It's the Thought That Counts: a Case Study in Xmas Excesses

Richard W. Pollay, University of British Columbia
[ to cite ]:
Richard W. Pollay (1987) ,"It's the Thought That Counts: a Case Study in Xmas Excesses", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 14, eds. Melanie Wallendorf and Paul Anderson, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 140-143.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 14, 1987       Pages 140-143

IT'S THE THOUGHT THAT COUNTS: A CASE STUDY IN XMAS EXCESSES

Richard W. Pollay, University of British Columbia

The wide avenue ending in the large park, the tall proper trees, and the stately old homes down both sides of the avenue all display the venerable history of this New England city. Once prosperous and optimistic, this industrial city has fallen on hard times and almost all of large 19th century homes are finding new uses such as professional offices, art galleries or rest homes for the elderly.

One home, however, is now functioning as a dance studio with a steady stream of children coming and going throughout the school year. In and of itself this might not be problematic, but the old ho e sits across the street from the most prestigious art gallery in the region, and from early October until January it is decorated with Christmas decorations covering every square inch of available space, inside and out. This attracts a steady stream of cars and pedestrians rubbernecking at the enormous display that many find garish and excessive. Even when the other homes have their holiday decorations up, there remains a striking contrast between the character of the street and this one house.

LITERATURE REVIEW

Despite the obvious magnitude and importance of Christmas activities in American culture, surprisingly little is written about Christmas customs and behaviors in the consumer behavior literature. While there has been some work on gift giving (Belk 1979), the richness and importance of the holiday customs of Christmas in America is not well reflected in the academic literature of consumer research.

Some examples of the kinds of studies that might be done by those with marketing and consumer behavior interests include studies on children's requests and parental yielding (Braddard 1985), the patterns of gifting within the kinship structures (Caplow 1982), the secularization of religious holidays by commercialization (Hall 1984), the beliefs and behaviors held by children about Santa Claus (Belk 1986, Richardson 19825. Other topics, for which role models are not so readily available, include how shopping and decision making patterns change for the Christmas purchasing period, how people cope with the stresses of the holidays, expectations and the meaning of gifts between different dyads of people, such as employer-employee, in-laws, step parents and children. etc. Since gifting behaviors include hospitality as well as tangible items wrapped in holiday packaging, the phenomena to be studied are most rich and this no doubt only begins the listing of potential research topics.

The holiday season is popularly well known for its excessiveness. At no other t D of the year is so much effort and money spent in the purchasing process, with gifts bought for many people and with children and loved one often receiving multiple offerings. Stores are at their busiest, with many products enjoying a vast bulk of their annual sales during this season. December sales account for 40% of annual sales of toys for urban department stores, 28% of candy, 25% of cosmetics, 20% of tobacco and liquor, and 25% or more of annual sales of drugs, toiletries, stationery, greeting cards, books and art. Advertising activity for many products also peaks for the Christmas season. Watches, cameras, and health and beauty aids are among the categories often spending 50% or more of annual budgets during this selling season (Schudson 1985, p.138-9).

People co plain, yet persist, in annual intense efforts to buy, to wrap, to sail cards, to cook meals, to plan functions, to decorate, to return items, to write thank you notes, etc. For any people the scope of this activity is large as there are many people to be gifted and remembered, many functions to host and attend. As the restudy of Middletown by Caplow (1982) showed, the full scale Christmas ritual in North America is one performed primarily by women. They do most of the decorating and gift wrapping, give more gifts in their own name than do the men, purchase and wrap most of the gifts given jointly and, of course, have primary responsibility for the cooking and hospitality activity, except for the bartending function. But except for this, the rituals of Christmas are performed primarily by women with the men and children as audience and recipients.

So for many individual women this is a period of frenetic activity, often carried out with self doubts about the wisdom and necessity of it all (Barnett 1954). Thus it sec s a fora of compulsive behavior, enacted perhaps because of the expectations of others, the habits of previous years, or the hope that this year it will all prove more satisfying, and yet often without immediate satisfaction, and without an obvious rationalization.

Above this background of activity, the behavior of some individuals still stands out as unusual and remarkable. It seems notable for its excessiveness, even when it differs only in degree not in character from the more typical behavior. This paper explores one such case history in the belief that it may illuminate both compulsive behaviors generally, and the Christmas behaviors of many.

BACKGROUND

Rita G. is a petite 5 ft. mother of seven, and now a grand other. She is nearing retirement age, but is self employed as the instructor/administrator of a dancing school. A first generation native born to southern European immigrants, she began her interest in Christ as, she says, when her own children were small. As her children matured, her collection of holiday materials had grown to where it was literally spilling onto the lawn, where her display grew from year to year and increasingly stood out from those of her more typical neighbors. By 1979, after 7 years of outdoor display, she began to open her doors and hold an open house and conduct tours for the curious.

