Mall things bright and beautiful

Consumer Rites
March 29, 1996

Americans have received mixed blessings from their disestablishment of religion. Denominational competition has undoubtedly made organised religion one of the most successful products of America's free enterprise system. At the same time, it has locked religion in the embrace of the marketplace. Religion is commerce, as evidenced by what is most peculiar about American money. Fearing that they might have made a mistake in leaving God out of their constitution, Americans recorded their trust in God on their coins and notes.

This is more than a trivial observation. In the United States, religion and religious leaders have pioneered to an extraordinary degree in the invention of marketing techniques that have shaped the rhythms of consumer buying habits. As Eric Leigh Schmidt shows in his fine book, Consumer Rites, the shopping mall has become the central location "for the commemoration of Christianity's most important holy days as well as for the enactment of America's most prominent civic holidays". However much church officials may complain about the crass commercialism attendant on Christmas and Easter, they deserve, as Schmidt convincingly argues, much of the responsibility for what has happened.

Schmidt begins his story with a long chapter on St Valentine's Day. Although rooted in the memory of a Christian martyr, the holiday had been thoroughly secularised in Europe. The reshaping of this popular festival to feed vast markets in manufactured cards and boxed candy - a process that began in the 1840s in the US - was not much noticed by American Calvinists who attached no significance to a Catholic saint. It proved to be a fatal mistake in defending their long-standing opposition to religious holidays. The coming of Catholics to America in great numbers, the seasonal traditions especially of German immigrants, and the competition of wealthy, urban Protestant churches to create beautiful places of worship, soon transformed the American celebration of Christmas and then Easter into festive occasions of conspicuous consumption.

It was left to John Wanamaker, Philadelphia's great department store magnate and munificent benefactor of Protestant causes, to demonstrate just how good for business these religious holidays could be. By the end of the 19th century, the elaborate religious decoration of his Philadelphia store each Christmas and Easter had changed forever the seasonal aesthetics of store window display and advertising copy. As Schmidt notes, American merchants now vigorously support creche displays on public property because they help business and have turned the "put Christ in Christmas" slogan into a "benediction for the Christmas bazaar". Schmidt's chapter on Mother's Day is especially illuminating because the holiday had no foundation in previous popular rituals. Created from scratch, it is a pure example of the deliberate linkage of religious sentiments with commercial opportunity.

One of the strengths of Schmidt's book is his determined effort to gauge how much pleasure these commercial inventions provided for participants. One thing is very clear - the transformation of American holidays took celebration out of the streets and subjected it to the bourgeois discipline of American domestic space. In carrying gifts and decorations from the market to the home, women became the key players in arranging holiday merry-making. To be sure, the distribution of sources available to historians dictates that we can know much more about the merchants who stocked the holiday market than we do about people who sought to enjoy these manufactured holidays. None the less, Schmidt finds, at least in middle-class family life, a capacity for playful invention that warded off the worst effects of market standardisation and a durable piety that was not destroyed by letting children pray to Santa Claus.

Schmidt's account is not altogether approving. On balance, however, he has not given much credence to Frankfurt School sociologists, and the cultural historians who have been influenced by them, who saw nothing good about the effects of modern commerce on popular culture. Jaundiced readers who regard American shopping malls as wastelands of poor taste and tawdry product, especially during ever-lengthening holiday seasons, will surely note that Schmidt's best examples of festive marketplaces come from the 19th and early 20th century. After that, the traces of carnival spontaneity Schmidt has wanted to credit in American "consumer rites" grow faint. Scrooge with his "Bah, humbug" may have the last uncharitable laugh.

R. Laurence Moore is professor of history, Cornell University, New York.

Consumer Rites: The Buying and Selling of American Holidays

Author - Leigh Eric Schmidt
ISBN - 0 691 02980 6
Publisher - Princeton University Press
Price - £19.95
Pages - 363

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