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Deck the malls

With the holiday season upon us, Concordia experts tackle the challenge of the commercialization of major religions
December 5, 2012
By Louise Morgan

It’s easy to get caught up in the frenzy of the holiday season.

The day after Halloween, the bombardment begins. Ads featuring Santa Claus take over the airwaves. “Deck the Halls” rings through the malls. Suburban lawns get cluttered with inflatable snow globes and plastic reindeer. All in anticipation of a silent night, which is anything but — with celebrations and excess — for many Christians in Canada. The commercialization of
Christmas and other holidays has reached new heights.

Yet it was Dr. Seuss’s famous storybook character, the Grinch, who tried to steal Christmas by taking away the presents, decorations and holiday feast — only to realize the joy of the season lives in people’s hearts: “Maybe Christmas, he thought, doesn’t come from a store, maybe Christmas perhaps means a little bit more.”

As many of us get swept up in a whirlwind of holiday parties, shopping for the perfect gift and decorating our homes, we stress out in the process. Have we forgotten the true meaning of the holidays with the commercialization of society and all become Grinches?

Concordia experts consider the impact of commerce on the major religions’ holiday traditions.

Hurray for Santa?

"It’s true that the commercialization of Christmas is increasing, but people forget that the modern Christmas is not at its roots a religious event. Its popularity was manufactured both by big business and religious groups," says Jean-Philippe Warren, Concordia University Research Chair on the Study of Quebec and an associate professor of sociology and anthropology.

Jean-Philippe Warren Jean-Philippe Warren, associate professor of sociology and anthropology

“People complain today that we’re spoiling children, spending on things we don’t need, loading our credit cards with debt and getting stressed lining up to buy things — all for a few hours of joy. This is not new! A hundred years ago, the level of commercialization was already thought to be overwhelming and morally wrong,” says Warren, author of Hourra pour Santa
Claus!(Boréal), a book that explores the commercialization of the holiday season in Quebec from 1885 to 1915.

Warren relates that in mid-19th century Quebec, Christmas was just one of more than 200 annual religious celebrations.

In the midst of the industrial revolution, Canadians increasingly found themselves working in factories. Since the manufacturing cycle couldn’t stop every few days for a celebration, the number of compulsory holidays dropped drastically by the end of the 19th century.

“Traditionally, for Christians at the time, the big celebration was Easter and for French Canadians it was New Year’s Eve. Christmas stood in the shadow of those two holidays, but through a convergence of forces it became the dominant celebration of the year,” says Warren. “It was hijacked by big business and to a lesser extent the Church.”

Religious groups particularly in Quebec discouraged the celebration of New Year’s Eve because it was a pagan holiday and often led to immoral practices. “Sometimes the drunken debauchery went on for two weeks!” Warren reports.

Yet it’s the hand of business interests that was strongest. “The dominant ideology pushed people to work hard and amass as much money as they could, never spending a dime on unnecessary things. So there’s a problem — you’re producing goods but there’s no market to buy them,” explains Warren. “The solution was to reappropriate Christmas and connect commercial interests with Christian values — generosity and compassion — making it the biggest day of the year and the only day when conspicuous consumption was condoned.”

Christmas was wrapped up as a religious celebration on the outside, although in practice revolved around materialism. “Even 100 years ago, written records show Christians prepared a month in advance — not by saying their prayers or singing in church but by focusing on material things: the gifts, the tree, greeting cards, the yule log — and Santa Claus. What is he doing there? Why is it not about Jesus Christ?” asks Warren.

“In trying to replace New Year’s Eve as the central celebration of French Canadians, Roman Catholic priests made a deal with the devil, so to speak, and collaborated with big business to promote Christmas. They didn’t exactly lose, but the commercial aspects of Christmas have always, since the end of the 19th century, overwhelmed the religious ones.”

Retailers and consumers under pressure

The Bank of Montreal’s annual holiday spending outlook for 2012 reports that this holiday season Canadians are expected to spend $1,610 each — on gifts, entertaining, travel and other expenses — and the very survival of many retailers depends on it.

