December 25th brings the culmination of the Holiday season: the annual gift exchange. All the hard work of shopping and planning climaxes with this big moment; like a final exam we have expectations we hope to fulfil and anxieties we must allay. The idea, of course, is:
You will get a sentimental feeling
when you hear
Voices singing “Let’s be jolly…” (Lee, online).
Yet, participants young and old may feel emotionally adrift and alienated on that fateful morning following St. Nick’s visit. After a year of shifts at work with intermittent rests used to recuperate, followed by a month of shiftless toil pursuing gifts, the hope is for The Best Christmas Ever, where the frenetic consumption of shopping for gifts magically transforms into the blissful consumption of those same items.
Problematic alchemy, that—even with the incantations of seasonal carols. All that time spent in harness cannot but restrict our ability to just let go; living as though the gate was left open is an acquired trait, after all. Peter Kivisto notes that “time in contemporary capitalist society is seen as a commodity” and it’s one in short supply over the holidays (DeBord, 457).
Likewise, nowhere is the truism that time is money more applicable. Much like the stereotype of post-secondary education being an expensive exercise in futile dollar-flushing, the holiday season is easily joked off as another trap to get us to spend. Yet somehow, almost inexplicably if we don’t consider the grip ideology has over our collective psyches, we participate year after year. Guilt over the original sin of participating in a market economy the rest of the year? Maybe. Or maybe it’s something deeper.
What does “Rocking Around The Christmas Tree” really mine by “Everyone dancing merrily, in the new, old-fashioned way” (Lee, online). For Guy Debord, holiday festivals are a timeless aspect of the human condition. We can live without many amenities, but the gratuitous release of joy, be it at Brazilian Carnival, Chinese New Year, or good ol’ Mardi Gras, is essential to the human condition. Debord notes that “time in reality is exactly what it is in its exchangeable character” (Debord, 457). In other words, we take a break from labour amidst an anonymous workforce to have a celebration with our loved ones in the comforts of home. In theory. Modern times do not grant us this privilege, however. The conditions of consumer capitalism make the Holidays untenable as advertised. Far from a joyous festival the drive to work hard at shopping produces a noxious atmosphere.
Pleasure becomes work because the “time which has its basis in the production of commodities is itself a consumable commodity” (Debord, 458). When at last the big day arrives the hectic pace is supposed to still, or stifle, itself and morph into a joyous celebration. Christmas is supposed to be a happy time. But, like any suppository, its not all fun and games. Debord explains that “the reality of time has been replaced by the advertisement of time” such that we’ve forgotten how to manufacture our own pleasure outside of the market economy (Debord, 458).
With gifts unwrapped and a mountain of wrapping paper awaiting disposal the entire facade shows its fissures; some distant moment from another epoch may make a a glimmering appearance as we feel a sense of loss. This is because, “in spectacular time…the past dominates the present” (Debord, 459).
There’s that sentimental feeling: a nougat of sadness enrobed in a ganache of loss. Yet, unlike cultural festivities throughout history (be they in Manchuria or Madagascar), Christmas’s past as a commodity festival is so brief that it has no hallowed origins or glory days to look back on.
It’s a sordid reality that present Christmas is not a gift of joy but karmic retribution for the dehumanization of capitalism today. As individuals we’ve never been so free and yet also never so restrained by the market relations that have wrought our liberty; “individual life as yet has no history” such that we maybe don’t yet know how to have an authentic Christmas in our globalized world with apps for everything but true bliss (Debord, 459).
Lo, modern Christmas doth try to create its own folklore. And some of it’s quite catchy. Consider the expectations implicitly demanded by the precocious protagonist in this Raffi classic:
“On Christmas morning
I’ll wake up bright and early
Be the first one out of bed
With the mistletoe above my head
On Christmas morning we can sing and celebrate
And make the feeling stay
All through the day” (Raffi, online).
