The middle class is a big deal in American society. Last year, America’s ever-observant punditocracy, including southern-fried campaign guru and Gollum look-alike James Carville, harped endlessly about how corporate Democrat Barack Obama and Montgomery Burns stand-in Mitt Romney waged their electoral battle royal in the name of the American middle class. President Obama dived head-first into this quadrennial tradition of bourgeois boot-licking, blowing past Romney in terms of the number of times he mentioned the phrase “middle class” in campaign speeches.
American politicians universally exist as servants/toadies for the country’s oligarchs, but they nonetheless pepper their campaign rhetoric with appeals to the middle class because bourgeois identity may as well be considered “American identity.” Want proof of this? Look no further than Christmas.
That’s right: Christmas, perhaps more than any other American tradition, has promulgated the ideal of a middle-class ideology that sanctifies capitalist conspicuous consumption (alliteration is always alluring) and warm, hearth-centered family togetherness as an antidote to cold (literally and figuratively, being December) external worldly ills. Since its emergence in the 19th century as the dominating signifier of American cultural identity, consumer capitalism has marched arm-in-arm with Christmas to create a highly idealized seasonal tradition that promotes excessive market consumption and middle-class, “on the make” values as synonymous with American identity.
Sure, that stuff about a deified Jewish kid being born in a livestock trough after his parents were refused admittance to the Bethlehem Best Western has always been an important component of American Christmas, but Americans even celebrate that story through the ritual of consumerism — just look for yourself. It’s always been that way, and as long as Americans continue to bow down to the omniscient and ever-wise god of the marketplace, malls and Amazon.com will continue to be the holiday temples in which they do the majority of their December genuflection.
The idea of Christmas as middle-class consumer ritual is less a value judgement than it is a statement of reality. Shameless capitalism, the engine of bourgeois domestic ideology, is as Christmassy as Tiny Tim and a swaddled up infant deity. As scholar of popular culture Sheila Whiteley observes in Christmas, Ideology, and Popular Culture, the idea of a ‘traditional Christmas’ evokes “a concern for the family, children, and family centred activities, the rituals and expectations framing gift-giving and receiving, and an idealized nostalgia for the past, which prioritizes themes of neighbourliness, charity and community.”* Christmas ideology is middle-class ideology. It was the construction of a new leisured class, born in the 19th century, that had the time and the money to envision family togetherness and the exchange of mass-produced market goods as a traditional annual ritual, rather than as the relatively recent historical development.
Historian Mary Ryan notes in her classic book Cradle of the Middle Class that the early 19th-century transition of the American socio-economic structure away from a predominantly agricultural framework towards an economy increasingly characterized by industrial mass production fundamentally reshaped the American home and family. As Americans farmed less and shopped more, their identities shifted to accommodate an increasingly reliance on the market economy. “The family’s economic unity was now expressed primarily at the point of consumption rather than production,” Ryan writes, “the separation of the place of work from the place of residence was of central historical importance.”*
Ironically, the new middle-class domestic homes couldn’t have come into existence without the market from which they were supposed to be separate. An industrializing society created those domestic shelters in which white-collar work became increasingly distinct from older forms of manual work. The rise of a non-laboring, white-collar middle class brought about an increase in market consumption, and that consumption, in turn, helped weld bourgeois identity to shopping. Thus, as historian Stuart Blumin writes, “with its new-found wealth, the non-manual stratum soon moved into fashionable homes, and the formal parlor became the recognized hallmark of middle-class life.” As middle-class homes flourished, distinct “patterns of consumption” emerged, and store-bought items such as carpets, sofas, pianos — and yes, Christmas presents — came to define the lifestyle of a new leisured class.*
Christmas emerged during the Victorian Era as a holiday that fed the ideological needs of the new middle class. They had money to spend and fancy homes to decorate, and Christmas gave them an annual excuse to load up on mass-produced joy. Cultural historian John Storey puts it bluntly when he explains that, “Christmas was invented first and foremost as a commercial event. Everything that was revived or invented – decorations, cards, crackers, collections of carols…visiting Santa Claus and buying presents — all had one thing in common: they could be sold for profit.” Indeed, Storey notes that Christmas was, and is, a celebration of “the achievements of industrial capitalism — conspicuous consumption in a market economy.”* And as much as Victorian Brits embraced leisurely holiday buying, Americans soon proved that they could out-capitalist even their Industrial Revolution-spawning cousins across the pond.
