Materialism and the Modern U.S. Christmas
Russell W. Belk (1989) ,"Materialism and the Modern U.S. Christmas", in SV - Interpretive Consumer Research, eds. Elizabeth C. Hirschman, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 115-135.
[The author would like to thank reviewers Jeffrey F. Durgee, Grant McCracken, and Barbara B. Stem for their comments on an earlier version of this manuscript.] On December 24, 1951, in front of several hundred French children attending Sunday school, Santa Claus was hanged and burnt. The executioners were the priests of the Dijon Cathedral who condemned Santa as: a usurper and a heretic. He was accused of paganizing the festival of Christmas and installing himself like a cuckoo, taking up more and more room (Levi-Strauss 1963). Pimlott (1962) calls the coexistence of the religious celebrations of the Christmas Nativity and the more Saturnalia-like secular celebrations of the same occasion, "the paradox of Christmas." The present paper first presents a brief history of the modem Christmas and redefines the paradox of Christmas. It then explores the shifting ways that Americans look at Christmas, as evidenced by mass media treatments, considered both qualitatively and (for a subset of media treatments found in selected consumer magazines and in Christmas comic books over the past 40 years) quantitatively. These analyses suggest that there is little real threat to the sacred status of Christmas, primarily due to the increasing interpenetration of values celebrated by the Christian and commercial sponsors of Christmas. A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE U.S. CHRISTMAS AND ITS TWO MODERN DEITIES Origins Although Christmas itself may be traced to a number of pagan winter festivals such as the Teutonic Yule and the Roman Saturnalia in pre-Christian Europe (Golby and Purdue 1986), neither these nor the various later European Christmas celebrations are sufficient to explain the modem American Christmas. This lack of continuity is partly due to one of the first backlashes against Christmas. This reaction arose among the religious immigrants to the American colonies. As Barnett (1954) notes, Puritan reaction against the
[The author would like to thank reviewers Jeffrey F. Durgee, Grant McCracken, and Barbara B. Stem for their comments on an earlier version of this manuscript.]
On December 24, 1951, in front of several hundred French children attending Sunday school, Santa Claus was hanged and burnt. The executioners were the priests of the Dijon Cathedral who condemned Santa as:
a usurper and a heretic. He was accused of paganizing the festival of Christmas and installing himself like a cuckoo, taking up more and more room (Levi-Strauss 1963).
Pimlott (1962) calls the coexistence of the religious celebrations of the Christmas Nativity and the more Saturnalia-like secular celebrations of the same occasion, "the paradox of Christmas."
The present paper first presents a brief history of the modem Christmas and redefines the paradox of Christmas. It then explores the shifting ways that Americans look at Christmas, as evidenced by mass media treatments, considered both qualitatively and (for a subset of media treatments found in selected consumer magazines and in Christmas comic books over the past 40 years) quantitatively. These analyses suggest that there is little real threat to the sacred status of Christmas, primarily due to the increasing interpenetration of values celebrated by the Christian and commercial sponsors of Christmas.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE U.S. CHRISTMAS AND ITS TWO MODERN DEITIES
Although Christmas itself may be traced to a number of pagan winter festivals such as the Teutonic Yule and the Roman Saturnalia in pre-Christian Europe (Golby and Purdue 1986), neither these nor the various later European Christmas celebrations are sufficient to explain the modem American Christmas. This lack of continuity is partly due to one of the first backlashes against Christmas. This reaction arose among the religious immigrants to the American colonies. As Barnett (1954) notes, Puritan reaction against the"wanton Bacchanalian feast" of Christmas led these colonists to begin shunning the holiday as early as 1620. By 1659, the colony of Massachusetts had passed an ordinance to fine anyone caught observing Christmas by abstaining from labor, feasting, or other celebration.
It took another century before Christmas celebrations began to emerge in America among pockets of Dutch, English, and German immigrants, especially in New York and Pennsylvania (Golby and Purdue 1986, McGinty 1979, Shoemaker 1959, Snyder 1985). And legal recognition of Christmas day by states and territories did not take place until the 19th century (1836-1890). Christmas celebrations are thought by some to have been dying out until a group of 19th century writers began to revive interest through sentimental Christmas tales tying the holiday to Victorian celebrations of home, family, and children (Golby and Purdue 1986). The most influential of these Writers Were Charles Dickens from England and Washington Irving from the U.S.. Dickens' (1843) A Christmas Carol was and remains the most influential of these tales. Barnett (1954) may overestimate Dickens' influence as almost singlehandedly reviving Christmas, but his work clearly has had a dominant influence.
Changes in the U.S. Christmas
Because Christmas in America reemerged as an amalgam of various European celebrations, it is appropriate to speak of the American Christmas celebration as unique. Present U.S. Christmas traditions and iconography include the German Christmas tree, the British Christmas card, and the Dutch Christmas cookie. While our modem Santa Claus draws on earlier European figures, he is a distinctly American creation (Belk 1987). Certain Christmas traditions such as Christmas dinner, charity to the poor, and role reversal and other social tension-reduction mechanisms have pre-Christian roots. However, most of our current Christmas celebration, including emphasis on family, card exchange, gift exchange, decorated Christmas trees, Christmas shopping, Santa Claus, Christmas carols, and Christmas cookies, and candy, either emerged or reemerged during the Victorian period (Snyder 1985, Golby and Purdue 1986).
While first generation European immigrants to America tended to preserve the celebrations of their home countries, adoption of U.S. Christmas traditions such as Santa Claus and exchanging gifts on December 25th rather than earlier or later in the month became a mark of acculturation in second and later generations (Sereno 1951, Shoemaker 1959). So strong were these symbols of Americanization that Santa and the Christmas tree were even adopted to some degree by second and third generation Jewish immigrants (Witt 1939, Matz 1961).
One inhibition to Christmas gift-giving in America, especially among English immigrants, was the prior tradition of giving only to servants and the poor during this season. As Snyder (1985) notes:
In the antebellum South, as well as the North the association of Christmastime gifts with servants and slaves played a major role in holding back more widespread gift giving (Snyder 1985, p. 60).
Snyder (1985) found that between 1820 and 1870 there was only a small amount of Philadelphia and New York newspaper advertising for Christmas presents, and these were most commonly presented as New Year's gifts or generic "holiday gifts". Based on his analysis of popular periodical editorial and advertising material, Waits (1978) finds that the period from 1880 to 1920 saw not only a great escalation in Christmas gift-giving, but a gradual shift from handmade gifts to manufactured gifts.
Several other phenomena in Victorian America supported this development of the commercial Christmas. One was the "Fancy Fairs" which were popular charity bazaars in which handmade Christmas gifts made primarily by women were sold (O'Neil 1981). Another was the development of opulent displays of Christmas merchandise by retail stores. In 1874 Macy's New York store presented a $10,000 tableau of imported dolls that started a tradition of Christmas window displays and gave birth to the occupation of window dressing (Snyder 1985). New York City Christmas shopping became a popular tradition, sanctioned by U.S. presidents and New York socialites. Just a year after Macy's first Christmas window display, the Christmas card was introduced from England and soon became a widely adopted part of U.S. Christmas tradition. While recent evidence suggests that religious themes are rare in contemporary Christmas cards (Hill 1969, Johnson 1971a, 1971b), Buday's (1954) history of the Christmas card and the sample of cards presented by Holder and Harding (1981) suggest that religious Christmas card motifs were always in a minority. Instead, popular themes were and remain home and family (especially nostalgic renderings of "old fashioned" homes and family life), Santa Claus, children, animals, and nature (especially snowy scenes).
The explosion of commercial Christmas in Victorian America was not without resistance and criticism. Editorials in The Ladies Home Journal in 1890 complained that Christmas had become too commercial and was little more than a "festival of store-keepers" (O'Neil 1981). An early ethnography of department store toy departments in the weeks before Christmas found that clerks worked long days under trying conditions and that their Christmas commission- inspired eagerness irritated customers as well:
As soon as the elevators emptied themselves on the floor, there was one mad rush of clerks with a quickly spoken, "What would you like madam?" or, "Something in toys, sir?" And the responses to these questions were indicative of the characters of the people making them. The majority were rude, some amused, and a few alarmed at the urgency of the clerks. One young boy, on being assailed by half a dozen at once, threw up his hands in horror, and said: "For God's sake, let me get out of here!" and fled down the stairs, not even waiting for the elevator (MacLean 1899, pp. 724-725).
Occasionally clergy railed against the commercialization of Christmas and demanded that Americans put the Christ back in Christmas (Barnett 1946, 1954). Such criticism was overcome by supporters of the popular Christmas in several ways. One was to invoke the metaphor of God's gift of Christ as suggesting that we too should give of ourselves for the sake of humanity. Of course when these gifts come not from personal service or personal hand-crafting but from the displays of department stores, the illusion that we are giving from ourselves becomes a bit harder to sustain. As Waits (1978) perceptively notes, the problem then becomes one of sacralizing the transfer of these objects from the profane world of commerce into the sacred sphere of Christmas. Sacred as used here does not necessarily have religious connotations. It means instead that which is regarded as significant, powerful, extraordinary, and self transcending (Belk, Wallendorf, and Sherry 1989). Waits (1978) finds that manufacturers and retailers help to sacralize manufactured commodities by designating certain items as "Christmas gifts" rather than mere merchandise. Appearance in special Christmas catalogs, Christmas displays, and in the co-presence of Christmas icons such as holly, wreathes, Santa Claus, and Christmas trees all aid in this decommoditizing sacralizing process that Appadurai (1986) calls "singularization". Another Victorian invention that helps separate items from the world of commerce is gift wrapping (Snyder 1985). We remove all evidence of an item's commercial origin by removing the price tag, ceremonially wrapping it, creating mystery- a component of sacredness- (Belk, Wallendorf, and Sherry 1989). Based on his research on Christmas celebrations in Muncie, Caplow (1984) dubs this practice "The Wrapping Rule- Christmas gifts must be wrapped before they are presented." We then ritually exchange and unwrap these gifts in the presence of extended family in a ceremony that heightens the feeling that these are not merely utilitarian commodities but are instead "gifts of the self ".