Those are weighty expectation for sustained happiness over no small time period given the pressures of co-habitation felt by most families! Yet it can be done, as evidenced by our human race living with one another as the earth rounds the sun through hundreds of thousands of occurrences of what we demarcate as the 25th of December. Time, for H.G. Hegel (1770-1831) provides transcendent possibilities for us to truly find ourselves. Festive occasions, being inherently memorable for better or for worse, are no exception. Debord explains:
“Time…is the necessary alienation, the environment where the subject realizes himself by losing himself, where he becomes other in order to become truly himself. Precisely the opposite is true in the domain of alienation, which is undergone by the producer of an alien present. In this spatial alienation, the society that radically separates the subject from the activity it takes from him, separates him first of all from his own time” (Debord, 459).
As consumers we’ve been alienated even from the act of gift-giving, sucked into the matrix of marketing as we are. Many an adult has asked themselves whether the young person they shop for really wants the items on their proverbial list to Santa or if they’ve just succumbed to the irresistible brew of advertising and peer pressure. To take back Christmas morning is to envision it for the personal relations it embodies and, like stepping outside of the brown-nosing inherent in many a brick and mortar classroom, our AU experience uniquely positions us to do so. Like a private backroom meeting with the real Santa, we know what it is to experience an unmediated relationship with our course material. Tutors provide only loose guidance, after all, more like the paper on which a shopping list is written rather than an App suggesting gifts based on gender, demographic and social media likes.
The social intensity of the season has positive aspects too, if we personalize the experience. Happily, we at AU experience a gratifying individual experience as students, one containing real empowerment with real rewards. Joy in your heart at the look of gratitude on the face of a peer who unwraps your home-made gift? Well add a pat on your academic back for being a successful home-made student; no Snapchat or Pinterest pic necessary. As 2018 concludes you can feel great about a year of study and self-improvement.
Debord illustrates how our time spent producing Christmas joy through shopping entails a series of “pseudo-valuations that appear in a sequence of false individualized moments” (Debord, 457). To truly get in the spirit we have to apply the intimacy we feel with our course material and make real connections with the people in our lives. Whether that’s a conversation, a hug, or a smile, there’s so much of the season outside of market relations. And there always has been.
Likewise, our studies produce and embody far more than a mere exchange of cash for a diploma. The tools of pedagogy we acquire at AU attain significance as we learn and grow; learning how to learn is a means of production in itself. If it improves the quality of our gifts all the better. The gift of AU itself is personally revolutionary because it allows us to understand and apply ourselves anew. Life is short, after all, and, if we get too caught up in the season, we may miss what it’s all about.
Debord concludes that: “the existence of irreversible time in the expenditure of an individual life, is a mere accessory from the point of view of modern production. Consumable trophies which are the accessible translation of the incessant victory” of the market economy need not define our personal relations with our loved ones or with our educational process (Debord, 459). Shopping malls and sweatshops will probably be there when we’re gone. By imagining a more authentic Christmas morning, that most cherished time where photos taken may be revisited for generations, we allow ourselves privileged access to the gift of a more relaxed and blissful festive experience. Debord illustrates this as the “project of a withering away of the social measure of time, to the benefit of a playful model of irreversible time of individuals and groups” (Debord, 460).
To paraphrase a famous song, we’re here for a festive time, and not for more than our lifetime, so let’s make the most of it by casting off the dross of Christmas commodification on Christmas morning. Whatever our beliefs, we all know that there’s a spirit implied in the season and, being embedded in our history as human beings, it’s there for the cherishing: “The world already possess the dream of a time whose consciousness it must now possess in order to actually live it” (Debord, 460).
May we all have a memorable and loving December 25th!
Debord, G. (1967). Spectacular Time. In Social Theory: Roots and Branches. Peter Kivisto, ed. London: Oxford University Press.
Raffi. (1983). ‘On Christmas Morning’. Raffi’s Christmas Morning. Retrieved from http://www.metrolyrics.com/on-christmas-morning-lyrics-raffi.html and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aV7Q6O7Edjw
Lee, Brenda (1991) “Rockin around the Christmas Tree”. A Brenda Lee Christmas. Retrieved from http://www.metrolyrics.com/rockin-around-the-christmas-tree-lyrics-christmas-song.html