Commercial Christmas

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George Murray offers his take on the commercialisation of Christmas and its implications for British culture and placemaking. 

It’s that time of year again isn’t it? We’re past the point of no return. And no, I don’t just mean the Christmas season; the sleigh shaped shadow of consumerist Christmas has been hovering overhead for a while now. For too long. Since mid-November? Or was it late October this year? Yes, Santa Claus is coming to town, and he’s armed and dangerous, this year’s arsenal consisting of iPhone’s and drones, Fitbits and football kits, GoPros and prosecco. All delivered to you by Saint Nick, courtesy of his elves at John Lewis, Amazon, Argos, Asos, Currys, Carphone Warehouse, Toys R Us, and a thousand other retailers. So no, I don’t just mean the Christmas season. I don’t even mean our 21st century, commercialised attitude towards Christmas. I mean the time when I can justifiably be annoyed by Christmas’s ever-creeping encroachment on the rest of the year, and from my high horse, say things like “what, already?” when I hear Noddy Holder yelling his prophetic first line, questioning us whether or not we’ve hung up our stockings on our walls yet? Because the truth is, I don’t mind the barrage of advertising and hype that comes with modern-day Christmas. In fact, I find it exciting. Sign me up to over-the-top modern Christmas; just keep it within the safe confines of December.

Our image of Santa Claus is the result of complex cultural exchanges, interspersed with clever commercial marketing. It is well known that Santa Claus’s origins are found in the folklore of northern continental Europe, so how did he become the symbol of the English-speaking commercial Christmas? In 1822, the American author Clement Clarke Moore wrote A Visit From Saint Nicholas, an imaginative re-interpretation of early-modern Dutch customs, which subsequently inspired many English-language literary and visual portrayals of Santa Claus, who very gradually began to appear in England in the mid-nineteenth century. The issue of the cultural transfer of Santa Claus is complicated by the fact that England had its own version of St Nicholas; Father Christmas, who emerged in the seventeenth century as a personification of feasting and games, although he had no connection to gift-giving. Consequently, when Santa Claus began to be discussed in English newspapers and periodicals in the 1870s, his origins were fetishised in English rural folklore, interspersed with ideas and myths taken from Father Christmas. Several correspondents offered explanations as to the origins of the gift-giving Santa Claus, although none mentioned the United States.

Because of these apparently obscure origins of Santa Claus’ arrival into the English-speaking world, there was a rich variety of visual interpretations in the nineteenth century, and the iconography surrounding Santa remained unstable until the twentieth century, when advertising and commercial culture helped to codify his image, the most influential and infamous being Haddon Sundblom’s illustrations for Coca-Cola. Commercial culture helped standardise Santa and his uniform into an instantly recognisable and universally applicable symbol of Christmas spirit. In this sense, Santa is intrinsically bound to commercialism; I, like many others, am guilty of romanticising my view of Christmas to conform to the image portrayed in the annual Coca-Cola advertisements, figureheaded by the rotund, bespectacled, smiling old man in the Coke-red suit.

What an impact that clever piece of marketing has had on my Decembers. The thing I remember most about Christmases from my childhood was the excitement; knowing that Saint Nicholas soon would be here. I will always think fondly of the sheer joy I felt on Christmas morning, the culmination of weeks of restless anticipation. Of course, the day itself never fully lived up to my expectations, but, looking back, it was never really about the 25th. What I loved was the inevitability, the build-up. It would start on the 1st of December, when I’d open up the first window of my garish advent calendar, scoffing the chocolate, not bothering to look at the picture. Then as the evenings drew on, more and more of the houses on my street would become illuminated with twinkling lights until the entire road was reminiscent of a giant pinball machine. The annual pilgrimage to the local garden centre would take place on the second Saturday of December, and the rest of the weekend would be spent dressing the proud Scotch Pine with trinkets and baubles, many of which had decorated my parents’ trees when they were children and would be carefully packed away again for next year, like some tacky ghost of Christmas past, present and future.

Even education would become more and more exciting; the last week of school before breaking up for the Christmas holidays always seemed to pass in a blur of Santa hats on top of previously stern teacher’s heads, budget mince pies, tinny Christmas radio and the holy grail: an entire lesson spent watching a grainy VHS of a third-rate Christmas film. Recently, this holiday hysteria has even permeated the grown-up workplace, in the form of the Christmas jumper. In our 21st century world, where taste, meaning, sarcasm and irony whirl round our heads as if in some perpetual tumble-dryer of confusion, the Christmas jumper has become an anti-cool symbol; an arena for otherwise rational people to compete to see who can find the ugliest, most garish, over-the-top conglomeration of acrylic and polyester. £40? Bargain, it’s got a picture of Rudolf on the front and his nose actually lights up. Retailers this year, not wanting to kill the momentum from last year’s Christmas jumper frenzy, have even started selling Christmas-themed suits.