The popularity of "Christmas Clubs" since their 1910 origin is also testimony to the sacralization of purchased commercial gifts (Barnett 1954). Notably, these accounts are separated from regular savings accounts and they traditionally offer no interest (Waits 1978), although they may now offer token interest rates that are still below the market rates for other accounts. This helps to "launder" profane money and to reinforce the message that Christmas gift giving should be above considerations of mere investment and money. Separation of Christmas giving from the profane world of commerce would seem to be the most problematic when the gift is itself one of money. Indeed there are highly ambivalent attitudes toward money in our society (Belk and Wallendorf 1988). For instance, Webley, Lea, and Portalska (1983) found that holiday gifts Of money to one's mother were widely seen as glaringly inappropriate. Although there is resistance to giving money to others as well, there are several ways in which even monetary gifts are sacralized. One is that almost all such gifts are from parents to children (Caplow 1982, Caplow, et al. 1982) or from other higher status persons to lower status persons (Cheal 1986, Moschetti 1979). This helps to define such gifts as charity. In addition, when cash is given it is sometimes disguised in the form of a check or gift certificate, making it seem less monetary as with casino chips. When this is not the case, the gift is preferably removed from associations with the filthy lucre by being in uncirculated bills placed in special gift envelope wrapping (Snyder 1985).
A further way in which the commercial Christmas was sacralized and by which objections were overcome, involves organized religion acting as a friend rather than a foe. As Barnett (1954) documents, the relationship between religion and secular aspects of Christmas has been one of ambivalence during the past century. While there are occasional religious condemnations of the commercial aspects of Christmas, it is now more common for a priest or minister to implicitly or explicitly Support the Christmas tree, Christmas gifts, Santa Claus, Christmas stockings, Christmas feasts and other aspects of the secular celebration. Barnett (1954) feels that this is an adaptive concession to inevitable forces, but this paper will later suggest other reasons for such a seemingly strange alliance.
Santa Claus as Secular Christ Figure
The contemporary commercialized U.S. Christmas is symbolized and focused not on the Christ child, but on Santa Claus. Scholars generally agree that Santa Claus is uniquely American (Opie and Opie 1959, Wolf 1964, de Groot 1965, Hagstrom 1966, Oswalt 1970, Jones 1978, Carver 1982, Samuelson 1982, Golby and Purdue 1986, Belk 1987). Belk (1987) suggests that the major differences from earlier European figures are these:
1. Santa Claus lacks the religious associations of such figures as Santa Lucia, Saint Nicholas, Christkindlein, and the Three Kings.
2. Santa Claus lacks the riotous rebelliousness of figures such as Saturn and Knecht Ruprecht.
3. Santa Claus lacks the punitive nature of Sinterclaas (with his companion Black Peter), Ruprecht, Pelze-Nichol, and Saint Nicholas....
4. Despite his mythical nature, with his many appearances on comers, in stores and malls, and in homes, Santa Claus is a more tangible and real person than his predecessors and counterparts .... As Caplow points out (Caplow, et al. 1982, p. 238; Caplow and Williamson 1980, pp. 224-225), Santa differs from the Easter Bunny by possessing a name, a known home and family, friends, great age, boundless generosity, and a gender.
5. Santa Claus is a bringer of numerous and substantial gifts, not merely the fruits, nuts, and simple homemade toys of the traditional European Christmas figures (Belk 1987, p. 87).
Shlien (1959) first suggested that the American Santa Claus is our most sacred folk hero after Christ, based on fulfilling most of Ragland's (1937) criteria (subsequently criticized) for heroism:
1. A distinguished or divine origin
2. Mysterious portents at birth
3. Perils menacing his infancy
4. Initiation or revelation
5. A quest
6. A magical contest
7. A trial or persecution
8. A last scene
9. A violent or mysterious death.
Hagstrom's (1966) scholarly parody also seriously suggests that Santa Claus is a sacred figure in a Durkheimian sense, citing as evidence Christmas rituals involving Santa and Shlien's (1959) finding that children were reluctant to eat cookie representations of Santa Claus.
Belk (1987) goes further in drawing parallels between the American Santa Claus and Christ:
The similarities of the secular Santa figure to the religious Christ figure include miracles (flying reindeer, traveling to all houses of the world in one night, and, reminiscent of the loaves and fishes miracle of Christ, Santa's bottomless bag of toys), elves as Apostles, reindeer as manger animals, letters to Santa as secular prayers pledging "good" behavior if they are granted, and offerings of cookies and milk as sacrifices placed upon a fireplace mantle altar. It is also possible to consider Santa's travels on Christmas Eve as parallel to Christ's journeys and secular Christmas carols about Santa as hymns. Just as Christ brought his gifts of love and salvation to earth and then ascended to heaven, Santa brings his gifts of toys and treats to houses and then ascends up the chimney. Furthermore, Santa is immortal, omniscient, knows how children behave, and holds them ultimately accountable for their actions by bestowing the rewards that he alone can offer. Belief in Santa constitutes faith .... The title "Santa" also retains the ascription of sainthood. And somewhat more like contemporary images of God than Christ, Santa is portrayed as a wise and benevolent old man who sits on an ornate throne symbolizing his power and wisdom. He lives in the snow white purity of the North Pole, which has some parallels to heaven (Belk 1987, p. 90).
This is not to suggest that Santa Claus represents the same societal values as does Jesus Christ. In fact in many ways Santa may be seen a polar opposite to Christ:
In terms of appearance, Santa portrayals are old and corpulent while Christ portrayals are young and thin. Rather than humble white robes, Santa dresses in rich reds and furs, and sometimes smokes a pipe. Santa is also more jolly and is often portrayed laughing his characteristic "ho, ho, ho." Christ lived in a land of warm deserts, while Santa lives in a cozy house nestled in the cold snow of the North Pole. Christ was single and Santa is married. And most importantly, the miracles of Christ provided health and necessities while the miracles of Santa Claus provide toys and luxuries. Indeed while Santa brings an abundance of good things, Christ often condemned these things and the wealth they represent (Belk 1987, p. 91).
Since the image of the contemporary American Santa Claus was heavily influenced by Clement Moore's (1822) poem, "A Visit From St. Nicholas" and Thomas Nast's illustrations in Harper's Weekly between 1863 and 1886, Belk (1987) turned to Nast's life and work to better understand the contradictions between portrayals of Santa and Christ. Based on Nast's avowed desire to make Santa's furs look like those of the Astors', the similarity of Nast's Santa figures to his characatures of nineteenth century plutocrats such as William "Boss" Tweed, and Nast's very similar depiction of a drunken Bacchus, Belk concludes that the American Santa Claus is the God of materialism and hedonism. Further evidence supporting this contention may be found in the highly materialistic content of children's letters to Santa Claus (Caron and Ward 1975, Richardson and Simpson 1982, Downs 1983, Bradbard 1985), the addressing of some of these letters to "Heaven" (Snyder 1985), the observation of children praying to Santa (Bock 1972, Waits 1978), the appropriation of Santa (but not Christ) in advertising and retail sales (Munsey 1972, Waits 1978, Watters 1978, Louis and Yazijian 1980), and in foreign opposition to (Pierce 1979) as well as support for Santa Claus as a symbol of American materialism (Plath 1963, Stenzel 1975, Yates 1985).
A Reformulation of the Paradox of Christmas
Based on the preceding arguments, both Santa Claus and Jesus Christ are now sacred figures in the contemporary American Christmas. If Santa is now seldom seen as profaning Christmas in America, we must look elsewhere for that which opposes the sacredness of this dual deity Christmas. The most prominent text in which to search for an understanding of the modem American Christmas involves stories of neither Santa or Christ. It is instead the most often repeated and imitated secular Christmas story of all, Dickens' (1843) A Christmas Carol (Viola 1986). Bolton (1987) lists 357 scripts of this story for radio, stage (including mime and marionette versions), television, opera, and film (including animated cartoons), and this list is both incomplete and continually outdated as ever more versions of the popular story are produced. One writer in 1906 concluded "Dickens and Christmas are well-nigh synonymous words .... Beyond question it was Charles Dickens who gave us Christmas as we understand it today (Ley 1906)." Seventy years later opinion had not changed in the English-speaking world, as Hewet notes: "Dickens and Christmas ... are so closely associated that one must make an effort to recall that he was hardly alone in the late-Georgian and early-Victorian England in hoping to revive the old Christmas ways (Hewet 1976)."
It does not exaggerate to suggest that A Christmas Carol has become sacred Christmas literature. As Bolton notes, " 'The Carol' quickly had become sacred fare suitable for matinees on Christmas (Bolton 1987, p. 234)". Although eight stage versions of A Christmas Carol opened in January and February of 1844, the play has achieved greater popularity in the second half of the twentieth century, partly because of Victorian reluctance to bring sacred works to the stage (Bolton, 1987). In 1909, a production of the play was criticized for rendering "a sacred subject" in "a style suited to the music hall" (Boulton 1987, p. 235).
The story in Dickens' famous tale of Scrooge, Christmas ghosts, and the Cratchits is notably nonreligious and involves the following oppositions:
I. Money, Self, and Others
1. Miserliness versus Generosity
2. Selfishness versus Brotherhood
3. Love of Money versus Love of People
4. Avarice versus Altruism
II. Money and Spending
1. Saving Versus Spending
2. Austerity versus Lavishness
3. Utilitarianism versus Hedonism
III. Work, Home, and Family
1. Individual versus Family
2. Workplace versus Home
3. Work Versus Leisure
IV. Status Differentials
1. Age versus Youth
2. Rich versus Poor
1. Lack of Feelings versus Pity and Joy
2. Pragmatic Present versus Nostalgic Past and Hopeful Future
In each case the left side of the dialectic may be seen as profane and is represented by Ebenezer Scrooge in Dickens' tale. The right side is instead seen in the Cratchit family and represents an idealized vision of what is now regarded as sacred in Christmas. This may or may not be as Dickens would have wished it, but the author's intentions are no longer relevant to the impact of A Christmas Carol, except perhaps among literary critics.
In the present version of the paradox of Christmas, it is not the religious and secular Christmases that clash, but instead the sacred and profane values of the secular world. Walder observes that "Dickens wished to express his sense that there was a reality beyond the immediate and everyday, without implying a specific, dogmatic commitment (Walder 1981, p. 124)." The Profane here is the normal everyday state of the world and its power bases, while the sacred state of the world is exceptional and happens only once a year when we are all to be suffused with a Christmas spirit, which we avowedly regret cannot last throughout the year. In other words, the Christmas season represents sacred liminal time (Turner 1969) in which we transcend the concerns of the everyday world.
