Tag Archives: Christmas

The American Saturnalia

The first shopping day of the Christmas season is upon us, with the usual crowds, the frantic sales and the inevitable parking nightmare. Even the name—Black Friday—suggests that Americans are deeply ambivalent about this strange shopping holiday. But is it, perhaps, the most American day of the year? A spectacle of commerce and crowds, consumerism and credit cards, a day structured like a poll (vote with your pocketbook) on the state of the American economy? Is Black Friday the perfect and most fabulously self-reflective, narcissistic American holiday we’ve invented?

Every December, we regret the increasing commercialization of Christmas, as if we’re slipping further and further from some ideal understanding of the holiday (last seen in a Dickens story or film by Frank Capra?). But let’s be hardheaded and pragmatic about the facts. Christmas isn’t devolving from some Christian fantasy of love and regeneration. That ship has left the harbor. No, it’s evolving into the perfect, five-week spectacle of Americana, with all our best American gadgets and gizmos on display, with all of our basic habits of the heart—desire, acquisitiveness, competition—perfectly exercised. Black Friday is the first day of the American Saturnalia, a festival of capitalism and technology and American self-love all rolled into one.

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Create Christmas Memories, Now!

       

                                                                          I dropped into a place called National Harbor this afternoon. It is a large convention center, entertainment and hotel district created ex nihilo just a few years ago on the banks of the Potomac River south of Washington, DC. They were putting up the Christmas decorations, including a large Christmas tree made of a conical metal frame onto which patches of greenery were being attached rather like thatching a roof. The tree wasn’t even half finished, so you could see plainly that the whole thing is hollow.

            Inside the main convention center hotel a sign announced upcoming Christmas events, with this odd bit of advertising text: “Create your family holiday memories today.”

            “Create your memories” is an odd locution. We tend to think our memories are made automatically, that they follow as inevitably on experience as echoes follow noise. To be sure, at some level, we “create” our own memories, both by choosing which experiences we have, and through whatever process in our brains memories are physically forged. But the expression “create your memories” seems too active a way of putting it, and it seems to leave out a step, as if we forge our memories directly, without actually having the experiences upon which memories are based.

The phrase suggests that we create memories rather like we take snapshots, and I think this is why the phrase troubles me. Taking snapshots is a very good way of not having experiences, of sending the data of what we see directly to the digital memory bank without any particular engagement with the reality in which we’re present.

There’s one very big advantage to conceiving of memory this way. It cuts memory free from experience, which is often disappointing, and sometimes downright sad or miserable. If we can create our memories directly, without much reference to the actual experience, then perhaps we can move directly from anticipation of pleasure to the memory of pleasure. The middle, the pleasure or experience itself, is quietly moved out of the picture. And that’s a good thing if what was actually experienced wasn’t, in fact, very pleasurable.

This is what “experience”-based places such as National Harbor are meant to do. They are not actually places to experience much at all, but they are filled with mildly pleasurable stimuli that look good in snapshots and sound great when you “remember” them to people at home (the fountains, the beach, the wharf!).  They are places to create memories, not places to be, or dwell, or think, or have adventures and take risks. Christmas is to holidays what National Harbor is to architecture. It is not a meaningful event in itself, but a time to “create memories,” take pictures, file away burnished narratives and tales of Christmas past.

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