Monday, December 24, 2012

Jackson Lears: "The Buying and Selling of Christmas"

The New Republic is running an older, but still relevant, essay on the history of Christmas by cultural critic and historian Jackson Lears.  It is definitely worth a read.  Here is a taste:

Which did not necessarily mean that they had lost their religious significance. In many cases the impresarios of the spectacle were sincere, believing Christians. Consider John Wanamaker. Every Christmas, beginning in the 1910s, he transformed the Grand Court of his Philadelphia department store into a virtual cathedral, complete with the largest pipe organ in the world. The practice continued after his death in 1922, well into the 1950s. And judging by their ecstatic correspondence to the store, which Schmidt quotes effectively, many shoppers had what could be described as a religious experience in the Grand Court. Writing in 1949, one man found his heart “strangely warmed” as he sang carols there amid the “reverent throng,” feeling “the tie of brotherhood” to these strangers. It was “as if ‘Someone, whom I shall not name,’ had ‘turned a switch’ and sent ‘the happy current of Christmas’ through this ‘sea of faces.’"

The evangelical tradition of a personal God and close-knit community had faded into impersonality. The event was sponsored by John Wanamaker (and Philadelphia Electric) rather than John Wesley. Yet who could deny the genuineness of the moment, for all its fleeting anonymity? The rise of a “spectacle of spirituality” was not simply a bait-and-switch scheme concocted by wily merchants. Customers demanded a mix of sacred and profane, and merchants struggled to keep up. The commercial Christmas developed into a “tangle of piety and plenty.”