Notably, what is sacred in this equation is, as Boorstin (1973, p. 162) notes, "the National Festival of Consumption." It celebrates giving without consideration of the petty concerns of money and whether one can afford it (Yao 1981). This theme is paralleled in A Christmas Carol when the Cratchit family has a goose and plum pudding which they can ill-afford and when the quintessential miser Ebenezer Scrooge starts throwing his money around to all whom he encounters. Such acts help to define Christmas as sacred by being extraordinary and set apart from everyday life. It is the same spirit that Campbell (1987) finds characterizes contemporary consumer culture: the triumph of hedonism over utilitarianism.
At the same time, the values stressed in the Dickensian Christmas are not self-motivated. Love of humankind is stressed and inattention to fellow beings provokes guilt. The charity inspired makes Christmas the major fundraising period for many nonprofit organizations. In Dickensian spirit; it is the poor and orphans who are to be the major recipients of Christmas charity. They are symbolic of the sacred Christmas in two ways. First, they are the humble poor and second, they are children rather than adults. At the same time sympathy is additionally aroused because they are estranged from the family focus that is central to the modem Christmas. This precludes them from the warm hearth of home and the family Christmas meal that are also sacraments in Dickens' Christmas. Significantly, the family is a prominent Christian Christmas theme as well, with family sacralized in the manger depiction of the birth of Christ.
The contrasts of status in A Christmas Carol emphasize the extraordinary sacred nature Of Christmastime as well. Unlike the rest of the year, the poor are attended by the rich and the young are attended by the old. Such status reversals are Christmas traditions that can be traced to pagan celebrations when master and servant Toles were reversed and chaos overcame order as the Lords of Misrule reined. Although not a part of the American Christmas, the survival of Christmas cross-dressing (especially by males in female garb) that still exists in British culture to some degree, may also be traced to the Saturnalian reversal of traditional rules (Golby and Purdue 1986). As Barnett (1954) notes, part of the initial popularity of A Christmas Carol in both England and the U.S. was its ability to diffuse social tension between rich and poor. That the rich should serve the poor and the old the young at Christmas is also consistent with religious traditions and teachings, so that here too there is an overlap of values in religious and secular Christmases.
A final element in the Christmas legacy of A Christmas Carol is the Victorian sentimentalism that pervades the tale. Home is one important focus of this sentiment (Van de Wetering 1984). Scrooge mocks the desire of his nephew and Bob Cratchit for home and family and offers that the poor and orphans can be housed in jails. Scrooge's cold heart is melted by scenes of his childhood and lost love. There is both a nostalgia for the past here and a longing for a mythical golden age of childhood (Belk 1988). Besides children and home, Victorian Christmas cards are crowded with animals and plants in another nostalgic focus on nature, pets, and such reminders of Spring as greenery and birds (e.g., Holder and Harding 1981). Nostalgic sentiment is also wrung out of the talc by Dickens in making Tiny Tim crippled. Walder (1981) suggests that this most emotional pivot of the A Christmas Carol may be related to the Biblical story of Lazarus. It is also an anticipated nostalgia that is evoked by Marley's reflections on his life and Scrooge's view of Tiny Tim's death and of his own life as prompted by the ghost of Christmas future. While ghosts and haunting are decidedly non-Christian, A Christmas Carol's nostalgic emphasis on reviewing how one has lived, as well as the Edenic longing for a simpler past echo prominent religious themes.
Thus, with the exception of its treatments of money and spending, the Christmas celebration popularized by Dicken's secular Christmas tale is quite complimentary to religious values. The paradox of Christmas may accordingly be seen to lie not in religious versus secular opposition, but in the sacred and profane oppositions emphasized in the secular world of A Christmas Carol. Rather than ask how the Nativity and Satumalia-like celebration can coexist during Christmas or how Christ and Santa can both be a part of Christmas, we should focus on the paradox of the coexistence of a Cratchit-like Christmas in a presumably Scrooge-like world. If there is a threat to the modem Christmas it lies more in this sacred-profane battle than in the prior conceptualizations of the paradox of Christmas as lying in its religious versus non-religious aspects.
But even this oversimplifies the issues involved in how we view Christmas, because the sacred in Dickens' tale could eventually be desacralized and Christmas still survive as long as something else is sacralized to replace these values. For the time being however, there is no compelling sacred replacement. Therefore, the following analysis is confined to examining the preservation or erosion of the sacred "Cratchitness" of the Modem American Christmas. Because materialistic themes of money and spending are the least compatible with religious treatments, these themes will be the focus of particular attention in the analysis. If Christmas is indeed the national festival of consumption (Boorstin 1973), the manner in which the Cratchit-like values of spending, lavishness, and hedonism are preserved without invoking the Scrooge-like values of selfishness, love of money, and avarice, is of particular interest.
CHRISTMAS IN THE MASS MEDIA
The present study involves a two part analysis of various media treatments of Christmas. The first is a qualitative analysis of a broad array of American media since 1940. ne second part of the analysis involves a quantitative content analysis of Christmas advertising and editorial content in one "woman's magazine" and of comic book treatments of Christmas during the same period. The latter analysis will look at historical trends more carefully, while the qualitative analyses will focus more on the meaning of Christmas according to various types of mass media treatments. By combining these two portions of the analysis a more complete understanding of trends in the modem U.S. Christmas should arise. The focus on mass media treatments assumes that these treatments both influence and reflect American attitudes toward Christmas. By dramatizing and portraying idealized images of Christmas -, these popular treatments may show more about how we would like to see Christmas than do individual celebrations of the holiday. These analyses also avoid the problems inherent in trying to measure attitudes and values directly.
A Qualitative Assessment of Recent American Media Treatments of Christmas
I. Film. One testimony to the influence of Dicken's A Christmas Carol, as noted above, is the many film versions of the story that have been produced. Starting with a 1908 silent movie version in Great Britain and a 1910 Thomas Edison version in the United States, numerous films and animated cartoons have preserved and promoted this classic Christmas Story. Although there are some variations on the original story in these productions (e.g., in the movie Scrooged I Bill Murray's Scrooge is a ruthless network TV executive whose network features Christmas films like The Santa Slayer and Christmas specials featuring scantily clad women- Garcia 1988), they are close enough to the original story that they do not require additional discussion.
Since 1940, two of the most popular films about Christmas have been essentially the same film: Holiday Inn (Sandrich 1942) and While Christmas (Curtiz 1954). Both were musicals about a New England inn (featuring the Irving Berlin song White Christmas) and both starred Bing Crosby (with Fred Astaire in Holiday Inn and with Danny Kaye in While Christmas). Using White Christmas as an example of this genre, the thin plot begins in World War II Europe in a U.S. Army division where the old General (Dean Jagger) is about to be replaced by a tough younger General. When the in-coming General orders a halt to a Christmas entertainment the division is staging, Dean Jagger saves the production by assuring that the new General gets lost. Ex-soldiers Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye team up and become popular entertainers after the war. They next encounter the retired General as the failing owner of a New England Inn whose preChristmas business has been devastated by a lack of snow. They save the Inn by arranging a gala Christmas production there and inviting all of the members of the Army division that the General used to command. In the process, Danny Kaye arranges a marriage between confirmed bachelor Bing Crosby and fellow entertainer Rosemary Clooney. To end this perfect Christmas, the snow begins to fall.
Despite the lack of a conventional family unit, one dominant theme in this movie is family. The Army division that returns "home" to dinner at the nostalgic old Inn is a "quasi -family" (Foote and Cottrell 1950, Benney, Weiss, Meyersohn, and Riesman 1959). In addition to Bing Crosby's settling down to marry and raise a family (Rosemary Clooney will, of course, drop out of show business), the General also lives with a quasi-family consisting of his doting housekeeper and his daughter. 'Mat the formerly mighty general needs the help of his soldiers also reflects Christmas role reversal. The theme of money-be-damned gift giving is also in evidence in the film. Soldiers converge from all over the East to create a surprise gift of their presence and help for their General (father figure) in need, Crosby and Kaye's company performs without charge, and another ex-soldier in the division donates time in his television show to make the announcement that brings the old division together again. Finally, the entire nostalgic scene is sacralized by the "cleansing" and miraculous arrival of a snowfall on Christmas eve. As is true of nearly all of the popular Christmas films, there is no mention of the Nativity, Christ, or religion in the film, although Santa Claus is given some recognition.
Santa Claus is given much more explicit attention in the film Miracle on 34th Street (Davies 1947). The story begins when Kris Kringle is expelled from a nursing home for insisting that he is Santa Claus. Rather than follow the nursing home doctor's advice of committing himself to a mental institution, he goes to New York City where he fills in for a drunken Santa in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. He is so popular that he is hired as the store Santa for the Christmas season and begins to refer customers to arch-rival Gimbels' stores for gifts they can't find at Macy's. Because of the good publicity Macy's allows this, and other stores begin to respond in kind in order to reap similar benefits. Kris Kringle befriends Susan Walker, the young daughter of practical divorcee and Macy's publicity woman Doris Walker. He begins to awaken Susan's belief in Santa Claus and fairies, much to the delight of the impractical attorney Fred Walker who is in love with Doris.
After an examination by the store psychologist, Kris again gets in trouble because of his insistence that Santa is real. To save him from being committed to an institution, Fred arranges a sanity hearing for Kris. The judge finds not only that Kris is sane, but declares him to be Santa Claus after the U.S. Post Office delivers addressed letters to Santa (from Susan as well as letters from numerous other children) to Kris in court. Santa disappears over Christmas eve, the zoo finds their reindeer lathered up the next day, and Fred and Doris declare their love and plan to marry so that Susan can have a normal childhood.
Miracle on 34th Street develops several significant themes in the modem American Christmas. It provides miracles that prove Santa's existence to faithful children despite a doubting world of adults. Through the marriage of Fred and Doris it restores the sanctity of the family. And, as Barnett (1954) notes, it provides a rapprochement between the commercial world of shopping, competition, and department stores on one hand and the "Christmas spirit" of goodwill, generosity, altruism, and giving on the other. In fact, the story gains its dramatic impact through the triumph of the latter virtues in the improbable settings of the business world, psychiatry, and the courts. In addition, the story suggests another parallel to Biblical stories of Christ in the restoration of Santa's faith in humans through the faith of a few, in this case children (of God perhaps, but also of doubting parents).
