Growing up, I remember Christmas being the most exciting time of the year. As I’ve gotten older and have become responsible for purchasing gifts for other people myself, I have come to associate the holiday with frenzy and anxiety. Thorstein Veblen was undoubtedly correct to refer to Christmas as a time of vicarious consumption. Christmas is literally referred to as “the season of giving” and if you are not giving you may be seen as cheap or a scrooge. As we have learned in our readings, one of parents’ biggest fears is having bored children. Parents also want to ensure their children do not feel left out or disappointed. With the growing emphasis on the importance of material items in the U.S., parents feel obligated to stretch their wallets at this time of year to ensure their children aren’t left out. This is because we have been socialized to believe that when you wake up on Christmas morning, there should be a towering mountain of gifts under the tree with your name on them. The main goal for many children is bragging rights. They want to be able to go to school the next day and compare who got the better presents.
“When compared to the average family budget, the Christmas gift budget makes up 1.3% of all average family spending. It is more than what the average family will spend on reading materials ($110/year) and alcoholic beverages ($435/year) put together.”
In the article “Modern Childhood, Modern Toys”, Gary Cross says, “But in the nineteenth century these celebrations of indulgence were increasingly focused on the family, in parents pampering children. The shower of gifts became a way of demonstrating personal affluence” (59). Essentially, families are going out of their way to buy their children’s happiness. The blame can in many instances be placed on advertising. Companies make it a point, especially at this time of year, to advertise their most expensive, sought after products while basically telling viewers how much they need it. Children see their friends playing with the best new toy and many advertisements lead them to feel like they aren’t “cool” if they don’t have that great toy too. Advertisements only solidify parents’ fear that they will disappoint their children.
The underlying theme to all of this is the fact that even in times of economic woe and recession, consumers still have to get their shopping craze in for the holidays. Retailers like Kmart and Walmart have had to reformat their business trends to match the lack of spending money many consumers are facing. Veblen’s theory of vicarious consumption still powers consumers to go forth and spend, especially at Christmas time, because it has become embedded in middle-class American culture. Consumers are defying their interests because of the norm of Christmas time spending. Layaway, once left to the dustbin of history and outmoded shopping models, is back to accommodate these new trends. Though the U.S. economy is suffering in many ways, ways it hasn’t for some time, the phenomenon and expectation of the commercialization of Christmas, and the newly refounded layaway programs, keeps consumer spending up. This flies in the face of many consumers best interests. Vicarious consumption proves to the consumer, however, that things are still normal and people are still doing well.
When Gary Cross proposes that Christmas has sequestered from a time of celebrating the “nuclear family” (59) to a display of “vicarious consumption” through gift giving, I have to disagree. This view is vastly too cynical of the American people. A people that donated $290.89 billion to charities in 2010 (nps.gov), has companies such as Macy’s with their “Make a Wish, Believe” campaign, and that are emotionally moved by commercials that epitomize the “giving” Christmas spirit (tear jerker warning.) The underlying motivation around Christmas is not to display how well off one is financially. The underlying motivation is too make those around you, and especially children, happier. Witnessing the jubilance in children around Christmas is guaranteed to make your life more blissful. This eagerness to make one’s children joyful may seem to accumulate in the form of “vicarious consumption” but that is because in some instances to make younger children happier it requires buying the most up to date gadget or toy. Therefore, the end result of the gift is a display of proof, that yes, you can provide your child with happiness but the primary motivation was not to “peacock” your wealth, it results as a byproduct. A good analogy would be when you drive your car. The intentions are good. You want to go to work and add to society. However, the result of fossil fuels going into the air still occurs. You cannot stop this end result and you accept it without conscious thought. The same is true with the byproduct, of providing your children with merriment, being produced as “vicarious consumption”.
This argument is hard to see today sometimes because the advertisers try too engulf us into this competitive “buy everything before everyone else” mindset around Christmas. From Targets “Black Friday Holiday Sales” commercials, to Best Buy’s “Game On Santa” campaign, it seems as though the media wants us competing for all that is consumer goods. Say you are persuaded by these ads, is it even a bad thing? We have to remember, that Target and Best Buy are not just abstract companies. Companies are made of people. When the company sales go down, employees get laid off and then those employees cannot provide a Happy Christmas for their children. It is the companies job to drive sales in whichever way they feel is best for this purpose.
To conclude, I post one last link of a kid going nuts over receiving a new Nintendo 64. After watching this video, if you still believe “vicarious consumption” is the main motivator in Christmas purchases, send me a PM. I would love to engage in some insightful discussion.
(*Final Note-in the first paragraph I state that kids want the newer, up to date gadgets and toys. This is not a bad thing. This is a natural phenomenon in humans. Without it we do not have WordPress as a medium to even discuss such issues. The desire to want newer and better materials leads to innovation that in the end will help everyone for a “rising tide raises all boats”)Read more
This is the course website for Rebecca Onion's American Studies seminar at the University of Texas at Austin, convened during the spring semester of 2012. You can see the website for last semester's version of this course at this link.