracted driving, declining communication skills, and a new kind of phenomenon Sherry Turkle calls being “alone together.”
These issues are also wrapped up in the risks of self-destructive consumerism. For instance, keeping up with the Joneses in what we give to children on Christmas morning costs much more than it did twenty years ago. My daughter’s second grade class had an “electronics day” in mid-December during which each child was encouraged to bring in her or his favorite gadget. Among all those 8- and 9-year-olds, three brought iPads and everyone else brought a cell phone and/or iPod. My wife and I outfitted our daughter with an old iPod, which later prompted her to declare that she was the most deprived person in her class. Just as American retailers count on the holiday season to generate a large portion of their annual profits, American families know they are going to use a large portion of their annual expenditures during this period, much of it on new technological goods and services.
The third theme is time, which is especially poignant during the weeks before Christmas as we rush around feeling like there is never enough. The Christian calendar during this season includes a period of spiritual preparation (Advent) and celebration (Christmas). Of course many people spend a ton of energy preparing and celebrating. But due to the encouragement of market culture, much of the energy is misdirected. All year long, including this season, middle-class families face the cascading pressures of overscheduling, workaholism, sleep deprivation, confusion about body image, and other problems related to time. Market culture is implicated in these patterns in so far as we are motivated by a competitive sense of visible achievement and attachment to things, which surely drives both the workaholism of parents and the overscheduling of children to some extent, and which contradicts the intention of the religious calendar.
There is more irony here in the connections to patterns of consumption and technology use. One might expect abundance to enable more leisure, rest, and reflection. Plenty of research, however, documents the large number of American professionals who work long hours in jobs they don’t like, with people they don’t care for, for money they don’t need, while simultaneously regretting the neglect of their loved ones. Moreover, most every time we develop a new kind of labor-saving technology that promises to yield surplus time (e.g., cell phones and email), the standards are changed. Salespeople, doctors and teachers, for instance, are increasingly expected to be available 24/7 all year long for their customers, patients, and students. Again, the question is who decides? In this case, who decides how we spend our time? Whoever it is (e.g., employers, teachers, coaches, neighbors, public figures, kids’ peers, peers’ parents), many families feel the control lies outside their home. In any event, market culture is part and parcel of this harried drive to be busy, productive, acquisitive, and achievement-oriented.
The final theme, which relates to the other three, is managing difference. That is, under what circumstances do we choose to be different from other people? We may want for ourselves or our children to be distinctive, creative, or extraordinary -- different in a good way. But we don’t want to be outcasts left behind or left out -- different in a bad way. Conversely, we do want to be normal, popular, to fit in and belong -- similar in a good way. But we may not want to be merely adequate, average, bland or boring -- similar in a bad way. Some sources of social similarity are appealing: community, companionship, cool, or support. Some kinds of social difference may also be desirable: race, gender, class, sexuality, religion, or nationality. But those same sources of social difference may under other circumstances be undesirable. In addition, there are of course vast sources of personal difference, which also run in different directions: talents, skills, interests or deficits. In short, the issue of difference is complex.
The way we live our lives in terms of consumption, media technology, and time is very much linked to the communities we live in and how we manage difference. Surely most parents do not want their children to be out front, like Veruka Salt from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the most spoiled, grasping kid known for her brattiness. Nor, obviously, do parents want their kids left behind (think of Angela’s Ashes or The Pursuit of Happyness). In Longing and Belong: Parents, Children, and Consumer Culture, Allison J. Pugh observes that what really concerns parents in this regard is the “economy of dignity.” They know their children’s desire is not just about having stuff. It is about fitting in, about literately participating in discussions of popular culture on the playground. Pugh finds that those families who effectively negotiate the question of difference raise children who are socially successful. Because this is a very difficult time to fit in without competing and shopping like everyone else, resisting market culture is a relentless struggle. At no time during the year is this struggle more intense than the holidays. Who wants to be a Grinch or Scrooge, or not hear the sleigh bells anymore?
Having just encountered the vivid ugliness of these four challenges (consumption, media technology, time, and difference) entangled in this season, and knowing that the usual whining about all this is also something of an annual ritual, I am tempted to make a bold argument: we should embrace poverty, ignorance, laziness, and loneliness. Poverty releases us from the burdens of abundance and waste associated with consumption patterns. Ignorance keeps us from being overstimulated and distracted by the firehose of information coming from modern media and technology. Laziness is inimical to workaholism, overscheduling, and hyper-competitiveness extending from the surging time pressures of suburban America. And loneliness would allow us to independently resist the slavery of peer pressure and recognize we have to be different amidst the madness of our era. Maybe monastic orders are on to something.
