I hope each of you had a very merry Christmas if you celebrate, and excellent Chinese food should you not. Many of us will be climbing out of a coma induced by a combination of hearty dinners, abundant presents, and omnipresent family, pulling back up to work or sifting through the shattered remains of domestic order that our relatives left in their wake. Before we move forward at full speed, however, and confirm our New Year’s Eve plans, the always worth reading Conor Friedersdorf offered an insightful peek into the ghosts of Christmases present and past.
While we may often think of the mall-packing and frantic last-minute shopping as one more sign of our culture’s recent descent into commercialized madness, standing in stark contrast to those virtuous days of yore “Where the tree tops glisten/ And children listen/ To hear sleigh bells in the snow,” Friedersdorf came in to tell us that just isn’t so. Instead, retail mania goes back to those heady days of change around the turn of the last century. In the crusading spirit of those Progressive times, voluntary associations sprang up across the country to come to the aid of the downtrodden sales girl, and the worn down delivery man. Seeing the crushing crowds that descended upon their stores in the mad rush to get the last gifts bought before the shops closed (quite a familiar sight), “The progressive reformers of a century ago would’ve pinned the blame on a selfish public’s failure to conscientiously complete their Christmas shopping early, so as to spare the nation’s workers from the horrors of an annual holiday rush.”
The Consumer League of New York took out magazine advertisements calling for “Consideration for the Shop-Girl,” and the Outlook magazine lectured that “the crowding of the shops by late purchasers of Christmas gifts is a crude and obvious denial of the Christmas spirit.” The “Shop Early” movement framed shopping as a moral issue, whereby the customers were responsible for the welfare and treatment of the sales staff serving them, and guilty of intemperance should they not be able to discipline their gift buying earlier in the holiday season
As Friedersdorf rightly notes, the working conditions in 1913 and 2013 are scarcely comparable. Having worked the holiday season in retail, our mandatory breaks were strictly enforced, and you could be fired for doing any work on your lunch. Overtime laws are in effect, as are child labor laws sparing the most vulnerable among us from being pressed into employ. Delivery men use trucks, and OSHA-approved lifting techniques.
It bears considering, though, whether all these laudable improvements in immediate working conditions have taken the edge off of our responsibility to those serving us. For those packing the Belks, Wal-Mart, and Target Thanksgiving night, was any consideration given to the inability of their cashiers to have Thanksgiving dinner, since “Black Friday” is the one truly unacceptable absence of the retail year? When Amazon announced that they would be filling orders running right up until Christmas Eve, how many last minute clicks were made with thought for the warehouse workers shoveling pallets while their extended families filled their homes?
The true costs of consumerism may not come from the seeking of happiness in material goods. That is a story as old as time, and most of us come to grips with its emptiness at one point or another. Instead, it may be the impressing of the whole world into the service of our desires and convenience, reducing the people we rely on to a mere means of our satisfaction.