One additional recent and popular film treatment of Santa is Santa Claus the Movie (Vinge 1985). This story provides a more complete legend of Santa Claus, with some parallels to the stories of Baum (1986). It begins in "the middle ages" when woodcutter Claus and his wife Anya, who love children but are childless, start out on their reindeer drawn sleigh to deliver the toys Claus has carved to his nephews for Christmas. On the way they encounter a terrible snow storm and fall asleep as the snow drifts around them. They awake at the North Pole in the care of the elf-like vendequrn who "love children because they are small like them." These elves explain that they are now immortal and that Claus will now be called Santa Claus and fulfill the prophecy of "their venerable Ancient One" by delivering their gifts of the toys they make to all the children of the world.
All goes well until one overly eager elf, Patch (Dudley Moore) convinces Santa to use his modem automated assembly line in place of "making toys in the classic tradition of Santa Claus' own exquisite hand-crafted, hand-painted creations." Unknown to anyone until after Santa delivers the toys that year, they are all defective and serve to disillusion their child recipients. Santa is disgraced and Patch is so shamed that he goes to earth in an effort to redeem himself in Santa's eyes. There he meets a greedy toy manufacturer (John Lithgow) whose dolls have just been investigated by a Senate subcommittee because they have highly flammable clothes and are stuffed with nails and glass shards in an effort to cut costs and earn more profits, despite the danger to children. Knowing only that he is a big toy maker, Patch volunteers his services to design something that they can give to children next Christmas. Seeing this as a way to restore his company's reputation after the Senate hearings, Lithgow agrees and Patch uses some magic stardust he brought from the North Pole to make suckers that allow children to momentarily fly like Santa's reindeer. When the suckers are distributed (by Patch's high tech "Patchmobile") and prove highly popular, Lithgow talks Patch into making even more powerful magic candy canes that they can sell for hundreds of dollars for a March 25th celebration that he dubs "Christmas II".
In the mean time, Santa has befriended a poor orphan boy, Joe, and his rich girlfriend Comelia, who turns out to be the ward of the greedy toy Czar played by Lithgow. When Joe gets ill on the streets, Cornelia secretly takes him into her house where he discovers Lithgow's plans. He and Cornelia warn Santa Claus who comes to earth to save Patch from the load of explosive candy canes he is carrying in the Patchmobile. The evil toy manufacturer is driven into exile by the police, Santa is vindicated in the eyes of children, Patch returns to the North Pole, and Santa and Anya adopt Joe and Cornelia as the children they have always wanted but never had.
Besides providing a more complete and sacralizing legend of Santa Claus, Christ-like parallels can be seen in this Santa's resurrection, miracles, humanness, trials, caring, and ultimate triumph. Here it is children who lose faith and ultimately have it restored. Again the themes of the poor and orphans are used to produce sentiment and pity. In Santa Claus The Movie however, the themes of love of money versus love of people and avarice versus altruism are emphasized by pitting the selfless Santa against the greedy manufacturer. Not only is profit condemned more harshly than in Miracle on 34th Street, inhuman mechanical manufacturing is condemned in comparison to the more natural and human scale of Santa's hand-crafted toys.
The sacralization of Santa is carried even further in One Magic Christmas by Walt Disney Pictures (Barsos 1985). This film begins with a "Christmas angel," cast against type with Harry Dean Stanton, who is given the task of restoring the faith of a young mother who has lost "the Christmas spirit." She is the practical wife of an idealistic man who lost his job in June and dreams of opening a bike shop to sell the bikes that he now designs and builds in his basement. They have only $5000 left in the bank and when he wants to spend several hundred dollars on their children for the upcoming Christmas, she objects. Abby, the little girl in the family meets the Christmas angel as she goes to mail her letter to Santa. The angel asks her to give the letter to her mother to mail and the mother fails to do so, showing her lack of faith. She instead depresses her husband who goes for a walk around the block as she heads out on Christmas eve to work a double shift at the supermarket where she is a cashier.
The woman is later fired by her Scrooge-like boss and her husband is fatally wounded in a bank robbery attempt by a poor and desperate man who has been unable to sell his old car for $50 in order to afford Christmas presents for his son. In his escape attempt the man jumps in the father's car, drives off with Abby and her brother, is pursued by the police, and crashes off a bridge into the icy river. No one comes up, but the Christmas angel saves Abby and her brother who come home to learn that their father has died. With the help of the Christmas angel, Abby goes to the North Pole to visit Santa and implore him to bring her father back to life. Santa explains that he can't do that, but says that her mother can. He gives Abby a letter to Santa written by her mother when she was a little girl. When Abby returns and gives her mother the letter, her faith is restored and she goes out to mail Abby's letter to Santa. Just after she does so, she meets her husband who is returning from his walk around the block.
Having found the Christmas spirit and realized that it is not too late to change things, Abby's mother tells her boss she won't work on Christmas eve (and is not fired), buys a camp stove from the desperate poor man for $50, and tells her husband to take their last $5000 and open his bike shop. Her husband delivers a bike he made for "poor little Molly Monahan" who is quite grateful, he and a friend split the cost of renting a generator so they could light the town Christmas tree that the Town Council wouldn't pay to light, and Abby, her brother Cal, and her mother all see Santa from the attic of the grandparents' house on Christmas eve.
This highly sentimental story has carried the sacralization of Santa one step farther in providing him with the Christ-like power to raise the dead (there is a somewhat similar theme in the movie Here Comes Santa Claus- Giln 1984). Faith in Santa Claus, the angel (named Gideon), and the liminal non-linear time of the miracles in the film (Abby's travel to the North Pole, the father's resurrection, Santa's journey around the world) all reinforce this sacralization. At the same time, the Nativity, religion, and churches are absent in the film. This is clearly a secular sacredness. The non-utilitarian values of the idealistic and altruistic father win over the practical and unfeeling values initially held by the mother. The family, the poor, and children all triumph as well. And the mother's second chance after having seen the future echo Scrooge's reformation after his trip with the ghost of Christmas future.
One final genre of Christmas film that has emerged in the past several years should be recognized-the Christmas slasher film. This category is typified by Silent Night Deadly Night (Sellier 1984) and Silent Night Deadly Night, Part H (Sellier 1985). The first of these two films begins with mom, dad, their five-year old son, and an infant brother headed in the car to visit grandpa in a mental asylum on Christmas Eve day. The seemingly silent grandfather gets the five-year old aside and tells him that he had better run for his life when he sees Santa if he hasn't been good all year. The boy, little Billy, tells his parents that he is afraid of Santa Claus, but they try to reassure him. As they head home in the car, a man in a Santa Claus suit holds up a convenience store and shoots the clerk. As he counts the money he observes, "Thirty-one dollars! Merry fucking Christmas!" His car then breaks down and he flags down the family. Seeing Santa Claus they stop the car. The robber shoots and kills the father and rapes the mother before slashing her throat. Little Billy observes all of this from the bushes where he hides in terror, thinking that this must be his fault because he wasn't good enough.
We next see little Billy three years later in an orphanage run by nuns and a stem Mother Superior. There is some evidence that he is disturbed by Christmas when his Christmas drawings show a reindeer with its head cut off and Santa Claus with knives in his back. Nevertheless, the Mother Superior makes the reluctant child sit in Santa's lap, presumably traumatizing him further. Ten years later Billy gets a job at a toy store during the Christmas shopping season. He is forced to play the store Santa when the regular actor can't make it. In this role he tells children that they must be good or he'll have to punish them. At the store Christmas party he goes mad and begins a killing spree that brutally does away with seven people before he is shot by the police as he tries to axe-murder the Mother Superior in front of the Children at the orphanage. In Silent Night Deadly Night, Part II, Billy's brother takes up where Billy left off and successfully kills the Mother Superior.
These films are a little different from One Magic Christmas. It is worth noting that they have been adamantly picketed when movie theatres have shown them. In fact the horror in the films achieves its impact by stark contrast to much that is sacred in Christmas. The Santa of goodwill, generosity, and love is turned into a vicious killer. Childlike credulity and faith is turned into terror. Religion is made an unwitting accomplice in bringing about this reversal. While role reversals are a part of Christmas, they involve gaiety rather than fear and never find Santa changing from good to evil. Similarly, while some authors have criticized the use of Santa Claus in coercing "good" behavior from children (Barnett 1954, Wolf 1964, Hagstrom 1966, Schwartz 1967), the American Santa merely threatens and never punishes or fails to reward (Belk 1987). It appears therefore that the slasher genre of Christmas film is more instructive in emphasizing what Christmas is not than what it is. At most, they represent a reaction against Christmas that so far has little public support. A more accepted ploy is to use the emotions of Christmas to make heinous crimes seem even more heinous, as in the remake of D.O.A. (Jankel and Morton 1988, McGuigan 1988). In this film the disruption of Christmas by murder is made even more impactful by having a toy Ferris wheel gift be the murder weapon and by having the dying wife fall against her husband so that they both crash into and topple the Christmas tree that has been the symbol of their happiness and family life. Similarly, in the movie Less than Zero (Ellis 1985, Kanierska 1987), expectations of a traditional Christmas with family are glaringly opposed by a Christmas featuring yuppie dance clubs, drug addiction, divorce, family rejection, homosexuality, and forced prostitution, all set against the sun, convertibles, and fake snow of Southern California.
2. Television. While a part of Christmas television fare consists of showing classic Christmas movies, there are several more unique aspects to Christmas on American television, including Christmas variety "specials," television commercials, made- for-television Christmas movies, animated cartoons, and Christmas episodes on regular television series. The first two of these television categories have recently been insightfully reviewed by Thompson (1988). His review finds that television Christmas specials usually represent a return to a home town (e.g., Ann Murray's Nova Scotia Christmas), ancestral roots (e.g., Johnny Cash's Christmas in Scotland), a symbolic home (e.g., Christmas in Washington- at the White House), a religious homeland (e.g., Perry Como's Christmas in the Holyland), or a symbolic family (e.g., the NBC Family Christmas). All involve a nostalgic view of family and home. In these shows there are four major ways, Thompson (1988) concludes, in which the Christian nature of Christmas is handled while trying to appeal to as broad an audience as possible. One is to ignore the problem and flaunt the religious aspects of Christmas (although this is an unusual strategy when even the title Christmas is often avoided by calling the shows "holiday specials"). A second strategy might he thought of as patronizing (e.g., inserting phrases such as "our Jewish friends") or granting religions equal time by recognizing Jewish and Muslim traditions as well as Christian ones. A third strategy is to couch Christian religious messages in ambiguous enough terms that they need not be identified as such (e.g., Ann Murray's "He Needed Me" song recast as ambiguously quasi-religious rather than romantic). A final strategy involves "paganizing" the presentation by concentrating on secular symbols such as Santa, Frosty, and Rudolf, instead of the religious Christ child.