She identifies no role model, nor has she received much support from her family and priest. Both of these are tolerant but not too encouraging, perhaps because the family must put up with the crowds and the priest sees little religious depth to the activity. Although she is not the only one to decorate her home thoroughly, she identifies no imitators she has stimulated. She recognizes her behavior to be unusual, but justifies it as "good work" and innocent, both of which are true. She is totally lucid, gregarious, responsive and occasionally philosophical. Nothing in her demeanor suggests the unusualness of her Christmas behavior.

SIZE AND SCOPE

What is it that makes her unusual and leads to the curiosity of the neighbors, the townspeople and now even tourists from further afield? Her large home, handsomely situated, is decorated inside and out, from street to rooftop, from front room to back halls, from floor to ceiling, and from pillar to post with every imaginable square inch filled with Xmas decorations, save for the necessary floor space and seating to permit some semblance of normal functioning.

She displays some 5,000 significant pieces such as wreaths, trees, statues, bows, etc. This is in-filled with tinsel garlands, simulated snow and ribbon. Naturally, there is also an abundance of Xmas tree lights, both on trees and outlining various architectural features. Music boxes play tunes, in some rooms tapes play seasonal music during tours. As any items as possible reflect the holiday decor, including shower curtains, toilet seats, cookie jars, dishes, glassware, napkins, lighting, etc.

The centerpiece is a large 9 ft artificial tree that sits in an octagonal alcove of this Victorian home. This tree has 40 strings of lights alone. The most characteristic items are the many dancing dolls and figurines, sthe lit and some with music boxes. These are not particularly Xmas traditions, but are dressed in X as clothes and colors and are, of course, very consistent with her dance school. Her most treasured item, what she calls her trademark piece, is a signature gold Santa Claus that she wears in a pierced bright red fingernail. To the extent that Xmas decorations can be differentiated, her style preferences lean toward what might be labelled "latinate kitsch." Her inventory is in good condition, most of it bought new and well maintained.

Surprisingly little of the material is religious in character. Only one creche scene portrays the baby Jesus and it is dimly lit and overshadowed OD the front lawn. A few angels are in evidence, but for the most part it is a secular display, full of snowmen, Santa Clauses, Santa's elves, tinsel, toys and dolls.

This great volume of decorative and functional material cannot, of course, be set up in a few hours on Christmas eve, as is the custom in some families. For Rita the effort begins in early October, two and one half months before Dec 25. Then she, and largely she alone, begins the work of retrieving items from the attic and basement where some of it, like the large tree, has been stored intact, complete with decorations. But aside from this, she claims no system of storage or packaging, nor any fixed system for the displays themselves. Every year she creates a new pattern of display from the available resources.

She gets some help from her husband, a patient custodian on the staff of a major hospital, especially with the major pieces, outdoor efforts and the tear down which starts January 1, not after the traditional twelfth day of Christmas. He tends to stay out of the way while she holds four days of open house during Christmas week, primarily in the evenings. The family who are still close to home still gather on Christmas day. During the long period of putting up decorations, Rita continues to hold her dancing classes for relatively young children.

PUBLIC REACTION

As we might imagine, the children of the neighborhood and in her classes all find this wonderful, quite literally, and are less prone than the adults to be taken aback at the unusualness of it all. The close neighbors haven't been surveyed, but one might suppose that the major art gallery across the street takes disapproving note of the clash of cultures evident in the contrast between her display and the sedate formal dignity they strive to maintain.

The general public has been taking note for some time, with the local newspaper and lately the electronic media giving her house some publicity. When interviewed she reports that almost all of her visitors react like little kids, to her delight. Their eyes brighten up at the environment which she says contains "nothing but joy in here." Some laugh, cry or display sentimental emotions, but most are more simply awe struck, dazzled by the density and totality of the fantasy land she creates.

The curiosity level is very high, with cars cruising up and down the street, people walking on her lawns, up her walk, knocking on her door, taking pictures, etc. Schools and daycare groups visit annually during the day. The scene seems to invoke a certain respect, perhaps of the near sacred, for she was pleasantly surprised after her first year of Open house to find that absolutely nothing was touched or missing. Despite the traffic flow, she experiences almost no vandalism.

She is less satisfied these days with the respect and interest paid by the reporters and media. She had received a growing amount of attention over the years. First the local newspaper did an annual story, some years supplemented with a feature piece in a regional magazine or the large metropolitan newspaper from nearby Hartford, the state capitol. By 1984 she was appearing as an item on TV news and that year was on a national network. But in 1985, media interest slackened, frustrating her. Even the local media see less interested as, to those reporters who have covered the item once before, the story was no longer new news.

