If you were on Dam Square on the evening of 15 November, you would have witnessed the official Christmas kick-off in Amsterdam. De Bijenkorf, the high-end department store takes centre stage at this annual festivity. Its façade is lit by thousands of lights, followed by an invitation to shop to your heart’s content. We are reminded these are energy efficient LED lights lest we worked up about climate change, diverting our attention from the prime purpose of consumption.
Be assured, this is not a rant against the commercialisation of Christmas. Too many have gone before me in making this argument and with far more fervour. It is more an observation – noting the blatant flaunting of the relationship between religion and commerce, anointed by the municipality.
It is so public, so open, so out there for everyone to see. What happened to the hidden influencers, subconscious marketing and the manipulated audience narrative?
This reminds me of one of my favourite reads by the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss. His essay ‘Father Christmas executed’ takes us back to France in 1951 where the battle raged between the clergy and the public on the ‘paganisation’ of Christmas. An effigy of Father Christmas was hung from the railings of Dijon Cathedral and burnt publicly before the eyes of hundreds of schoolchildren.
Father Christmas is neither a saint, nor a mythical or legendary figure. He was the output of an active imagination of the merchant class. For the church to be silent on this was akin to enabling the infiltration of the profane into the sacred. Hence, the sensational signal against blasphemy. To the church’s surprise, the public and the media widely condemned this action against their beloved Father Christmas.
To add insult to injury, Coca-Cola had a go too, branding their product with the Christmas colours of red and white, making the soft drink synonymous with the joys of Christmas consumption. This morphed into the joys of American consumption.
I wonder about today’s unapologetic public honesty on the marriage between the market and religion with the state’s blessings.
The institutionalised consumption of Christmas.
Is this a sign of cynicism or authenticity? In embracing our humanness, particularly the gluttony, greed and envy of the biblical sins, have we discarded the shackles of guilt, the most potent tool for religion?
Perhaps, being true to our consumer-self is the new self-help religion.
Payal Arora is an Associate Professor at Erasmus School of History, Culture and Communication