Now that the Festive Season is winding down, and the vintage trains packed away, either for the year or first for a trip to the back-shop, let us reflect on Christopher Coyne's understanding of the political economy of Christmas.  "So this Christmas, as you’re huddled in front of fire drinking eggnog and singing carols, be thankful for the wealth and opportunity that the free market has generated, and signal your love by giving a gift that matters."

Yes, we'll be cheerful at Cold Spring Shops.

Elsewhere, though, there were people serving up three-decker sauerkraut and toadstool sandwiches with arsenic sauce.  Start with The American Conservative's Addison del Mastro, lamenting, "No One Writes Great Christmas Songs Anymore."  But he wasn't so crazy about the aspirational songs of the American High, either.
If you listen to YouTube holiday playlists or FM radio during Christmas time, you’ll surely notice that most of the songs are old. Not centuries old, like the best church hymns, but old enough that your WWII-veteran grandfather probably heard them as a young man. And aside from mediocre covers of the midcentury classics, there’s not much else.

In fact, American Christmas and holiday music is virtually frozen in time.
Mediocre and etiolated covers, at that.  Perhaps, Mr del Mastro suggests, the absence of anything new is evidence of a cultural E-T-T-S moment.
Spiritual and cultural bankruptcy might explain the dearth of new tunes. A less apocalyptic angle is that the stubborn endurance of midcentury Christmas music is one more facet of the trend towards “retro” and “vintage” and “analog.” After all, 1950s housing fixtures command big money for people restoring their tract homes to the original Levittown style, and one of the hottest gifts this time of the year is a portable phonograph or a stereo turntable. Next thing you know, Gene Autry’s scratched-up Rudolph album from the thrift store will be commanding top dollar.

Yet there is even another aspect to the “freezing” of holiday-related cultural production. A society that sings is a society that is happy. Perhaps we aren’t writing cheerful holiday ditties these days because we are not happy. Surveys suggest that American happiness peaked in the early postwar years (the same is true of Britain). Many of the advertisements from this period were jingles; almost every notable product had one, and anyone who grew up in the ’50s can still be caught humming them. The jingle or musical commercial is now mostly relegated to parodies or to local, low-budget commercials. And God forbid we could let one holiday season go by without a witless and vulgar rendition of “The 12 Days of Christmas.”

Of course, those cheerful, peppy jingles were inducements to consumption in a decade of growth uber alles, and even the actual Christmas songs from that era bear a surprisingly strong imprint of their time. Their simple lyrics and catchy melodies, for one, often resemble advertising jingles. In terms of their content, there is wistfulness that echoes the war and the Great Depression (“I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas”). And there is plenty of commercialism.
Put another way, though, a people who had seen the Depression and won the War might have been in the mood to count their blessings, when those blessings were still relatively infrequent, compared with today's reality, in which "toys in every store" has turned to "toys only in this store."

Mr del Mastro gets that, but then, he misses the ominous developments that followed.
Yet this seemingly insatiable and rather odd desire for hulking tail-finned cars and crying dolls was only a logical reaction to the end of nearly 20 grinding years of war and depression. Automobiles, appliances, toys, and other consumer goods were barely manufactured and certainly not widely purchased from the onset of the Depression up until 1945. One can sense a sort of warm, post-disaster glow in these songs, the intense joyfulness of people who have been devastated and are finally making their way back. Today, the economic conditions of the 1950s are distant, but the sociology of that era may be even more distant. It was a time when Americans could finally simply be. No more ration booklets, no more days of agony waiting for a call or letter from the Army, no more waiting on a soup line in a tattered suit. What a luxury it must have been to drive to the newly-built supermarket, put away groceries in an ice-cold fridge, turn on the radio, and cook for your family on a warm, gleaming stovetop. From 1929 to 1945, Americans could not do that.

We know where that ended, however: the loneliness of America’s burgeoning suburbia and the restrictive gender norms of the period led, for many women, to depression, Valium, and ultimately feminism. No cultural moment can last forever, and those who believe that the 1950s were a golden age must also recognize that they spawned what came later.

Yet surveys tell us these were the years of peak happiness in the United States. If happiness really has declined, perhaps it is paradoxically because we suffer less. War- or depression-level privation is a distant memory or even unimaginable for most of us.
"What came later" could have been an opportunity to expand the bounty and the good cheer.  That was the simple logic of civil rights  -- neither law nor custom ought deprive anyone of the opportunity to buy a nice house, to get coffee at the lunch counter, to enroll in a good school.  But in the hands of the right kind of angry people, to simply be is to be unenlightened.  Thus has the common culture been distorted, by the right kind of angry people, into a situation in which to simply be is to be oppressive.  Consider Latham Hunter, if you must.  "Christmas is filled with one patriarchal construct after another."
Christmas toys are so rigidly defined by gender stereotypes that finding gender-neutral options feels not unlike an Arthurian quest. Shall it be the pink princess fairy aisle or the guns 'n' ammo aisle? Do you dress your child in glitter and tulle or camouflage? Because there's no middle ground here, folks: interactive electronic globes are marketed to boys and International Travel Barbie is marketed to girls. Boys get ant farms and girls get makeup kits.
Things have not gotten any better since that column first appeared.

Let us be grateful I was able to get away with "It's Beginning to Look Like Christmas" on my Festive Season greeting video.  Perhaps in Professor Hunter's class (communication and cultural studies, is anyone surprised?) students get to deconstruct the trip to the toy store.
A (1) pair of hopalong boots and a pistol that shoots
Is the (2) wish of Barney and Ben;
(3) Dolls that will talk and will go for a walk
Is the hope of (4) Janice and Jen;
And (5) Mom and Dad can hardly wait for school to start again.
Five distinct occurrences of phrases that might be hegemonic, insufficiently inclusive, triggering, or commit one or more thought-crimes.  Let's treat this as an assignment.  But I'm grading it, which means the rubric will be stricter.  Eschew imprecision.  Use "problematic" anywhere in the answer: you're copping out.   Call something "inappropriate" and your career is going to plateau as the assistant to the assistant director of student affairs for diversity at a branch campus of Podunk State somewhere.  If you must "interrogate" a Festive Season song, work at it.  Your score will be higher if you are able to convince me that it is wrong for a song to be aspirational.  Have at it in the comments.

1 comment:

David Foster said...

"We know where that ended, however: the loneliness of America’s burgeoning suburbia"

Often asserted that the suburbs were "lonely", but I question the validity of the assertion. Most people had some friends within easy walking distance and others within a 5-minute drive.

There seem to be a lot of people, especially among academics and journalists, who are offended by the desire of many Americans to avoid living in dense urban environments. But this desire goes back a long way. See my post The Trolley - a View From 1902: