January 13th, 2015
Christmas is hard work.
I’ve always been a great fan of New Year and January – not least because it marks the end of the so-called Festive Season. Everything goes back to normal. You suddenly stop eating too much, drinking too much and spending too much. Everything slows down and goes quiet. Calm returns.
Christmas: why do we do it? No doubt, we would all give somewhat different reasons. We do it for “the kids” or for “the parents” or for “the family”. We do it because it is “fun”. We do it because we used to enjoy Christmas as children and therefore we owe our participation in it to society as a whole. We do it because to withdraw from it would be unthinkable. It would be curmudgeonly. We would turn into Ebenezer Scrooge – Bah Humbug etc.
But do we actually enjoy Christmas? I wonder…
Take consumption, for example. If you eat and drink more than you usually do over a given period then the chances are that you’ll feel less well than you normally do. I’m not talking about getting drunk every night, or stuffing yourself to the limit. But a bit more alcohol, especially if taken every day, and a bit more food will take its toll, especially as we get older. Blood pressure goes up. Heart rate increases, especially at night, when the alcohol starts to wear off. Indigestion is more frequent, as are feelings of bloatedness and mild nausea. Our mood becomes lower. We feel lethargic and lacking in energy. That is, until the chimes start to ring in the New Year, and then things get back to normal.
Or take spending. Is it really money well spent? Those of us who can negotiate Christmas without significantly increased personal borrowing are lucky. Thousands, if not millions, of people turn to high interest personal loans of one sort or another just to get through the Festive Season. They suffer the consequences for months to come. Who benefits? Mainly on-line retailers – and lenders.
Or take socializing. Parties may be fine when you are young and can let your hair down, and recover from hangovers more quickly. But when you get a little older, all that parties, social gatherings and the like actually achieve is to present you with one of the great truths about humans as social beings. I may be friends with Person A, Person B, Person C and Person D. I may really like these people. Does it follow that Persons A, B, C and D will therefore like each other? No, it does not. And this is why you find yourself, at parties, trying to make small-talk with people you neither know nor particularly want to get to know. But, hey, it’s Christmas! The season of Good Will towards All Men.
I honestly believe that almost all of us would either prefer to do Christmas very differently or opt out of it altogether. And that raises a troubling question: how is it that all of us, who have freedom of will and freedom of choice, are somehow persuaded and coerced into doing something which we would really prefer not to do? And why does this happen year on year?
Something similar has happened with Halloween. This non-festival has now taken over October. It has one redeeming feature: it keeps Christmas at bay until the start of November.
The run-up to Christmas seemed to be pretty low-key when I was a kid, growing up in the ‘60s. Then we started to get reminders of how many shopping days were left until Christmas. Now, this trend has reached a truly absurd, almost obscene, level. Suddenly, we have something called “Black Friday”, in which otherwise normal and sane people suddenly start behaving like starving scavengers of the rampage, storming through shops in search of “bargains”. And there are other such delightful seasonal highlights, such as “Panic Saturday”. What next? “Utter Despair Monday”? “Reach For The Cyanide Tuesday”?
Then, suddenly, it is December 25th – and it all stops. Christmas is supposed to be a twelve-day festival. But do you ever hear Christmas carols after Boxing Day – or even after Christmas day? No. Because the whole point of Christmas is the run-up. Do your spending, get Christmas day over with, and then get things back to normal as soon as possible.
So – how is it that we’re seemingly coerced into doing something every year which, if we think about it dispassionately, we would sooner not do. And why is it so difficult, if not impossible, simply to opt out?
The one-word answer is: advertising. From November onwards, nearly every advertised product is presented as somehow “Christmassy” or “Festive” or essential to this, the Most Wonderful Time of the Year. Christmas itself, a non-product, is thus advertised cumulatively, on the back of so many diverse products, such as food, drink, luxury items, toys, sports and fitness items, I T hardware and software, cosmetics, medicines, and so on. Advertising is used to sell individual products successfully. If advertising didn’t amount to more profits for business then there wouldn’t be any. So – what works for one item must therefore exert an almost irresistible force when joined to so many items for so long a period. No wonder that Christmas has got us enslaved.
Advertising and hypnosis are linked. An advert doesn’t operate at the level of fully conscious rational analysis. It doesn’t present us with evidence which we can rationally evaluate. It works by suggestion, just like hypnosis. True, there is no formal hypnotic induction involved. But there is none needed. We do not attend to adverts. They impinge upon us. They slip under the barrier of fully rational consciousness. How else did the supermarket chain Sainsbury’s manage to avoid an appalled backlash when it released an advert which attempted to relate its commercial activity and products with the famous football match played between the Allied and German combatants during the Xmas truce of the 1st World War? Such appalling, barrel-scraping cynicism passed almost without comment because the receivers of that advert simply accepted three “nice” things (Sainsbury’s products, Christmas, and the 1914 truce) presented together and didn’t question it any further. Well – you don’t actually think about adverts, do you?
It goes beyond formal advertising on television, in magazines, or other such media. From late November onwards, my local supermarket (Sainsbury’s, as it happens) insists upon broadcasting the most irritating Christmas muzak over the PA system in store. I’m sure I’m not the only shopper who loathes and detests this, but I’m equally sure that most shoppers are hardly even aware of it at a conscious level. But music, when associated with a specific time of year, or some other external association, is almost irresistibly suggestive. Just try listening to a few bars of Hark the Herald Angels Sing in late spring and you’ll see what I mean. In my case, the infuriating piped muzak has the opposite effect. I recognize, resent and resist such a crude attempt to manipulate my behaviour. It makes be avoid buying Christmas products.
This is an example of what I mean when I talk about the influence of hypnosis in everyday life. In the case of Christmas it has turned us into helpless herd animals. Is there really no other way in which Christmas could be celebrated? Is this hideous and animal-like overspending and over-consuming absolutely unavoidable? Surely not. But how do we escape from the pernicious spell which is cast over us year after year? With difficulty. Maybe it really is impossible. And yet, I cling to the hope that the more conscious we are about what we are doing, the less easy it is to manipulate us by advertising or some other means. We need to count to six and wake up!
Only 345 more shopping days until Christmas 2015! Start panicking now!
Thank God it’s January…