Christmas is no longer a religious festival. It’s actually our age-old eating and drinking festival and now an annual shopfest. It’s supposedly a spiritual time for Christians and non-Christians alike, unless you’re The Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland or Janet Jackson.
Everyone hates the damp, the dark and the cold. Everyone moans about compulsory shopping and “what a racket the whole bloody thing is, especially if you don’t have kids”. But then there’s Hogmanay, the light at the end of the tunnel. It’s a lot more straightforward than Christmas because all we have to do is get drunk and then it’s spring again. Nice ‘n’ easy festival, Hogmanay.
That we shop like mad, spending money we don’t have, is only the scourge of our times. Every society had it’s own way of getting through “seasonal affective disorder” and the long, cold, dark nights. Pagans chose the winter solstice for a spot of over-indulgence, in the name of religion, because they knew that people needed something to look forward to when spring seemed so far away.
Throughout the centuries people have celebrated at the back-end of the year. I get really fed-up when card-carrying Christians complain about the “commercialisation of Christmas”. As if 25 December had any basis in history or the Bible: it doesn’t. Since when were shoppers necessarily evil? Commerce is about exchange. Mercury was the god of transaction and communication, which are the lifeblood of culture and society. Spending does not preclude giving although there is something humorously coincidental about a vision of Satan stalking the fifth-floor aisles in Harvey Nic’s.
However, some people really do implicate designers in a plot to deliver the earth up to Evil. After all, we’re the ones who allegedly manipulate mindless shoppers, tempting them with perfect type, holographic foils and other illusions. We’re the ones who package the ads on the telly and the ads in press. We make the word flesh through type. We make the banal special, and the excellent even better, through packaging. We help make the products that need wrapping in the first place. We evoke desire and then give it shape, designing department store interiors which lead sheep from the righteous path. Clever eh?
That we celebrate in December has more to do with our pagan pre-history than our Christian past and multi-cultural present. That we eat turkeys has more to do with a surplus of poultry towards the end of last century. Prince Albert brought the Christmas tree from Germany and Santa Claus came from the US. Indeed, it was Coca-Cola, the biggest brand on earth, which exchanged Santa’s green anorak for the red one we now recognise. So it seems perfectly appropriate to me that a festival of commerce now happens in December.
We all agree that shopping is something we love to hate, but we’re sure that the one thing we do like to do at this time of year is eat and drink, and lots of it. At Christmas we have an all-consuming passion to gorge ourselves on turkey, pudding and mince pies. I suppose getting drunk at New Year is the only sure way to end the bingeing and erase any memory of it having ever occurred. The over-consumption is surely followed by guilt, remorse, and more alcohol consumption at New Year, which gives us amnesia. This makes perfect pagan sense and sees us through to spring.
If, as designers, we feel guilty about the material excesses at this time of year I suggest we assuage our consciences by making environmentally sustainable choices. We should re-educate the shopper to expect more product and less package, more ritual but less material. There are many ways to add value to a product and make it special. History tells us that people are tolerant of new ideas and quick to absorb them into old ways of doing things, making the past contemporary. Tradition is really only another illusion.
Sadly, Janet Jackson’s parents didn’t let her celebrate Christmas. But Christmas now happens for her every day, as she is rich enough to shop non-stop. Conversely, The Free Church of Scotland says there’s categorically no cause for celebrating Christmas because it has no basis in the Bible. I think that they’re both missing out an excellent opportunity for penance. If we really want to separate shopping from Christian worship then I suggest that we move the date and risk finding out exactly how much traditional faith we have left.
Personally, I’d rather we were united in a good hangover and a spot of seasonal amnesia.