Holiday time?

It may only be September 4, but that’s not too soon for merchants to begin stoking their customer’s nostalgia (and wallets) for the winter holidays.  Case in point: a few weeks ago, I stumbled upon not one, but two rows of holiday décor at Costco.  Giant illuminated snowmen for the front yard, Mickey and Minnie Mouse for the roof, winter wonderland snow globes and intricate music boxes for display on end tables, and wrapping paper and ribbons for gift boxes presented themselves like the vanguard of a holiday campaign.  UNICEF’s holiday catalogue arrived in the mail last week, and my inbox was bursting today with limited-time offers for purchasing holiday greeting cards.

The onslaught has begun, and the fact that all of this is totally incongruous with the weather – 108 F (42.2 C) locally – is beside the point.  As I noted in my blog on Labor Day, summer is over (according to the cultural, if not scientific calendar) and that means the inexorable march toward Christmas is now underway.

It didn’t used to be like this, and the trend is not without detractors.  For one, there are the reasonable shoppers who would like the holidays to each take place in their own time. First let’s get through Halloween (October 31), and then let’s enjoy Thanksgiving (the fourth Thursday in November), before we start thinking about Christmas in December!  For another, there is the growing population which is not Christian and therefore feels a certain exclusion for the last quarter of the year when every shop and every advertisement caters to the majority (although, it should be mentioned that stores have tried to include Jewish patrons with an emphasis on Hanukkah, despite the fact that it was traditionally considered a minor holiday relative to others like Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur).  Third, there is a feeling among many Christians that the emphasis on commercialism and materialism during the Christmas season is counter to its spirit and message.

And yet, there is a method to the madness.  Retailers have long relied on Christmas sales to bring them “out of the red” (accounting-speak for having a negative balance, or a net loss) and “into the black” (having a profit, or net gain).  With online merchants having steadily chipped away at traditional stores’ sales, and with Americans having tightened their budgets during the recession, there is now a desperate competition for every dollar.  Since prices can only be slashed so much, stores now try to edge out their competitors by offering holiday goods earlier and earlier.

As much as I might roll my eyes in disbelief when I see winter-themed products on display during our summer monsoon season, I admit that I am nonetheless stirred.  Especially in the desert, the mere idea of winter is a balm for my summer-weary soul.  But there is more to it than that: Practicality.  Like many Americans, I tend to view time as something to be maximized for ultimate efficiency, and few things please me more than task-accomplishment.  Even if it is silly, the ability to cross something off my list now, when I’m relatively less busy than I will be come December, is appealing.  Get my Christmas cards done in September and have more time in December for sipping hot chocolate and socializing with friends?  Fabulous!

And so it is that I have spent part of today scouring various sites like Shutterfly and Tiny Prints, looking for the perfect card to send to my closest family and friends.  I succumb to the temptation to play a Christmas song or two, and as I drink my coffee, I pretend that it really is my favorite time of the year.

Culture is complicated, and I’m aware that the mass commercialization of a Christian holiday is, by its nature, exclusive, and does not suit everyone’s taste.  As an interculturalist, a reluctant shopper, and someone who was raised in the mainstream Protestant traditions, I have my own ambivalent thoughts and feelings about the trend.  Yet it is happening, and my purpose here is to explain rather than critique.  Enjoy it if you can, and try to understand it even if you can’t.  Either way . . . it’s starting.

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