Stephen Lewis: Getting, spending, and paying the holiday bills

Record-Eagle/Jan-Michael StumpStephen Lewis.

The headline on the front page of this newspaper on Sunday, Nov. 18, several days before Black Friday, announced that holiday spending was, “Up, Up, Up.” Retailers have now received the fruits of that spending, and bills to shoppers are on the way as surely as Santa is chilling at the North Pole.

The holiday, which was banned in 1659 by the colony of Massachusetts as a non-scriptural assimilation of pagan Rome’s Saturnalia, a winter celebration marked by drunken carousing back home in Old England, has morphed into a life-and-death marketing season for the retail industry.

To be sure, the holiday retains its religious significance. especially when it finally arrives in December, but it doesn’t require two full months to give proper attention to the observance of Christ’s birth.

What does take a couple of months is providing ample opportunity for shopping.

This shopping divides into two categories: bargain hunting and gift giving. Black Friday right after Thanksgiving marks the beginning of the first impulse. People lining up outside the big box stores at midnight of the third Thursday in November, sometimes jostling for the best position on line, are not looking to purchase a gift at the best possible price for some prized recipient. Rather they want to lug home that big screen television or hot new digital device for themselves.

The act of giving and receiving gifts, amplified by the Santa story, provides a gloss of respectability to the crasser marketing engine of the holiday. The most canonical Christmas themed literature pretty much ignores the shopping component of gift-giving and instead emphasizes some more palatable motivation. In Charles Dickens’ "A Christmas Carol," Scrooge does buy a turkey for Tiny Tim and family. But he didn’t shop looking for the best price. He just willingly and happily pays for the biggest and priciest bird. And to underscore the purity of his motive, he gives the gift anonymously.

Perhaps the most prominent Christmas gift-giving plot occurs in O’Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi,” wherein a struggling couple of modest means each wants to buy the other a Christmas gift. The woman needs money to buy a fob for her husband’s watch while he wants to purchase combs for his wife’s beautiful hair. If you are familiar with O’Henry’s fondness for twist endings, you can guess what happens: she sells her hair to raise money to buy him the fob for the watch he has sold to buy her combs.

The association with Christmas is no more than a necessary plot device to provide an occasion for mutual gift giving. Adding the “magi” to the title tries to give the story a holiday heft it cannot carry.

Both these examples carry a moral message. Scrooge realizes he has been a miserly jerk and will face a depressingly lonely old age, so he reforms. And O’Henry’s couple’s mutual sacrifice is meant to be an endearing expression of their love for each other

Neither has much to do with the religious basis of the holiday, and even less to the health of the retail sector of the economy. Both retain their popularity providing a respectable cover beneath which lurks the commercialization of Christmas.

Some two centuries ago, English poet William Wordsworth decried the “getting and spending” materialism he witnessed in his own time. He no doubt did not have Christmas in mind, since that materialism had not yet reached Christmas celebrations, but his concern resonates with force when applied to the present commercialization of the holiday wherein everything and anything is transformed into an appropriate Christmas purchase.

Stephen Lewis, originally from Brooklyn, New York is a retired college English professor and writer whose novels include two mysteries set in northern Michigan.