PURCHASING

She has obviously spent a great deal of money over the years on this collection. She buys every year and during summer holidays in Florida as well as during the obvious season in New England. She will occasionally buy used items, but generally buys new. Some of her figures have cost here as such as $200 apiece. In 1985 alone, she spent $500 on garlands of tinsel. In order to save money, she does some purchasing on Boxing Day (Dec. 26) from stores who mark down holiday items to half price then. Some of these suppliers know her interests and set aside the best of their items for her. In 1985, she spent another $600 on Boxing day for fresh inventory. She keeps no record (that she would share) on the total she sight spend in a given year, for certainly there are additional expenditures involved from time to time. Her electric bill, for example, triples during the month of December, rising to about $300 in that month. Thus for 1985, she had a marginal cash expenditure of at least $1300.

MOTIVATIONS

In addition to this substantial annual expense, there is obviously an incredible effort involved in setting up and taking down the w display. There is also a pro-longed period of interruptions suffered by the whole family as phone calls, car traffic, pedestrians and photographers disrupt their days and evenings. Given these considerable costs, one must wonder what motivates the persistence of the behavior from year to year and the continued expansion of its magnitude.

The cynical suggest that it's all done simply for the publicity, suggesting both the feeding of personal vanity and the instrumental promotion of the dance studio. Certainly this seems plausible at first, for the primary audience of the activity is children of about the sthe age as are taught dancing. They are generally.too young to see the publicity, however, and the parents in the neighborhood are of an affluent class who might well find this behavior strange and not attractive. So while it certainly creates awareness, it's quite indirect and inefficient as a promotional activity.

Rita is also a relatively shy person and does not enjoy the media attention. She greatly resents those reporters who miss her charitable goals or downplay this point and write, instead, stories which focus on her or the unusualness of the house. She does her own publicity work, doing interviews and occasionally inviting media attention, but recognizes the awkwardness of this, for its apparent self-serving nature. She would like to have a patron or volunteer to stimulate the publicity. But if shy and not Promoting the business, why does she seek publicity?

Charity! (It's this thought that counts most with her.) She asks all of her visitors to deposit packaged food products to be distributed to the needy. In 1981 she collected some 5,000 items, and in 1982 four nights of open how e with 1,000 visitors a night yielded a total of 8,000 items. In 1984, the 10,000 visits in total produced 15,000 items. 1985 had less publicity, fewer visits, but still yielded more than 10,000 items I estimate.- These are given away during the following year to personally selected needy cases, such as a widow in town with several children. A little is recycled through the auspices of established charitable agencies, like the Salvation Army, but the bulk of the charity is local and personal, a relatively rare behavior these days.

She also takes great delight in the reactions of the children of all ages, enjoying their wide eyed awe. She enjoys being part of making Christmas a magic period for people and is proud of her role modelling the charitable giving. Her love of children and her desire to help the understand the value of giving to the needy is illustrated in an incident I witnessed. A couple of somewhat rough street urchins were attempting to collect "admission donations" from visitors outside the how e by pa sing themselves off as family. Rather than resenting their despoiling her scene, she sought these out in order to talk with them so that they would understand and give dominance to the needs of others. I felt that she held a genuine affection for these intruders and acted with compassion for these, not in a chastising manner.

This charity and compassion, especially during Christmas season, suggests the possible important role of religious beliefs. While raised a Catholic, and still a nominal believer, she gets little reinforcement and support for her activities from her parish priest, from who she seemed somewhat alienated. Her charity is not directed through the church, nor does she directly justify her behavior with Biblical or dogmatic principles. Her displays are secular in nature, with minimal religious symbolism, consistent with Belk's (1986) observation of the mutually exclusive nature of the scared domains of Christ and Santa, the gods of co passion and consumption respectively. She sakes personal reference to the "little boy upstairs" as her focus of attention. This is a most unusual way of imaging Christ, but consistent with her affection for children generally.

This sort of holiday decoration behavior is societies motivated by a competition with neighbors. While many neighborhoods do engage in a friendly rivalry as to whose house can be made the most attractive, there is little of this competition near her, nor do any of her comments makes any reference to comparisons with others, except to acknowledge the reality that her own behavior is exceptional. Rather than competing with others in the community, she sees herself as in service to them. The service is not just because of the display done at her initiative, but in her expanding the scope of the activity in response to public interest. The first open homes were an accommodation to streams of the curious seeking entry. One year she wanted to stop, but the requests of school teachers planning outings changed her mind. So she is somewhat caught up in a cycle of expectations, from which she gets satisfaction from having a unique social identity and in accomplishing charitable goals.