Conversely, as the Christmas products sold by Sainsbury’s, John Lewis and others become more and more absurd, their television advertising campaigns inspire traditional, tear-jerking nostalgia, cleverly selling the themes and spirit of Christmas. Last year’s First World War-themed Sainsbury’s advert, depicting the legendary front-line football match on Christmas day 1914 between British and German troops was utterly sentimental and brilliantly clever. By appealing to our desire to give gifts rather than receive gifts, advertisers bypass accusations of poor-taste and crassness, and instead are celebrated for championing Christmas ideals, meanwhile encouraging consumers to buy the best gifts around for their loved ones.

And then of course there’s the music. Christmas music is a strange and unique phenomenon, having the power to infuriate you, excite you and force you to reminisce simultaneously. Some truly terrible records have found huge commercial success, thanks to mentions of Christmas time, mistletoe and wine and children singing Christian rhyme. We all tolerate, accept and, dare I say, even enjoy these aural atrocities because they evoke the spirit of generosity and joy synonymous with the season. Try playing I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday in July, and suddenly the refrain doesn’t seem quite so pertinent. Some are musically brilliant, but fall short on the festive factor. I can quite happily listen to slightly more subversive efforts, like Tom Waits’ Christmas Card From A Hooker In Minneapolis or The Pretenders’ 2000 Miles all year round, but, although I love both of these songs, they make me feel much less Christmassy than the Wizzards, Cliff Richards and Bing Crosbys of the world whose yuletide yabberings have been played at every single Christmas event I have ever been to. Ever. To my mind there is only one song that is both musically brilliant and inherently Christmassy, and that, of course, is The Pogues’ Fairytale of New York.

Here in London, we’ve become experts at animating challenging environments with interesting potential, but like the original hipster, Christmas did it first. Any other time of year, a German market on the South Bank would be dubbed with the trendy phrase ‘pop-up’, but at Christmastime, interesting and diverse festive events have become the norm. Beginning in Lincoln in 1982, German Christmas markets have grown exponentially in popularity; the largest Christmas market outside of Germany is located in Birmingham. Brummies can now gorge on bratwurst and neck Glühwein to the point where the prices become as irrelevant and abstract as an umlaut. These markets trade on borrowed tradition, national stereotyping and cultural exchange to offer the idea of an ‘authentic’ and ‘un-commercial’ Christmas experience. Of course, upon waking up the next day with a heavy hangover and a light wallet, it’s easy to realise that German Christmas markets aren’t an antidote to our Christmas commercialism; they’re symptomatic of it.

But this should be celebrated. Commercialism has paved the way for a Christmas events calendar more wide-ranging than Santa Claus’s waistline. This year, Londoners can drink winter cocktails in a ski-chalet themed bar at Gordon Ramsay’s York & Albany, enjoy classic Christmas films with Pop Up Screens, while artificial snow flutters down from above, and experience a smorgasbord of Swedish Christmas traditions and festivities, not to mention an actual smörgåsbord feast, courtesy of Skandilicious. And of course there are the many German Christmas markets. Certainly, Christmas is an interesting time of year for placemaking and destination development. The pop-ups and events of Christmastime in London offer valuable insight into tactical urbanism, brand marketing and innovative approaches to utilising space for commercial means. Businesses that accurately harness our Christmas hysteria through intelligent and engaging pop-ups can reap the rewards of becoming the hottest venue in town.

From the gaudy decorations to the oh-so-clever advertising, the saccharine sweet music, the re-appropriation of Christmas culture and the buzzing events programme, the commercialism of December is inescapable. But in my mind, that’s a good thing. We British are a sensible bunch; this year’s apparent rejection of Black Friday after last year’s pandemonium gives me confidence that we know where the line is. We’ve found just the right balance between allowing commercial culture to enhance the excitement of the Christmas season, without allowing it to pollute the spirit of Christmas. The arrival of December and the furore of the season, constantly legitimised and perpetuated by commercial culture, has the power to make me forget my wintry resentment and feel like an overexcited eight-year-old again. I dance unashamedly to songs I would find nauseating at any other time of year, cry over little girls sending presents to the moon via helium balloons, don my tacky Christmas jumper and wear it with pride to great pop-up events, and count down the days on my advent calendar until Coca-Cola Santa Claus comes to town, although now I get much more joy from giving rather than receiving gifts.