The Consumer Republic

Does the Spirit Move You?
Have you done your Christmas shopping yet? Don’t tell me you actually think the holiday buying season came to a rapturous conclusion on Dec. 25? If so, you’re spending too much time with the Ghost of Christmas Past. Christmas is no longer that special day on which we as a nation celebrate consumer abundance. It’s a year-end clearance sale.
After the third season in a row of anemic fourth-quarter sales growth, merchants nationwide are facing the reality that Christmas, the one-time engine of profitability, is not what it used to be. What made this season so painful was that the economy is so good. Optimism on Wall Street has inoculated the stock market against the Asian flu. Inflation remains at levels not seen since the ’60s, while the unemployment rate is so low that, had hordes of Christmas shoppers materialized as expected, many retailers wouldn’t have had enough sales help to serve them. It was the perfect setup for an old-fashioned Christmas with presents heaped under the tree.
When it didn’t happen, the Christmas-morning quarterbacks rushed forward with explanations for retail’s lackluster performance. For example, there’s the can’t-be-bothered scenario, which suggests that with families scattered and both parents working, there’s less time and energy to hit the stores.
Maybe. But every year my mailbox is crammed with catalogs advertising a sleigh full of Yuletide tchotchkes: wreaths, swags, tree trimmings, candles, centerpieces, angels, Santas, napkin holders, topiaries, stocking hangers, tablecloths, platters and glassware. Somebody out there thinks people are still investing a lot of time and money in a family Christmas by the hearth. Or is it that families are blowing so much of their holiday budget on atmosphere, there’s less for gifts?
Others believe the evolving homo emptor isn’t driven by a lust for things. Not for nothing was the ad copy clichƒ of the ’90s the mocking label “stuff.” Rather than accumulating a huge pile of gilded and beribboned objects, consumers are increasingly drawn to buying and giving experiences not found in the aisle of a store: a seasonal trip for the family, a certificate for a day at a spa, flying lessons. In other words, they give something to do rather than something to have. Besides, if it’s “stuff” you’re looking for, given our carefully cultivated individual tastes, it’s much more efficient to cut to the chase and buy it yourself.
Of course, there was a time when Christmas shopping was a one-of-a-kind experience, when folks lined the street to see window displays and commodities dressed up in greenery, glitter and lights. But today, shopping-as-entertainment is a year-round pursuit; lifestyle stores are theatrical sets that put on a show every shopping day. What’s a little tinsel in Nike Town, which is already chock full of stimulation and devoted to the celebration of Nike Day 365 times a year? In such an environment, Christmas is worse than superfluous; it’s off-message.
Ironically, Christmas’ vitality as a celebration of abundance requires a certain amount of restraint the rest of the year. Remember the Christmas Club, into which heads of households faithfully put away a few dollars each month in anticipation of the spree to come? The payoff came in a glorious burst of material indulgence, a frenzy of shopping, a once-a-year license to spend a little more than you could afford.
But the Christmas Club habit has gone the way of another sainted Christmas institution, George Bailey’s building and loan. The $1.2 trillion credit-card debt consumers brought to this holiday season testifies that we, like Scrooge, have learned to keep the spirit of Christmas alive throughout the year–though not in the way Charles Dickens intended. For years, the pious killjoys have grumbled that our exuberant materialism was destroying the meaning of the religious Christmas. But who could have guessed it would ultimately undermine the significance of the pagan retail Christmas, too?
Speaking of the religious Christmas, none of the explanations given for the decline of the holiday that retailers used to know ever mention Christianity. In a more homogeneous society, it was the exclusive prerogative of Christianity to bring joy to the world. Good cheer and good sales were fed by the good news of Jesus’ birthday, perhaps more than our secular culture can acknowledge.
But in multicultural America, the winter solstice is an equal opportunity event, and thanks to holidays such as Hanukkah and Kwanzaa, nobody gets left out. Yet it was at that moment during the holidays when I heard on the radio an oy-to-the-world rendition of “Deck the Halls” by a klezmer band that I realized all this inclusiveness made Christmas not bigger and broader, but vaguer and less distinctive. No wonder that, as a retail event, Halloween is where the action is.