Creativity is evident in the uniqueness of her designs. Rather than repeating the previous year's successes, she forces herself into a creative mode by creating a new display pattern for each year. She also displays the American trait of wanting each year's effort to be better, new, improved, larger or in some way more successful. Meeting this challenge successfully is part of what sakes each year an accomplishment and not just a boring, repetitive effort.

In sum, it would see from meeting her that her motivations are not the vanity, social competitiveness or publicity seeking that night be assumed. Rather her motivations are a complex of love of children, social identity, fulfillment of community expectations, desire to do good charitable work, pride of creativity and accomplishment of challenging goals.

PLANS AND PROSPECTS

Her future plans are uncertain as getting through each year is so demanding that next year is too remote to contemplate. her youngest child will soon leave the household. She and her husband must find the effort considerable and ore strenuous as they age. The media are apparently losing some interest. Neighbors and the parish priest have never been too supportive and might well welcome a diminishment of the activity. But, on the other hand, she has a large accumulated inventory of artifacts of no value except for this purpose, and she has created a public expectation. As she says "If I did anything less, people would think I was crazy (Messina 1982)." She hopes to carry on as long as "the little boy upstairs" continues to give her the good health she now enjoys.

DISCUSSION AND CONCLUSION

While we have identified several motivational factors intrinsic to this behavior, we have yet to explain the excessive nature of the behavior. Much of what has been noted could apply to many people with less extreme patterns of behavior. What additional insights explain the development of the behavior and might illuminate other kinds of compulsive or excessive behaviors, or other forms of collecting and display?

Christ as decorating is a widespread activity ln our culture. It, and all Christmas related behaviors, are well reinforced by social approval and commercial encouragements. Reinforcement is also obtained from the satisfaction of one's own children, as their delights provide the rewards of generosity. In Rita's case, a large family with any children spread over many years means repeated reinforcement. As the activity grew, the media reaction was also reinforcing, as was the pleasure and pride involved in annually recreating a new magnificence. Initially all of this activity and effort was instrumental towards creating pleasure for others, as well as for one's self.

Why isn't the behavior self-limiting, reaching a natural scale which is readily manageable and more consistent with the scale of activity displayed by others? One suggestion lies in the model of behavior drawn from learning theory wherein instrumental behaviors become terminal behaviors, where means became ends unto themselves. In this the display behavior generates reinforcing rewards, both internal and external, and over time the individual learns to enjoy the behavior for its own sake. What was once solely instrumental toward some other end becomes valuable in its own right. With enough internally derived rewards, external reinforcement becomes unnecessary to perpetuate the behavior. Truly compulsive behaviors can be seen as those which persist without external or internal rewards, persisting it would seem as a mindless habit, as if in enduring faith that rewards will be ultimately be forthcoming despite no current evidence to support this.

This notion suggests that Rita's behavior, while excessive, is not truly compulsive for it is still reasonably well rewarded from any quarters. While extreme, it is different only in degree from similar behaviors commonplace in the culture. Its extremity invites certain rewards not part of the commonplace experience. Its unusualness is redeemed and ennobled by its conversion of curiosity to charitable ends. While apparently bizarre, it is ultimately beneficent. It's this thought that counts.

REFERENCES

Barnett, James K. (1954), The American Christmas: A Study in National Culture. New York: MacMillan.

Belk, Russell W. (1986), "A Child's Christ as in America: Santa Claus as Deity, Consumption as Religion," working paper, University of Utah.

Belk, Russell W. (1979), "Gift-Giving Behavior," in Research in Marketing, Vol. 2, Jagdish Sheth, ed., Greenwich, CT: JAI Press, 96-126.

Braddard, Marilyn R. (1985), "Sex Differences in Adults' Gifts and Children's Toy Requests at Christmas," Psychological RePorts, 56, 969-970.

Caplow, Theodore (1984), "Christmas Gifts and Kin Networks," American Sociological Review, 47(3), 383-392.

G...., Rita (1985), personal interview, Dec. 26.

Hall, Dennis R. (1984), "The Venereal Confronts the Venerable: 'Playboy' on Christ as," Journal of American Culture, 7(4), 63-68.

Messina, Mary (1982), "Christmas Something Special for Lexington Street Family," New Britain (CT) Herald, Dec. 10, p12. See also Dec. 20, 1979, 15.

Richardson, John G. and Carl H. (1982), "Children, Gender, and Social Structure: AD Analysis of the Contents of Letters to Santa Claus," Child Development, 53, 423-436.

Schudson, Michael, Advertising: the Uneasy Persuasion, New York: Basic Books, 1985.

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