Consumerism Has Always Driven Our Holiday Traditions, Says Researcher

By Tom McLaughlin

From nonstop Christmas music, to elaborate store displays, and a steady stream of commercials, the unofficial start to the holiday season seems to come earlier and earlier every year.

Hostetter explains that the holidays are plugged into moments of sovereign consumption

So has our consumerism finally gone too far?

Not so fast, says Rutgers University–Camden researcher Aaron Hostetter.

While we’d like to believe that consumerism has overwhelmed our holiday traditions, he says, it’s actually what has always driven them.

The associate professor of English at Rutgers–Camden explains that, for centuries, our holiday rituals have been fueled by what scholars call “conspicuous consumption” – a grand, public display of consumption intended to elevate our social and economic statuses and those around us.

“The holidays are plugged into these moments of sovereign consumption,” says Hostetter. “It makes us feel more like we are in charge – like we are fully activated, self-determined citizens of the world – the more that we can engage in this profligate, wasteful behavior.”

As a result, says Hostetter, it’s common to find people doing things around the holidays that they wouldn’t normally do, such as spending all day preparing a “strange dinner” that they don’t actually need to eat, only to wind up with leftovers for two weeks.

“You always have to remember, ‘How do I cut this thing?’” says the Rutgers–Camden researcher, who explores the politics of food practices of medieval English culture as illustrated in the romance literature of England in his new book, Political Appetites.

Conspicuous consumption is only able to function because, by its very nature, it can never be sated, says Hostetter

These very public displays, he explains, are all wrapped up in a grand performance of middle-class status, with ideals of profligate consumption descendent from “memories of Rome.”

The holiday celebration as we know it in America today, he says, is in effect Christianity applied over the top of deep traditions dating back to Pagan days, when cycles of fasting and feasting were desperately important to the creation and survival of civilization, and how civilized societies dealt with time and the agricultural year.

“To have a big profligate feast in the middle of winter was a celebration of the harvest and what was reaped from that year,” he says. “The prevailing thought was, ‘I’ll spend a little more because of how well we did this year.’”

Christmas then evolves as a feast of conspicuous consumption, he says.

“We have always done things traditionally because they have an economic benefit or they did at one point,” he says.

Hostetter notes that even the current depiction of one of our most beloved symbols of the holiday season – Santa Claus – is rooted in consumerism. Previous iterations of good ol’ St. Nick depicted a frail, elderly gentleman, which fit into the longstanding, cyclical symbolism of the calendar year.

“Christmas and December are part of the old year, so of course the previous iteration resembled the winter, leanness, starvation, and hardship,” he says.

Coca-Cola then makes a conscious choice, he says, to sell satisfaction, healthy pleasure, and all the good living that Christmas represents. St. Nick is supplanted with a “carnivalesque, out-of-season character” that would be more in place at a Fat Tuesday celebration.

“So St. Nick is magically transformed into Santa Claus – a plump, jovial figure with a red nose – who symbolizes ‘fat sovereignty,’ the conspicuous consumption of Christmas culture,” he says. “A long time ago, only the kings were fat. Cultures that still maintain the traditional depiction of St. Nick are not as vested in the consumer overdrive of Christmas in American culture.”

Hostetter explains that conspicuous consumption is only able to function because, by its very nature, it can never be sated. Even the act of giving is a form of consumption, he says; it satisfies the giver with a temporary joy or satisfaction, but must be done time and time again in order to maintain that feeling, no differently than eating.

It’s also why shopping can be such an addiction, he adds.

“If you eat once, you are going to have to eat again,” he says. “You have to keep consuming to maintain that sense of wellbeing.”

No money? No problem!

“A credit card is an adrenaline shot of sovereignty,” he says. “It allows you to go a little bit further than your paycheck would indicate.”

Posted in: Research Highlights

Comments are closed.