Thompson's (1988) evaluation concludes that both the Christmas specials and the television commercials embedded in them invoke a common set of Christmas icons including children, orphanages, carols, gifts, wreaths, the hearth, trees, and Santas. They do this, he suggests, in order to create a buying mood by playing upon the audience's guilt. Several of the commercials by Hallmark and American Greeting Cards indeed seem similar to the Disney film One Magic Christmas, except that they culminate in an appeal to channel the emotions evoked into the purchase of Christmas cards. In both the television specials and commercials, "consecrating consumer culture" (Thompson 1988) seems an apt description of this effect.
Made -for- television movies also drip with nostalgia and themes of home and family. Prototypical examples of such movies are The Homecoming- A Christmas Story (Cook 1971- the pilot for The Waltons and adapted from Earl Hamner, Jr.'s novel, Spencer's Mountain), The Gathering (Kleiser 1977), and A Christmas to Remember (Englund 1978). Both The Homecoming and A Christmas to Remember celebrate the Dickensian pleasures of Christmas joy amid the poverty of rural Depression era America. Home for the Holidays (Moxey 1972) offers a bit of a twist because one of the four adult sisters who return to their father and his second wife at the farm where they grew up is a mysterious pitchfork- wielding homicidal maniac. By challenging the love and safety of the family and the joy and peace of Christmas, this television drama also acts to reinforce the sanctity of these values. And like Scrooge in A Christmas Carol the presence of a villain (or a disaster- e.g., Christmas Miracle in Caulfield, Taylor 1977) dramatizes the forces of good and evil in order to make the moral message clearer and stronger. Television movies have also helped to sacralize Santa as in the television remake of Miracle on 34th Street (Cook 1973) and in The Christmas Star (Shapiro 1986) in which a con man (Ed Asner) is transformed when children begin to believe that he is the real Santa.
The latter plot is echoed to some degree in one of the animated Christmas movies, Ziggy's Gift (Williams 1982). In this story the kind-hearted Ziggy inadvertently solicits money as a street comer Santa for a scam that keeps the money. The story shows that Christmas kindness extends to animals as well as people when Ziggy buys $175 worth of still living Christmas turkeys and releases them. He also rescues a stray dog and cat and uses his Santa outfit to cover a street person sleeping on the cold street. A policeman arrests both Ziggy and a pickpocket, thinking that they are both a part of the fraudulent Santa scam. But they stumble into a foster home full of orphans and wind up caroling and playing Santa for the orphans. Ziggy gives them a Christmas tree he had bought as well as the dog and cat that he rescued. The pickpocket's bag of loot magically changes into toys for the children. Seeing Ziggy's generosity, the policeman lets him go. Once again, belief in a sacred Santa (by the children) brings about love and generosity that provides hope for the hopeless, homeless, and poor.
The theme of Christmas love, Santa, and bringing Christmas to animals as well as humans is also evident in animated Christmas movies such as Santa and the Three Bears (Benedict 1969) and The Bear Who Slept Through Christmas (Sed-Bar and Depattie-Freldon 1983). The dog Snoopy also participates in Christmas in Charles Schultz' A Charlie Brown Christmas (Melandez 1965), except that here Snoopy joins most of the humans in this animated cartoon in exhibiting greed and excessive commercialism. Snoopy garishly decorates his dog house in order to win a light and display contest. Charlie Brown's sister Sally has a long list of gifts she desires but says that money (tens and twenties) is o.k. as well. And Lucy says she gets depressed at Christmas because she never gets what she wants (real estate). Only Linus, who reminds Charlie Brown of the religious origins of Christmas, and Charlie Brown, who buys a scrubby- looking small Christmas tree that others ridicule, exhibit the "true Christmas spirit". At the conclusion of the cartoon, the others get the spirit as well and show it by helping to decorate and invigorate the formerly lonesome and unimportant little tree. The Christmas miracles, role reversals, and triumph of brotherhood over selfishness are all here including some Christian religion in small doses.
More commonly, such religious messages are only evoked symbolically in a transformed way that aims at a broader audience than Christians seeking a Christmas focused on Christ. A prime example analyzed by Bums (1976) is the animated cartoon version of Theodor Seuss Geisel's How the Grinch Stole Christmas. The story, told in Seussian poetry by narrator Boris Karloff, involves an old hermit of the Who species who lives with his dog Max in a cave above the community of Whoville. Hating the joyous feasting and song of Christmas in the community below, he conspires to steal Christmas by dressing as Santa and removing the decorations, presents, and feast food from the homes of the Whos. Having done so, instead of the wailing he expects, he hears the same joyous singing down in Whoville. From this he learns that "Christmas does not come from a store," that "it must mean something more," and his heart "grows two sizes" as he comes to these realizations. Thus reformed, he returns the stolen symbols to the Whos and is seated at the head of the feast table and asked to carve the roast beast.
Burns (1976) observes that this tale successfully combines the story of Scrooge (as Grinch) and the legend of Santa Claus. It also contrasts the view that Christmas is material and comes from stores with the view that it is "something more". The something more is never explicitly defined as spiritual or Christian, but it retains the same characteristics of humanitarianism, fellowship, goodwill toward men, "the Christmas spirit," and brotherhood that are shared by both religious and secular celebrations of the modem Christmas. Burns (1976) also notes that Whoville is a world of innocent children and it is this world to which the Grinch ultimately succumbs, sealing the victory of young over old.
Regular television series sometimes do not have to prepare Christmas episodes because they are preempted by Christmas specials. In some cases they also choose to ignore the holiday. But in most instances of non-preempted shows, there is some incorporation of Christmas into the plots of one or two episodes. Conventions include visits to orphans (e.g., "Hill Street Blues"), non-family cast as one big happy family at Christmas (e.g., "Golden Girls"), magical cessation of wartime hostilities (e.g., "M.A.S.H."), problems in gift selection and gift-giving (e.g., "Moonlighting"), and family feasting (e.g., "Cosby Show"). While actors in these shows do not step far out of their characters in the series, there is in each case a recognition of Christmas as a special time, set apart form standard series fare.
Together with the showing of Christmas movies (both classics and made-for-TV varieties), Christmas advertising, Christmas specials, and animated cartoon Christmas shows, series deference to Christmas helps to make it virtually impossible that an American could watch network, local, or major cable television without becoming acutely aware of the Christmas season, now defined as occupying the high shopping season of Thanksgiving through Christmas day. In fact for some, these television celebrations of Christmas are no doubt a significant part of their Christmas celebrations. Television specials in particular draw large audiences (30+ shares are not unusual) and the familiar faces and performances of such actors as Andy Williams, John Denver, and Bing Crosby can perhaps be thought of as a quasi-family for more avid or isolated viewers.
3. Magazines. Since the demise of American popular weekly magazines like Look, Life, Saturday Evening Post, and Colliers, the American magazine market has fractionated into ever more special interest publications. In many of these, but not all, there is Christmas editorial material, Christmas cartoons, and Christmas advertising. Because of the enormity of this material, a full analysis of its Christmas content will have to await further work. However, the quantitative portion of this paper will systematically review Christmas editorial material and advertising in Ladies Home Journal. Thanks to an analysis of Christmas issues of Playboy by Hall (1984) it is possible at present to make some observations about this surprising Christmas phenomena and to make a few other observations about Christmas magazines.
Hall (1984) notes what might seem a curious event at Christmas, the abnormally high sales of December and January Christmas issues of Playboy and Penthouse magazines. He interprets this phenomenon to the playful (a la Huizinga 1955) suspension of rules and convention that has characterized the holiday since Saturnalia celebrations and the Lords of Misrule. But another interpretation more in keeping with the Dickensian Christmas is that the values celebrated by Playboy are simply another manifestation of the same hedonistic values that characterize other aspects of the Christmas celebration, including overspending on gifts, overindulging on Christmas foods and beverages, and enjoying the shower of material gifts that we feel too guilty to buy for ourselves (Marketing News, 1981).
The additional element of indulgence promoted in Playboy is sexual. Hall (1984) finds that this sexual license is most in evidence in the cartoons of the magazine. The majority of the Christmas issue cartoons have a Christmas or New Year focus and Hall detects three major themes. The first is the office party and typically involves a male boss who seduces a female employee, showing the transforming (i.e., magical) power of money and commoditizing sex. A second type of Playboy Christmas cartoon focuses on the "gift" of sexual intercourse by an attractive young woman who may be rewarding anyone from a doorman to a sugar daddy. This too commoditizes sex and removes it from the realm of family. The third type of Christmas cartoon found by Hall (1984) violates another sacred Christmas icon, Santa Claus. These cartoons typically portray him as a dirty old man or show him out of character by taking advantage of his special powers to gain entry to the normally closed home and family circle.
While Hall's (1984) interpretation of these cartoons as turning convention on its head has some appeal, the present interpretation is slightly different. Rather than going against the normal conceptualization of Christmas, such cartoons are merely emphasizing a different (sexual) set of self-indulgent rewards at Christmas. While the material rewards of gifts may appeal most to children, and the non-durable rewards of an abundant Christmas meal may appeal most to the poor, the set of rewards that Playboy suggests have the greatest appeal to men are those of sexual fantasy. All of these indulgences are manifestations of Campbell's (1987) contention that consumer culture emphasizes hedonism over utilitarianism.
On the other hand, the social rewards of family and of maintaining interpersonal ties have been suggested to appeal most to women (e.g., Caplow, Bahr, Hill, and Williamson 1982). If so, we should expect to find very different editorial material, cartoons, and advertising appeals in "women's" magazines. A test of this expectation must await further work, but it does appear likely that emphasis on food, decorating, and family tradition are more likely to appear in these magazines than in "men's" magazines.