Historian George McKay notes that by the 1860s, the American economy had been thoroughly transformed by the acceleration of Western capitalism. The transition from an agricultural to an urban nation that began in the early part of the century fed demand for an economy increasingly based on production and consumption. These cultural trends provided the perfect breeding ground for that most American of creatures: the department store. Department stores “made a new shopping leisure experience and consumerist lifestyle possible.”* American shoppers had more money and flashier homes that housed kids eager to receive store-purchased items, and what holiday symbolized family togetherness and domestic bliss via gift-giving and excessive consumption? Christmas, of course.
It’s no surprise, then, that perhaps the most recognized of American Christmas icons, Santa Claus, is also an icon of capitalism itself. Santa Claus became a fixture of American department stores by the late-19th century, and what a commercial symbol he was: who better to embody capitalism than an obese, bearded, cookie craving, near dictatorial factory owner who rules over a diminutive, proletariat army that slaves all year to mass produce the products over which middle-class American kids salivate? The ‘deity of materialism,’ as one scholar labels old Claus, perfectly embodies the modern American fusion of Christmas and capitalism, as evidence by the prominent role he’s played in advertising everything from Coca-Cola, to Lucky Strike cigarettes, to M & Ms.* Its ironic, then, that Santa Claus and Karl Marx sort of resemble each other: one railed in vain against capitalism, while the other developed into the smiling, grandfatherly symbol of world-dominating bourgeois excess.
Of course, American materialist consumption at Christmas hasn’t been historically limited to the store. After all, gifts purchased in stores were meant to be enjoyed in the warm domestic bliss of homes populated with kith and kin.
When industrial capitalism took hold of food production, it helped create yet another American holiday consumer tradition in the form of the “traditional” Christmas dinner. Yet, as food historian Cathy Kaufman writes, “Christmas dinner” became popular “only in the mid-nineteenth century, when turkey with gravy, stuffing, potatoes, and plum pudding was hailed as the quintessential American Christmas dinner” that emulated the Cratchit family meal in Charles Dickens’ Victorian era classic, A Christmas Carol (1843).* Although the ingredients that make up the “traditional” American Christmas dinner have changed over the years, the idea that there had to be some kind of middle-class, home-bound, family centered holiday feast remained a core element of the commercial festival that is American Christmas.
So the next time you’re shopping in December and you feel a bit sick amidst the shameless commercialism displayed by your fellow shoppers, try to remember that, historically, Christmas has never been some kind of spiritually pure tradition that was separate from the cold, secular whims of the marketplace. The marketplace made Christmas, and the American middle class long ago adopted Christmas as the quintessential bourgeois holiday that best embodied the virtues of domesticity, family, consumption, and leisurely living. To criticize Christmas commercialism is to criticize the very middle-class values that have become synonymous with American values. No wonder American politicians consistently pander to the middle class: they’re the only group who can claim their own world-renowned holiday.
* See Sheila Whiteley, ed. Christmas, Ideology and Popular Culture (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2008), 2.
* See Mary P. Ryan, Cradle of the Middle Class: The Family in Oneida County, New York, 1790-1865 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1981), 231.
* See Stuart M. Blumin, The Emergence of the Middle Class: Social Experience in the American City, 1760-1900 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 155.
* See John Storey, “The Invention of the English Christmas,” in Sheila Whiteley, ed. Christmas, Ideology and Popular Culture, 20.
* See George McKay, “Consumption, Coca-colonization, Cultural Resistance – and Santa Claus,” in Whiteley, ed., 52, 54.
* See Cathy Kaufman, “The Ideal Christmas Dinner,” Gastronomica: the Journal of Food and Culture 4 (Fall, 2004): 17.