 “More than 40 per cent of retail sales are generated in the fourth quarter, from September to January, so retailers really focus on this time of year,” says Robert Soroka, MBA 88, who teaches marketing at Concordia’s John Molson School of Business and School of Extended Learning, McGill University’s esautels Faculty of Management and Montreal’s Dawson College.

Over the last 20 years, consumers have benefited from an evolution in holiday discounting that stems from the recession of the early 1990s.

Robert Soroka Robert Soroka, MBA 88

“Reductions in sales caused panic among retailers, who began dropping prices before Boxing Day. That trend has since continued and we see a lot of deep discounting before Christmas,” Soroka says. With the arrival of competitors like Walmart and dollar stores, retailers have had to offer more price breaks and have seen a cut in profit margins.

Customers, too, have been challenged. “Retailers remind us that this gift would be great for Uncle Joe and that one for Grandma, but things can easily get out of hand. Where there’s an emotional element, like at Christmas, Valentine’s Day or Mother’s Day, there’s the desire to buy to recognize someone close to you,” Soroka says. “Those strong emotions require consumers to exhibit discipline and some ground rules within the family, possibly dictating a limit of one gift per person. Secret Santa exchanges, where people draw a name from a hat and buy only for that person, help to control holiday spending.” He adds: “With advertising, in-store fixtures, holiday music and decorations inciting them, consumers may be inclined to buy more than they can afford.”

Canadians’ debt is on the rise. The average household now has just 63 cents of disposable income for every dollar of debt, according to Statistics Canada, which is the country’s highest-ever debt-to-income ratio. “It’s easy to buy when you’re continually reminded, ‘Hey, it’s Christmas after all.’ But you get a sharp reality check when the bill comes in January,” says Soroka.

He points out that not every purchase is a good idea. Therefore the ability to return those items is important. His tip to habitually remorseful buyers: “Shop at stores that have liberal return policies and remember that even where policies are stricter, it’s worth talking to the store manager before making the purchase. They may relax the policy to capture the sale, since they know if they don’t, somebody else will.”

There is nothing that obliges Quebec retailers to take back a purchase unless they have an explicit return policy, or if the item has a latent or non-observable and undisclosed defect. In other words, you may want to think twice before you buy that 72-inch LED TV.

The true meaning of Christian holidays

There’s an interesting contrast between Christmas celebrations across the continents. In North America, it’s very commercial, but quite different when you look at Europe,” says Concordia associate professor of theological studies and religion André Gagné.

André Gagné André Gagné

He spent a year in Louvain-la-Neuve, Belgium, with his family in 2004-05. “Christmas, as we experienced it there, was so surprising. There was no shopping spree, a few modest decorations, everything was very sober and the emphasis was on the significance of the Christian tradition,” Gagné recalls. “It gave people time to reflect on the meaning of their tradition. The same goes for Easter. There were no bunnies or chocolates. It was all about commemorating the death and resurrection of
Jesus Christ.”

Eclipsed by the glitz of Christmas in North America, Easter is actually the most theologically important Christian holiday. Yet many North American Christians, especially young people, don’t realize its religious meaning.

According to Christian belief, God sent his son Jesus Christ to live among the people and show them the way at a time when humankind had forgotten about God and the ultimate reality beyond earthly life. “While Christmas marks the coming of Jesus into the world to save humanity, Easter commemorates the significance of his death and resurrection. In trying to make sense of Jesus’ violent death on the cross — a fate normally reserved for criminals — Christians reappropriated the idea of sacrifice. The Christian story builds on the Hebrew Bible tradition whereby sins were remitted through an animal sacrifice and the shedding of its blood,” says Gagné.