The contribution of magazine advertising to the acceptance of consumer hedonism at Christmas is also illustrated in a specially prepared advertisement from a recent issue of Harpers. ne Martin Agency was one of several advertising agencies asked to prepare an advertisement for one of the seven deadly sins. They drew avarice and prepared an ad showing Santa in a business suit reading children's letters to him at the North Pole. The headline says "The worlds foremost authority speaks out on the subject of greed." 'Me body copy reads:
Do you remember all of the things you told me you wanted as a child? Well, your list may have changed,-but I'll bet it hasn't gotten any shorter. Perhaps you shouldn't be worried about that. Greed has always motivated men and women. It has motivated inventors to make better mousetraps, artists to create greater art and scientists to find cures for diseases and pathways to the moon. Just be sure to use your greed to good ends. Be greedy for knowledge. Be Greedy for the kind of success that helps you, your family and your friends. Be greedy for love. Just don't be greedy in ways that hurt others. Remember, I'll always be the first one to know if you've been bad or good. So be good for goodness sake.
Although we might expect that those lists that haven't gotten any shorter are for somewhat more material and less altruistic things than the rationalizing illustrations in the copy, the ad shows a very contemporary attempt to reduce guilt over the acquisitive greed that pervades the modem Christmas.
This is not to suggest that Santa can be used for any end. When the December 15, 1986 issue of Maclean's came out in Canada showing Santa on the cover with his coat off, displaying a camouflage t-shirt he wears underneath, and holding what appears to be a modem machine gun, there was an uproar throughout Canada. While the cover story pointed to the controversy involving war toys, readers complained that, in effect, the cover had gone too far and had profaned the sacred Santa figure. Indeed Christmas is to be a time of peace on earth, good will toward men and Christmas fact and legend discusses impromptu cease-fires and even exchanges of gifts between warring soldiers. The same sort of backlash that greeted the Christmas slasher movies warns that Santa is a major deity in the modem Christmas and that there is a core of Christmas values which cannot be subverted. Apparently materialism is one thing, but violence is quite another.
4. Short Stories and Novels. Perhaps because they can serve narrower and more diverse audiences, Christmas stories and books cover a broader range of types than the other media considered here. Three major types Of Stories can be recognized: traditional, cynical, and counter-stories (e.g., crime, horror, science fiction). The traditional category is aimed partly, but not wholly, at a child audience, while the latter categories seem to aim more at adults.
Traditional stories surely include those of Dickens (A Christmas Carol was only one of his annual tales) and O'Henry's "Gift of the Magi", as well as numerous stories that are variants of these tales. One of the things that makes these tales traditional is that they do not stray far from the Christmas values summarized in A Christmas Carol. They also tend to employ traditional Christmas symbols and describe warm scenes of family Christmas, joy, peace, generosity, snow, and nostalgia. They are often set in the past. In order to evoke more sentiment and emotion they also often involve the poor, the outcast, children, or Christmas tragedy. For example, although originating from a National Public Radio broadcast, "James Lundeen's Christmas" (Keillor 1983) tells the story of the Christmas past in small town Minnesota when James' father fell from a ladder in late November and returned to his family from the hospital just two days before Christmas. Mother has told James and his brother that Christmas will be sparse this year, but James keeps hoping for a Lionel train set and hopes that "some rich person" will read about their plight in the paper and get it for him. At the same time he has feared that his father may never come home and that he and his brother might then be adopted (but perhaps by a rich man with a train set in his basement). James is embarrassed and hides a shoe box at church with a slit for donations on top and "Lundeen Family Christmas" written on the side. They do have a small Christmas celebration and he gets boots and a knife, but realizes that his father's being home is the real present. He walks out across frozen Lake Woebegon and notes in looking back at his small house and the town that it looks like a big train set. He realizes that everything that Christmas is about "is contained in that house and its people."
Another example of a traditional story is Bess Aldrich's (1949) "Another Brought Gifts." In this story old Jed Miller is recalled. He was the small town Santa for years and gave children quarters telling them to live upright lives, do good in the world with the quarters, and bring happiness to other little children at Christmas when they got older. One Christmas he was old and sick in bed and almost didn't show up at the church play where he dispensed his quarters to the children. But he dragged himself out of bed and donned his Santa outfit one more time. When the church curtains caught fire after he had given out his money, he grabbed them and ran outside with them, saving the church full of people, but losing his life.
A final example of traditional Christmas stories is from a children's book, Lucy's Christmas (Molloy 1950). When the Maine house where Lucy lives with her parents and three siblings bums down, the family goes off to live in the woods where the father works as a logger in order to save money for a new house. In the fall they spend Sundays cutting Christmas trees and hauling them to the train depot where they are sent off to be sold. Lucy secretly puts a birch bark note in one of the trees explaining the family's situation, giving an address, and asking whoever finds it if they might send her brothers a Christmas present if they have something extra. The note falls off at the station, but the station master finds it and rallies the town to build them a new house which is completed just in time to present to Lucy's family as a Christmas surprise, complete with a tree and presents.
These traditional stories with their clearly articulated values and Dickensian tone, can be contrasted to a more contemporary type of story showing at least some degree of cynicism toward Christmas. For instance, in John Updike's (1981) "Transaction," a man who is Christmas shopping while at an out-of-town conference, gets drunk and picks up a prostitute and buys a few hours of her time. After an awkward sexual encounter in his hotel room he awakes to find the condom he used and notes "...in the morning found it dry as a husk, where he had set it, on the bureau among the other Christmas presents . While there is greater pathos and sadness here than in the Playboy Christmas issues, the same hedonistic message underlies the cynicism.
Another cynical tale is Stephen Dixton's (1985), "A Christmas Story." The story presents a street person's view of spending Christmas hustling handouts. People give him money, but when he finishes collecting it on Christmas eve the flophouses are full and it is freezing out. He finds no one will let him stay in the basement or corridor of their house or apartment building and risks going down into the subway. There he is rolled for his $5 and some young punks try to set him on fire. The next day he goes back to begging and Offering hollow reciprocal "merry Christmas" wishes to his donors. This story is perhaps a cynical version of "The Little Matchstick Girl." It lacks the uplifting ending of most traditional Christmas stories but carries a traditional Christmas message nevertheless: keep Christmas in the heart (i.e., sincerely care for other people) rather than just in the pocketbook.
A final example of a cynical Christmas tale is Helen Norris' (1985) "The Christmas Wife." It involves a man whose wife died several years ago, who decides that rather than spend the $600 it would take to fly to spend Christmas with his son in Los Angeles, he will hire a woman to be with him over the Christmas weekend. He hires a woman through a rundown agency and arranges for them to spend the weekend at a cabin he designed (he is a retired architect) as a summer home for a friend. He gives her some gifts he brought (a robe, a music box, and a figurine) and opens some gifts he had wrapped for himself in order not to embarrass her if she had not brought anything for him, although she did bring him a pound cake. She has a slight cold over the weekend, but they get along comfortably. While the weekend involves no sexual advances, he is attracted to her and asks if he may see her again. He can't because she is the wife of the owner of the rundown agency which provided her. The agency is desperate and the offer of $600 for the weekend is too good for them to pass up. While this story also has a cynical tone, it too emphasizes many of the traditional values of Christmas. Christmas is about family and this is not something that can be acquired as a commodity on the market. Nevertheless, the story involves such Christmas rituals and icons as gift-giving, the fire in the hearth, poverty, and a retreat to a simple life in the country.
If we are to find a complete renunciation of Dickensian Christmas values, perhaps it is in the third genre identified, the counter-stories of crime, horror and science fiction. Some sample titles here are The Twelve Frights of Christmas (Asimov, Waugh, and Greenberg 1986), The Twelve Crimes of Christmas (Waugh, Greenberg, and Asimov 1985), A Carol in the Dark (Jordan 1984), The Twelve Deaths of Christmas (Babson 1979), and Murder for Christmas (Godfrey 1982). In A Carol in the Dark (Jordan 1984) on the campus of Crosscreek University in a small South Dakota town a faculty member and later a student (at a faculty Christmas party) are mysteriously murdered shortly before Christmas. The murders coincide with a treasure hunt for a 40-year-old missing fortune. Ile plot leads to the Society of Perfect Strangers, a secret organization that only meets once a year for Christmas dinner in anonymous New York City, hunts treasures, and is composed of members who are supposed to know one another only by pseudonyms. The crime is solved (it was committed by the greedy head of the English Department) and the treasure found (in jewels hidden in the stained glass skylight of a Victorian house once owned by the an early founder of the town who died leaving hints that some of his fortune remained hidden). The hero also discovers a smaller crime of embezzlement by the treasurer of the Society of Perfect Strangers who promises to amend her ways.
The violence of the murders and the nonfamilial Christmas meetings of strangers seem superficially antithetical to Christmas here. Yet even in this tale traditional Christmas values are reinforced. It is nostalgically set in a small town with Victorian houses and links to prior history. The Society of Perfect Strangers' members are not really such strangers and act as a pseudo-family in their very familial Christmas feast to which they return (from all over the world) each year, just as true families are to do on Christmas. The faculty at the small college is also a pseudo-family and the town is small enough that they are in some senses a big happy family as well. (A similar pseudo-family is found in the boarding house residents of Babson's  Twelve Deaths of Christmas.) Parties, meals, and acts of friendship also help the characters in the story, and the murders serve as shocking counter-points that emphasize the value of these rituals.
A second example in this counter-story genre is the science fiction tale "Planet of Fakers" by McIntosh (1986). An earth colony on a distant planet is not the only life on the planet as the colonists initially suppose. One day a man appears outside their protective dome and is invited in. He quickly learns their language and his lifeform begins to invade and take over the bodies of the colonists one at a time. They are killed when they are discovered, but this is difficult because anything that one of them knows instantly becomes knowledge of all of the others whom the life form has taken over. A group in the colony devotes its time to testing everyone in the community to detect the invaders. Because pencils were known only in the childhood of the colonists, giving each person an unsharpened pencil and asking what it is for works as a screening test for a while although since the wrong answers that result in the death of each invader detected are instantly known to the others, the test has a limited period of reliability. The squad charged with detecting the invaders is asked to come up with an infallible test so that they can return to earth in their space craft making sure that none of the invaders is aboard. They are able to do so by questioning each colonist about what used to happen on December 25th, what associations they have with red and white, what are pseudonyms for Santa Claus, and so on through the symbols of Christmas.
In this story it is especially significant that the colonists who have been unable to celebrate Christmas are saved by their knowledge of this nostalgic holiday. The test makes their survival dependent upon their intimate familiarity with the details of Christmas rituals on earth and the evil lifeforms are precluded from truly imitating humanity by their inability to learn these details of Christmas. Thus the return "home" of the space colonists is safeguarded by familiarity with the one set of symbols most clearly associated with home and family.