I am tempted to make an argument for these goals, but I won’t. No one will buy it and it would be stupid. Most people want to be comfortable, informed, active and connected. And we all need to come to terms with the culture in which we live. But that does not mean we have to passively accept all the craziness that comes our way. So, drawing from the insights I have garnered from my own children, friends and family, and especially wise parents who have come before me, I humbly offer the following fragmentary ideas for ways we might respond.
Culture is powerful. It often takes the form of an unseen but potent atmosphere that is difficult to measure, label or resist. Family members must have explicit conversations about what is at issue. What would it look like for you and your loved ones to explicitly refurbish how your family enacts its values in decisions related to stuff, media, time, and difference? Children’s materialism is usually not about vice, greed, or gluttony but about responding to the desire to belong, fit in, and be cool. Can such conversations productively explore how to balance those pressures?
Parents who are uncritical consumers, technophiles, workaholics, compliant sheep subservient to market culture can expect their children to follow suit. Parents who evince these patterns but exhort their children to do otherwise can expect resentment and distrust. Because most human beings have free will, the issue here is pretty simple. We can make different choices. But that doesn’t make it easy. In light of torrential cultural inertia, opting out of the rat race is like trying to stand still in the middle of a tornado. How can we assert ourselves and set a different kind of example in our own choices?
Rome wasn’t built in a day and this issue can’t be easily sorted out either. The question is: are there baby steps families can take in resisting these powerful pressures? In my own household, we are not especially radical. We tend to think in terms of keeping some balance, finding a place in the pack, identifying the mean or normative option. But given the constant pressure to upgrade or gear up, even this modest aspiration takes a lot of effort. Not succumbing to the seductions of addition means actively facilitating subtraction. For us, this means setting aside fixed time periods designated for commercial-free and technology-free activity, encounters with nature, plain old conversation, and engagement in our community of faith.
Communities of Discourse
This point follows from the last one. Extraordinary, talented individuals are able to act with vision and purpose under trying circumstances. But we average folks have a hard time swimming against the dominant cultural currents. So, it is important to face these challenges and work through them with other members of our communities. Plus, keeping up with the Joneses becomes a lot healthier if the Jones are sane. Are you in an active conversation with other concerned people in similar circumstances about how to respond to all this?
For a lot of spiritual communities, the commitment to tackle these issues is probably as hard and important as other ministries. Think about what you do for victims of disaster, poor people, shut-ins, and others in need. We don’t usually think about the problem of abundance this way, but we should. This challenge requires the same level of proactive agency. And, again, as with the other issues, Rome wasn’t built in a day. Plenty of role models across the country provide interesting examples. Some schools establish sensible classroom-wide policies about popular movies, sneakers or electronic gaming systems. The Birthdays Without Pressures project among parents and teachers in St. Paul, MN also comes to mind. What would it look like to collectively think outside the box for the holidays?
This point is worth reiterating because it includes all the other points here and relates to the special opportunities and responsibilities of engaged spiritual people. The groups each of us live in matter. The Judeo-Christian traditions explicitly call for standing apart from the trappings of this world. As influential as social life is, though, at the end of the day such groups do not dictate individual behavior. Each of us is free to choose when and how to be different. “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again,” Einstein observed, “and expecting a different result.” We could collectively and/or individually decide to not do the same thing over and over again.
This list just scratches the surface. But it might provide a productive starting place for families grappling with the problem of abundance, especially around the holidays when these matters are particularly burdensome.
- John Brueggemann. Rich, Free and Miserable: The Failure of Success in America.
- Campaign for a Commerical-Free Childhood
- The Center for a New American Dream
- Consuming Kids: The Commercialization of Childhood (film).
- Arlie Hochschild. The Commercialization of Intimate Life: Notes from Home and Work.
- John McKnight and Peter Block. The Abundant Community: Awakening the Power of Families and Neighborhoods.
- National Geographic. “Teenage Brains.”
- Allison J. Pugh. Longing and Belonging: Parents, Children and Consumer Culture.
- Alvin Rosenfeld and Nicole Wise. The Overscheduled Child: Avoiding the Hyper-Parenting Trap.
- Juliet B. Schor. Born to Buy: The Commercialized Child and the New Consumer Culture.
- Barry Schwartz. The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less.
- Sherry Turkle. Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each other.