He explains that Christians saw Jesus’ death as the ultimate sacrifice rather than a gruesome defeat. “God offered his own son, making Jesus the Lamb of God, to remit all sin and save mankind. The idea is that all who embrace this truth are saved. Christ’s resurrection from the dead is taken as proof that God accepted Jesus’ death in remittance for the sins of humankind. In church, the Eucharist is distributed as a symbol of his body and the wine of his blood — we are very far from bunnies and chocolate.”

Gagné believes commercialization dilutes the meaning of holy days. “People have literally forgotten their significance. Traditionally Christians pray to God, and now the omniscient Santa Claus figure — who knows if you’ve been naughty or nice — appears to have replaced God.”

When Gagné teaches biblical literature in his religion and theology classes, it no longer surprises him that many of the students are hearing for the first time about the birth narrative of Jesus in the gospels of Matthew and Luke or the theological significance of Christ’s death.

Not everyone who celebrates Christmas or Easter as a cultural holiday need share all the beliefs, Gagné maintains, but it’s worthwhile to try to understand why these holidays were powerful at a certain time.

True to its Muslim roots

The Muslim community counts 1.5 billion people around the world. Roksana Bahramitash, who did her post-doctoral studies at Concordia’s Simone de Beauvoir Institute and is an expert on women in the Muslim world, is quick to point out that practices vary widely across different households and corners of the Muslim world, from Iran to Indonesia, Trinidad to sub-Saharan Africa.

A native of Iran, Bahramitash describes the Persian new year, Norooz, as the biggest holiday in her home country.

Roksana Bahramitash Roksana Bahramitash

Distinct from the Islamic new year, Norooz marks the spring equinox and dates back to pre-Islamic culture and the Zoroastrian tradition. “In Iran, it’s a gift-giving celebration and a bit of a shopping bonanza, but very different from my experience of Christmas, which I find can be a little overwhelming,” she says. “Older people give gifts — sometimes in cash and sometimes only a small, symbolic amount — to younger people as a form of baraket or blessing for a prosperous year to come.”

Bahramitash does see some traditional shifts. “A rising Islamic middle class, particularly in the Persian Gulf and all the way from Indonesia to central Anatolia, is developing a taste for consumerism, inspired by satellite television and Western-style consumerism, which also manifest around the holidays. For example, there are concerts around Milad E Nabi, a holiday that marks the birth of the prophet, and sales attached to it,” she says.

The two major religious holidays that dominate the Islamic calendar remain true to their religious roots. Eid Al-Fitr marks the end of Ramadan, a month of fasting, prayer and charity. “The tradition is to wear something new. It could be a scarf or gloves — at least in Iran — something new just to celebrate, but there is no exchange of presents,”  Bahramitash explains. “A charity tax is also collected by mosques or clerical leaders — mandatory through religious affiliation but not through the legal system — which is directed toward poverty alleviation.”

Eid Al-Adha, the feast of the sacrifice, is celebrated at the end of Hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca. Muslims usually sacrifice a sheep and share the meat with family, friends and the poor. The tradition derives from the story of Abraham, who sacrificed a lamb instead of his son Ismail. As an Abrahamic religion, Muslims also celebrate the births of Jesus and Moses.

New focus for an old holiday

Possibly the best-known Jewish holiday among non-Jews is Hanukkah, the festival of lights, because it typically falls just before Christmas. A lower-level religious holiday, Hanukkah commemorates the victory of the Jews over their Greek oppressors in the second century BCE (before the Common Era). A small amount of ritual oil is said to have burned miraculously for eight days, long enough for the Jews to rededicate their temple that had been won back from the Greeks.

Norman Ravvin Norman Ravvin

“The focus of celebration traditionally has been on lighting the eight candles of the menorah [candelabrum] and telling the story to children, but with the commercialization of Christmas, Hanukkah has taken on an exploding gift-giving character that it never used to have,” says Norman Ravvin, Concordia associate professor in the Department of Religion. “Since Hanukkah lasts eight nights, Jewish kids have suddenly hit the jackpot. It’s become the season of spending money and receiving gifts. That’s the struggle: we have to remember to focus on the story and the candle lighting.”