A final counter-story of Christmas is Robert Bloch's (1986), 'The Night Before -Christmas." Far from Clement Moore's poem, this story involves a wealthy man who commissions an artist to paint a portrait of his beautiful young wife, to be done in time for Christmas. The artist becomes sexually involved with his subject and the wealthy husband eventually learns of their affair. Just before Christmas when the portrait has been completed the artist comes to call and asks where his subject is. The patron responds that she is in the living room decorating the Christmas tree. In a sense this is true, for he has chopped up her body and hung her various body parts on the Christmas tree.
Although this macabre story certainly violates the peace and brotherhood theme of Christmas, in other ways it too supports traditional Christmas values. Gift-giving (including sexual favors), Christmas decoration, and penalty for violation of the sanctity of the family are all here. Similarly, the power of wealth is emphasized when the wealthy patron gets his final revenge. Here too, violation of the precepts of Christmas works to emphasize the strength of Christmas tradition rather than to undermine it.
5. Comics and Comic Books. Some of the most hedonistic, commercial, and anxious portrayals of Christmas appear in the syndicated cartoons carried by U.S. Newspapers. Some examples include:
A New York Tribune cartoon of 1946 shows a middle aged man telling a Santa sitting behind a sign reading "For Grown-ups only", "I wanna shiny New Eight Cylinder Convertible Coupe an' a Radio with Television reception an' a new garden tractor an' some rubber boots and' an out-board motor an'-[his wife interrupts] And I want an electric dishwasher and a new fur coat and ... etc. "
In a 1987 Bloom County strip in which a young girl sues Santa Claus for distributing war toys, the elf defending Santa tells the girl's attorney, "Please advise your client that unless she halts her spurious suit against my client, he'll have little recourse but to leave dead spiders in her stocking next year."
A 1985 The Family Circus cartoon (by Bill Keane) shows the four children playing with their toys in front of the Christmas tree and one announces "This is our best Christmas ever! Not a drop of clothes so far."
A 1986 Cathy comic strip (by Cathy Guisewite) has the following dialogue between Cathy and her friend Andrea
A: Aren't you going to do all your Christmas shopping by catalogue this year Cathy?
A: It's so Efficient!
C: Andrea, Don't you think you're missing the whole point? ... the whole magical experience of going out shopping for your loved ones??!
A: Why? Because I can't touch the gifts I pick out for People?
C: You Can't try on any Clothes.
A 1986 B.C. comic strip (by Johnny Hart) shows Thor composing the following Christmas poem:
Tis now the season of Good Cheer,
Of Snowflakes, Love, and Fun,
A Time when Distant Friends Draw Near
And Hearts Become as One.
A Time When Reason Conquers Fear,
And Noble Loving Deeds,
In Forms of Gifts Exchanged, 'Sincere'
... Fulfill Each Other's 'Greeds'.
Similarly, a 1985 Garfield cartoon (by Jim Davis) begins with Garfield's master saying "Merry Christmas Garfield! Open Your Presents, Buddy. What's the Holdup?" Garfield's thought bubbles read the response: "I'm just savoring the moment. This is my favorite morning of the whole year. All our differences are set aside and all the love we feel for one another is wrapped up in the gifts we have made with care. I love Christmas." He then leaps eagerly at the presents thinking "Enough of Sentiment. Gimme!"
A 1987 Dennis the Menace cartoon (by Hank Ketcham) shows Dennis asking his father, "Does the Christmas Spirit mean you've got the money to buy presents?"
A 1983 Miss Peach cartoon (by Mell Lazarus) shows the little Foster girl counselling a fellow student at the Kelly School Christmas Gifts Counselling Service:
FS: How does one go about getting Christmas gifts from people?
FG: By doing very nice things for them. In other words, obligate them shamelessly...
And a 1985 Bloom County cartoon (by Berke Breathed) shows the following Christmas morning dialogue between son and father:
S: A Record Player? [having just opened the gift]
F: Like it, son? It's State-of-the-art!
S: Actually, State-of-the-art would be compact audio discs ... scratchless. Noiseless. Perfect sound reproduction.
F: Yeah? Well some of us subscribe to the theory that "obsolete" isn't always bad! So ... You don't like your record player then?!
S: No, No! I lust for it. I'll just put it over here with my spiffy new slide rule.
F: Oo! You like that too, eh?
Perhaps because these cartoons must be so brief and their humor often confined to one-liners (the most vicious form of humor), they present the least flattering view of Christmas of any of the media reviewed here. The view they most commonly present is that of selfishness triumphing over brotherhood, thus emphasizing Scrooge-like values rather than Cratchit-like values. Nevertheless, the rituals of gift-giving, the sanctity of home and family, and the emphasis on hedonism and youth are all preserved. It is in fact the childlike flaw of greed that is perhaps most forgivable (especially among children and cartoon characters) at Christmas. It may also be noted that the Christmas of comics is almost entirely secular; religious themes are extremely rare. This is slightly less true of comic books, where stories have more room to unfold.
Because comic book Christmas stories are analyzed more completely in the quantitative section that follows, only an illustrative summary of some of these story lines will be given here. These examples will ignore the translations of familiar Christmas stories such as A Christmas Carol, "The Gift of the Magi," and The Night Before Christmas into comic book format.
"Donald Duck in A Christmas for Shacktown," (Walt Disney Productions 1951)- Donald Duck's nephews, Huey, Dewy, and Louie, plan to help Daisy Duck earn money for the poor children of Duckville's Shacktown. Uncle Scrooge McDuck (modeled on Dicken's Scrooge) pledges to match their contributions if they can earn $25. They do so, but Uncle Scrooge's money bin collapses into an underground cave due to its excessive weight. When the nephews find a way to retrieve the money, the grateful Uncle Scrooge gives them enough money to provide a really lavish Christmas for the kids of Shacktown. The money is used for toys for the children and is carried to Shacktown on a toy train that is routed by crippled Joey's shack so that he too can share in the Christmas bounty.
"Betty and Veronica in Never Trust a Skinny Santa," (Archie Comic Publications, Inc. 1973)-Betty and Veronica rehabilitate a bum by fattening him up and getting him a job as a Santa at Veronica's uncle's department store. When the job ends at the end of the Christmas season, the rehabilitated man decides he wants to be a bum rather than trying to get another job. However, he can't do that because no one would give money to a fat bum. So he instead decides he will hang around (Veronica) Lodge's eating their food.
"The Land Behind the Sky-Holes," (May 1976)-Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer finds a reverse land where Santa takes presents from children (by law) rather than giving them. Rudolf brings him to the real Santa Claus who sets him straight about Santa, Christmas, and giving.
"Frosty the Snowman and the Christmas Spirit," (Dell Publishing Company 1957)Willy Penguin delivers Christmas trees in Order to get a free one for his orphanage, but loses it in helping a little girl out of the water where the ice broke. She gives him and Frosty permission to take trees from the land of her selfish grandfather. The children at the orphanage sign cards thanking the grandfather who then reforms and invites them all for Christmas dinner.
"Santa's First Christmas Trip," (Dell Publishing Company 1941)- Santa was a clumsy woodsman and his brother Chris was the toy maker until an angel transforms Santa Claus so he can fix the toys that thieves had broken when he was taking them to children.
"Seasons Greetings," (Hall Syndicate, Inc. 1967)- Dennis the Menace, after asking Santa Claus for a bike, space helmet, tow truck, and sail boat, secretly uses his parents' credit card to shop for Christmas gifts for them. When he kiddingly says that he got them a diamond necklace and a solid gold fountain pen, they nearly faint.
"A Noggin at Mile End," (Warren Publishing Company 1977)- Santa's elf finds a poor deformed boy of 10 who is being kept as a sideshow freak with only a pair of pants to his name. He gives the boy a wish which he uses to turn himself into a handsome lad. The elf takes him to the North Pole to be a fellow elf and they run over his former greedy and selfish keeper with Santa's sleigh as they leave.
"Bugs Bunny," (Western Publishing and Lithography Company 1955)- Bugs Bunny works for Stingy Stengel's Department Store and when Stengel gets amnesia, Bugs convinces him he is Santa Claus. After Stengel gives the whole town presents and regains his memory, the town all loves him and he seems to enjoy it.
"Katy Keene's Christmas," (Lucas 1986)- Katy skates, skis, parties, carols, shops, and gives out toys in a Santa outfit at an orphanage. She gets a modeling job for a charity fashion show and dates the owner. A rival hides her fashions, but gives them back after a ghost scares her into doing so. She tells Katy that she is good, kind, and has inner beauty.
"Oh What Fun to Laugh and Sing a Slaying Song Tonight%" (DC Comics, Inc. 1987)- An escaped convict shoots police and a Salvation Army Santa with whom he changes clothes. He runs to a blind girl's house who is waiting for Santa and robs the house. The real Santa arrives, restores the little girl's -sight and runs over the convict with his sleigh.
As this set of examples suggests, the comic books about Christmas also seldom have a religious theme. They invoke secular Christmas legends of Rudolf the Red-nosed Reindeer, Frosty the Snowman, and Santa Claus to bring Christmas to children of all countries, to animals, and even to extra-terrestrials. Dorfman (1983) finds that de Brunhoff s Babar comic stories show Santa as a Western Imperialist. The comic books too give Santa Christ-like powers to heal and raise the dead, and also have a strong sense of justice and charity toward the poor and crippled. And they also show themes of hedonism, Christmas greed, and other Dickensian themes. Like the comic strips, they sometimes emphasize the dominance of Scroogelike characteristics and sometimes emphasize Cratchit-like characteristics. A comparison of the relative frequencies of these themes is presented in the quantitative analysis of comic books.
6. Other Media. Other media will not be reviewed here, although they include Christmas plays, radio, music, Christmas cards, and other such art forms. These media are excluded primarily because they seem to offer less variation for the period since Barnett's (1954) Christmas work. Radio now serves primarily to broadcast music at Christmas, and the music has contributed few if any enduring additions to American Christmas music since the 1950s, despite many attempts to create new Christmas classics. Relatively few Christmas plays with new themes have not been presented in one of the other media reviewed above. And while Christmas cards might present a useful source of tracking changes in celebrations of Christmas, this too will have to await future analyses. While not mass media, Rook's (1985) archive of consumers' home movies and videos of Christmas is also worth further exploration. And another promising area for further exploration may be Christmas home decoration with a spectrum ranging from the highly reserved decoration in Scarsdale, New York (Kirshenblatt-Gimblett 1983), to the coordinated decoration of homes on "Christmas Street" in Salt Lake City, Utah (Oxley, Haggard, Werrier, and Altman 1986), and the Christmas decorating extremes of Rita (Pollay 1987) and Dolph (Kron 1983).
