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Consumer-conscious kids, Bacchanalian festivals and sentimentality
by Graeme Davidson
23 December 2006

Saint Nicholas, the fourth century Bishop of Myra, Turkey, who gave secret presents to the needy, is now transformed into the jolly fella in the outlandish red suit, who endorses everything we don’t need. That gives the impression Christmas is about worshipping the golden calf of commerce by spending on gifts, especially among the one percent of the world’s population who own forty percent of its wealth.

...I’m a man. So, today’s a good day for me to start thinking about Christmas presents. The problem is what to get. I’ve a letterbox stuffed with unsolicited flyers promoting the joys of buying – including this season’s joke items: summer clothes. The local vet offers a Holiday Paw Stocking with a free glitter pen ‘to personalise your pet’s stocking’. Presumably, that’s after you’ve filled it with flea drops, worm pills and pet food for Tiddles or Fido. And as some think Christmas is about kids, there’s been a glut of ads showing what’s hot for them.
...Speaking of the kids, forget about presents only going to good little boys and girls. For the sake of peace and quiet – and to prove to the rest of us they’re not Scrooges – parents succumb to the whining and arm-twisting of their consumer-conscious offspring. They spend up large on toys, electronic gizmos and the latest in kids’ fashion clothes so their little darlings can keep up with their peers. Over half of British parents, and maybe Kiwi parents too, end up paying for these presents by going without new clothes, haircuts and meals themselves to pay off the credit card, which for some takes until next Christmas, or beyond.
...Saint Nicholas, the fourth century Bishop of Myra, Turkey, who gave secret presents to the needy, is now transformed into the jolly fella in the outlandish red suit, who endorses everything we don’t need. That gives the impression Christmas is about worshipping the golden calf of commerce by spending on gifts, especially among the one percent of the world’s population who own forty percent of its wealth. No wonder people of goodwill have returned to St Nicholas’ original intention and now give presents like goats to needy families or school books to children in the Third World through organisations like the Tear Fund.
...The emphasis on Santa is also part of the creep over the last few decades towards secularising Christmas. We’re now wishing folks “happy holidays”, singing about “one horse open sleighs” and sending cards of nostalgic European winter scenes or our own Pohutukawas. Our festive eating and drinking to excess has more in common with the Pagan Bacchanalian festivals of ancient Rome than a Christian celebration, while TV gives us Stealing Christmas, Prancer Returns and dollops of other seasonal drivel and feel-good sentimentality. At least our local authorities haven’t gone as far as Birmingham City Council in England; they’ve offended the faithful by rebranding Christmas as Winterval.
...Nor have most of us taken to the American habit of spending thousands of dollars to turn our homes into kitsch Christmas light shows that fuse Santa and Rudolf with the Manger scene. Perhaps that’s because we Kiwis don’t want to make the season a jolly one for our extortionist power companies.
...All of which has brought a backlash from Christian groups wanting to put Christ back into Christmas. Even Muslim leaders in Britain have condemned the secularising of Christmas there.
Should we then welcome Catherine Hardwicke’s flick The Nativity Story? Or is it part of a cynical Hollywood effort to cash in on religion since Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ brought manna to the box-office? Despite hype about authenticity, critics describe Nativity as a family-friendly movie with no umbilical cord or placenta. The only hint of controversy is how Keisha Castle-Hughes, who is a Maori Mary, produced a white-skinned Jesus. There’s no nude Mary contemplating her womb, as there was in Jean-Luc Godard's 1985 movie Je vous salue, Marie. Nativity sticks to the familiar image of the Holy Family, which reduces it to a sweet, sentimental Christmas pageant. That’s earned it more negative than positive reviews. And, yes, there’s been a marketing blitz aimed at churches.
...For many in our society who are lonely, suffer broken relationships or who can’t make ends meet, the way we celebrate Christmas reinforces what they don’t have. Even church groups who try to provide for those who are less fortunate are in danger of emphasising a sentimental happy families approach to Christmas that overlooks those who no longer live in a supportive nuclear family.
...Nevertheless, despite the bah humbug festive commercialisation and sentimentality, the stress and obligation, Christmas is still a good time to look again at the importance of relationships and to ponder why the Nativity is the reason for the season.




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