Until 35 or 40 years ago, Hanukkah wasn’t so focused on gift-giving. “There was a feeling among Jewish kids that they were somehow different and left out,” he says of those living in Christian societies. In the late 1960s and early ’70s, some Jews even started bringing “Hanukkah bushes” — their version of Christmas trees — into their homes. “It’s more of an American tendency and I’ve never actually seen one myself, but there was an early signal that Hanukkah was trying to behave like Christmas. The convergence reflects the urge of a minority community wanting to be like other people,” he says.

Moving in the opposite direction, an increase in modern orthodoxy in Canada and the United States over the last 10 to 15
years has created new markets for Jewish products, including kosher foods and holiday-related books for young people. “These books, which could be presented graphically or in more academic form, are aimed at religious people and tell the stories of the holidays,” says Ravvin. His children receive the books as gifts from American family members.

The eight-day springtime holiday of Passover celebrates the exodus from Egypt. Jews gather the first two Passover evenings for a ritual meal called the Seder. During the holiday they are prohibited from eating leavened bread and a number of other specific foods. With the availability of prepared foods today, a whole new market blossomed for Kosher for Passover fare such as dairy-free ice cream and a multitude of cookies and cakes. While these are very convenient, old-world Jews, like Ravvin’s very observant Polish grandmother, could never have conceived of them. “She lived just fine within a religious context without all that, but I can’t judge how we ought to do it,” he says.

The two most significant Jewish religious holidays, Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, and Yom Kippur, the day of atonement, haven’t yet steered into overt commercialization. “They hold incredible ritual and community value and even non-observant Jews tend to celebrate these high holidays,” says Ravvin.

Sweet Hindu traditions

Looking at the Hindu tradition, particularly in India, commercialization of certain holidays is evident in the giving of elaborate gifts by those with the economic means. Other important holiday celebrations are restricted to religious ritual, or puja.

Shital Sharma Shital Sharma

Diwali, or the festival of lights, marks a change in season and celebrates the legend of Rama, who returns home after defeating the demon king Ravana to find his kingdom filled with candles, signifying the triumph of good over evil.

Modern-day celebrations are characterized by decorating the home with candles, families coming together, social gatherings and festivals. Now, in addition to exchanging sweets, celebrants also give more expensive gifts like jewellery.

Usually the elder family members would give to the younger ones. The Indian festival of Rakshabandhan, which means string of protection, elebrates the bond between brothers and sisters. The sister will tie a protective string around her brother’s wrist and, in return, the brother will give her a gift. “Traditionally, a simple silk or cotton thread would suffice, but now you can buy string with 24-karat gold threads or diamonds,” says Sharma.

Since India’s trade liberalization policies opened markets in the early 1990s, Western goods began streaming into India. “Traditionally, gold would have been given as a gift showing status, whereas now you might give a Louis Vuitton purse as a gift or a Porsche, BMW or the latest flat-screen TV!” she says.

Religious celebrations have also been influenced by pop culture, she contends. “People watch soap operas and Bollywood films and see the clothes they’re wearing, the jewellery, the types of ritual objects they’re using — and those are the types of things that will be sold in the market.” Religious paraphernalia and ritual objects have become commodities available in stores. Through industrialization and mass production, today statues might be made outside of India rather than through a hereditary lineage of artists. “If I choose to put it in my shrine or a temple, a mass-produced object becomes a sacred object. If religious objects can be commodified, why can’t commodities be resignified and brought within the religious sphere?” Sharma asks. “The idea that the sacred should be completely isolated and untouched by material culture I think is a very idealistic way of talking about religious celebration.”

She adds that religious holidays in all cultures involve community building and social interaction with family members at churches or temples. “It’s marked now by the exchange of commodities,” Sharma says. “I don’t think it dilutes the religious significance. Historically, kings or wealthy merchants and landowners would display status with lavish celebrations. I think it’s always been a marker of status, except now it’s open to everyone.”

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