A QUANTITATIVE ANALYSIS OF PRINT AD AND COMIC BOOK TREATMENTS OF CHRISTMAS
Two quantitative content analyses were conducted to examine potential changes in the frequency of materialistic Christmas themes over the past nearly 50 years. The first such analysis considered emphasis on Christmas and Santa Claus (argued above to be the secular god of materialism) in magazine advertising. Among American magazines the only one that has remained in the top ten in circulation since the 1940s is Ladies Home Journal (See Belk and Pollay 1985). Therefore, ads of half a page or larger in the November and December issues of this magazine were chosen for investigation. The analysis of these ads was quite simple. They were coded for explicit mentions of Christmas (but not Thanksgiving or the ambiguous "holiday") or inclusions of Christmas iconography including wreaths, Christmas Trees, wrapped gifts, Santa Claus, and elves. 'Me consideration of November issues was intended to detect any tendency over time to begin advertising earlier in an effort to stimulate earlier Christmas shopping. Every 5th year was sampled, with the total number of ads of a half page or larger ranging from 61 in December, 1982 to 169 in November, 1947.
Results were as follows in Table 1. Clearly there has not been a steady increase in Christmas emphasis in either November or December advertisements. Christmas emphasis peaked in the 1950s for both the November and December issues. The latest year's December advertisements show the highest frequency of Christmas ads since 1962, but there were still only about half as many Christmas ads (both absolute and relative) as were evident a decade earlier in 1952. Considering the percentage of the Christmas ads featuring Santa Claus, for the December issues Santa appeared in from 12.5% of the Christmas ads in 1972 to 37.5% of the Christmas ads in 1957, thus generally paralleling the results for the overall frequencies of Christmas ads over the period studied.
For the entire set of 853 December ads studied, 268 (31.4%) featured Christmas messages and 70 (8.2%) featured Santa Claus. A total of 3 ads featured any religious portrayal, and 2 of these ads were for bibles (the third was for encyclopedias and featured a photograph of a decorative three dimensional representation of 3 wise men). Taken as a whole and recognizing that it is more difficult and perhaps less useful for products that are unlikely to be used as gifts or as Christmas foods or beverages (e.g., soap, automobiles) to feature Christmas in their ads, these findings do suggest a strong emphasis on a material Christmas. However, there is no evidence to support a contention that we are increasingly commercializing Christmas, at least not based on Christmas ads in Ladies' Home Journal since 1940.
PERCENTAGE OF ADS WITH A CHRISTMAS EMPHASIS
Notably the percentage of December ads in Ladies' Home Journal featuring Christmas, is slightly lower than the percentage of articles featuring Christmas in these same issues (105 of 304 or 34.5%). This editorial content does suggest some tendency toward greater emphasis on Christmas with each of the four years considered in the 1970s and 1980s containing over 50% Christmas articles (whereas only 1962 did so in prior issues). Furthermore few of these Christmas articles (only 5.7%) were directly religious. The largest category of Christmas editorial material (36.1%) was fiction, with return to home, family, children, the past, and feasting the most common themes of this fiction. Christmas food was the next most popular focus in the Christmas articles (30.5%) followed by decorating (10.5%), gift-giving (8.6%), and fashions (7.6%). In each case, the focus was implicitly or explicitly on the family and on nonreligious aspects of the Christmas celebration. Seldom is heard a discouraging word about Christmas in these pages and in the rare instances in which something negative is mentioned, it is apt to be consoling advice like: "Feel more frazzled than festive? Here is how to make the most of parties, keep peace in the family and give the best possible gifts" (December, 1987).
A check of the most recent Christmas issues of 12 other popular magazines suggests that it is the "home" magazines such as Better Homes and Gardens, House Beautiful, McCall's, House and Garden, and Family Circle that emphasize Christmas the most in editorial content, with an average of slightly over 50 percent of the editorial material featuring Christmas. Given the symbolic significance of home, family, and food in Christmas celebrations, this is understandable. It is also noteworthy that the major audience for each of these magazines is female. As Caplow (1982, 1984) found, it is women who do most of the gift selection, decorating, and food preparation for Christmas.
The comic books analyzed involved a set of 626 Christmas stories featured in Christmas issues of all popular comic book series since 1940. This included such diverse characters and series as Donald Duck, Bat Man, Betty and Veronica (Archie series), Creepy, Richie Rich, Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Superman, Elvira, Frosty the Snowman, Bugs Bunny, Howard the Duck, Santa Claus Funnies, Dennis the Menace, Mickey Mouse, Fox and Crow, A Christmas Treasury, Alvin (The Chipmunks), Christmas Parade, Katy Keene, Santa Claus Parade, the Defenders, and Xmas Comics. Despite this diversity, none of these Christmas issues was published for the entire period studied (although Betty and Veronica Christmas specials have been published since the early 1950s and contributed approximately 45% of the stories analyzed and the Rudolf, Frosty, and Santa Claus series produced a large number of the 1950s stories analyzed).
Based on initial open-end coding of a sample of stories, 89 thematic categories were initially developed such as religion, generosity, charity, shopping, gluttony, drunkenness, seasonal decoration, peace, animosity, crowding, charity, depression, nostalgia/past times, and miserliness. A graduate student judge read and coded a sample of 100 stories for themes that were present and (in the case of multiple themes) for which, if any, theme was dominant (e.g. kindness triumphs over selfishness). The author coded these same stories and 94% agreement was obtained. This reliability was judged to be sufficiently high, so the author's coding was used for these and the remaining stories. Altogether 880 themes were coded for the 626 stories, or an average of 1.4 per story. After collapsing the themes coded into broader categories, the following overall results were obtained (Table 2).
It can be seen that overall, the sacred Christmas values of Cratchit-like themes dominate the profane Scrooge-like themes by almost 2 to 1. It can also be seen that the Christmas portrayed in Comic Books is a secular one, with only about 5 percent of the stories featuring religion (approximately the same percentage as was found in the editorial material of Ladies' Home Journal). In order to detect any apparent change in these tendencies over time, the 626 stories were classified according to whether they only emphasized sacred "Cratchit-like" Christmas values, only emphasized profane "Scrooge-like" Christmas values, or emphasized both. These results are shown by decade in Table 3.
THEMES IN OVERALL CHRISTMAS COMIC BOOK STORY SAMPLE
With the exception of the 1940s when there were too few comic book Christmas stories for meaningful comparison, the relative frequencies of sacred and profane themes have remained quite stable over the remaining four decades. In no case does the frequency of only sacred ("Cratchit-like") themes drop below 50 percent and in no case does it exceed 60%. Whether or not this should be taken to imply a largely nostalgic (rather than cynical) image of Christmas, requires further discussion.
Consider three reasonably prototypical story lines that reflect the three categories above. A "Sacred Only ('Cratchit')" Christmas message is:
"The Greatest Christmas of All" (Warren Publishing Company 1977)- After giving out gifts from a bottomless sack, an old man freezes to death thinking about how the task literally fell to him when Santa's sack fell out of his sleigh on the very night his mother died of asthma while his drunken father laughed about it. Two boys find the bottomless sack now and they vow to continue the tradition of giving.
A "Profane Only ('Scrooge')" prototypical story is:
"Santa's Surprise" (Walt Disney Productions 1962)- The sons, daughters, nieces, and nephews of Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, and the Big Bad Wolf all ask for small toys and Santa promises he will bring them. Seeing this, Uncle Scrooge dresses as a child and asks Santa for "Money, a factory, money, an airport, money, a plantation, money, stores, etc. ".
And a story with both sacred and profane elements is:
"Betty and Veronica in Forgive and Forget" (Archie Comic Publications, Inc.)- Betty argues for the merits of giving and love at Christmas~ while Veronica argues for the merits of getting and greed. Neither is convinced to change her mind.
While there are a few of the both sacred and profane stories in which the profane is merely played off against the sacred in order to dramatize the story (as with Scrooge versus the Cratchits in A Christmas Carol), in most of these stories the presence of both themes indicates an ambiguous message of what Christmas is about. In stories where the profane is dominant, the humor commonly derives from laughing at a side of Christmas and of ourselves that is socially unacceptable, but has a grain of truth to it. While we are ostensibly laughing at someone else, we may really be laughing at a side of ourselves that is apparent enough to be recognized. Just as the stories combining sacred and profane treatments indicate our ambiguity about Christmas, the co-presence of stories where the sacred is dominant and where the profane is dominant suggests ambivalence as well.
DOMINANT COMIC BOOK CHRISTMAS STORY VALUE EMPHASIS
Most of the media treatments reviewed in this paper contribute to building and sustaining a mythology of Christmas as a time of love, family, generosity, charity, and other Cratchit-like values. However, the analysis of this myth also disclosed that while the modem American Christmas portrayed in the media is sacralized by these mythical themes and by its ritual consumption, it is also highly secular. If Christ is the hero of the traditional religious Christmas, Santa is the hero of the traditional secular Christmas. And Santa is a god of materialism and hedonism- of modem consumer culture. Still, most of the media seem comfortable with this modern Christmas and present it in a way that evokes almost exclusively warm and positive emotional reactions to their rendition of Christmas.
The two media in which our discomfort with this modem Christmas is most clearly presented are cartoons and comics. Perhaps this is because these media arc least dependent on advertising revenues. Perhaps it is because they serve up their Christmases with a distracting humor. And perhaps, at least in the case of comic books, this is due to the fact that they are directed to children who are not yet called upon to buy, give, and retell the sustaining myths of Christmas. Whatever the explanation, it seems to have fallen to the simple and humorous cartoon format to tell us that there is something unsettling with the modem American Christmas. Perhaps we should take such cartoon messages Seriously.
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Russell W. Belk, University of Utah
SV - Interpretive Consumer Research | 1989
Portals of Transformation In Consumer Experiences
Linda L Price, University of Oregon, USA
Basil Arnould Price, York University, UK
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Marta Pizzetti, Università della Svizzera Italiana
Michael Gibbert, Università della Svizzera Italiana
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Leif D. Nelson, University of California Berkeley, USA