A Traditional Christmas Needs a Real Downtown
The Christmas season is once again upon us. For many, “it’s the most wonderful time of the year.” But as our culture continues to squeeze the most out of the holiday, many of us have seen it become a relentless rat race. Presents need to be bought, pageants need to be held, dinners must be cooked, and cards have to be sent.
The saving grace of this onslaught of tasks is that Christmas music is back on the radio, in stores, and pretty much anywhere that has a PA system. Many of these songs were written during the immediate postwar period of optimism, cultural unity, and thriving Main Street economics. It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas mentions all the classic signs of the holiday—the carols, the bells, the snow—but the first thing it portrays is “the five and ten (variety store) glistening once again with candy canes and silver lanes aglow.” The song then conveys the excitement of Christmas as toys appear “in every store.”
It’s clear that the role of these local shops and their front window displays goes far beyond shopping. They not only provide all the toys needed for presents and gifts (the entire third verse of the song) but are an essential part—if not the most central aspect—of the holiday ambiance.
Think about how that compares to our experience today. Once a rarity, “toys in every store” was a telling change in the season. Now corporate drug stores such as Walgreens and CVS are constantly flooded with cheap plastic molds designed to placate your child while you wait to pick up your prescription.
At one time, the seasonal arrival of toys was a careful decision made by small businesses. Because these shops were often housed in humble downtown buildings, they didn’t have the shelf space to keep toys all year. These small shops would go out of their way to get into the spirit of Christmas and give customers a truly inspired experience that made shopping feel special.
Today, however, we’ve lost this unique part of the season. Whether it’s the constant sale of toys at our big retailers, or the year-round availability of holiday products through the internet, there is nothing actually special about shopping at Christmas. And it’s not just the experience we’ve lost—there is now less joy in the products that we buy. Every gift from a big-box store is tainted with the knowledge that it is one of a million copies, while “artisan” gifts brought from small shops are so profligate with campiness (organic blueberry goat’s milk soap) that buying them becomes a smug competition in who can spend the most money on the oddest item.
The very layout of the typical auto-centric American suburb also quietly kills the spirit of Christmas. Everything leading up to the holiday has become stressful and hectic, while still being glum and uninspired. The mall and the big-box stores feel even more depressing around the holidays, as you walk through an expanse of parked cars in the cold and snow. There’s no reward for your misery: Target and Wal-Mart still feel the same when you get inside, except that they’re probably more crowded. You’ve been here a thousand times before and you’ll be back next Tuesday to return the gifts you didn’t want and pick up toilet paper. This cheerless shopping experience is underpinned by the knowledge that your dollars are not staying in the community but are being vacuumed out to Wall Street.
While the parade of lights that so many suburban communities put up are nice, they lack real community engagement. You don’t get out or talk to anyone—you just sit in your car and look at the lights. Soon, we’ll probably have light tours done in virtual reality, so you don’t even have to leave your couch.
It doesn’t have to be this way. There is no magic panacea for rampant consumerism, but we can make our shopping experience meaningful again by focusing on developing our walkable, traditional downtown areas.
The architectural beauty and community space found in classic American downtowns is far superior to what we build now. Streets lined with structures designed to last centuries highlight traditions of generations past. This connection to history is an essential part of creating a community, especially during Christmas when old buildings are made to sparkle and shimmer, sharing the holiday cheer as they have for decades.
But it’s not just about history and tradition. Classic cities are built for humans and beget human interactions. So while you’re busy with holiday shopping and appointments, you’ll be out walking among other people, following the advice of A Holly Jolly Christmas as you “say hello to friends you know and everyone you meet.”
The traditional cities that are sung about in our Christmas music don’t just highlight the spirit of the holiday, they create it. They make us take things slower. They get us walking amidst the lights and decorations on the buildings. They put us on the street, interacting with the other people enjoying the Christmas atmosphere. They are part of the season itself—free and welcoming to all.
For so many families around the country, Christmas is still rooted in tradition. Whether it be meals, songs, events, or the simple act of being together, it is a time where we turn our eyes to our family and acquaintances. Many people work hard to instill their Christmas traditions in their children. Why not ask the same thing of our cities? Do we want our children to associate Christmas with spending hours at the mall or lazily clicking through Amazon? Or do we want them to realize that our physical structures can be part of their heritage and have a lasting impact for generations?
As we deemphasize the role of the cityscape in our lives, we remain giddy about decorating our own houses with images of traditional community. People spend hundreds of dollars on ceramic models of Christmas villages with corner stores, decorated public squares, and open-air Christmas markets. They hang Thomas Kinkade paintings of brightly lit villages on a snowy evening. None of this imagery depicts giant retail stores, neon signs, or vast parking lots. Imagine how ghastly a ceramic model of WalMart or Toys ‘R Us would look perched upon a piano at Christmas time. Yet these are the buildings our city governments often support with generous tax credits.
Some conservatives will dismiss these reactions to the contemporary retail landscape as mere nostalgia: Big-box stores are good and in keeping with the creative destruction of capitalism. Likewise, they might claim that our downtowns fail because they aren’t competitive, and traditionally patterned cities are “not what the market wants.” Such naysayers appear tone deaf to the idea that conservatism might also balance these concerns with the preservation of beauty, place, or tradition.
There is no question that our built environment underscores the idea that as a community feast day, Christmas is no longer important. Our poorly constructed cities are encouraged to overconsume, while the lack of quality public space has eroded our sense of community. The charm of Christmas now only lives in black-and-white movies, where it harkens back to a time and place that people have forgotten how to build. We’ve lost the “Main Street” that made it possible to frame public celebrations and holidays. Is Christmas now limited to plastic trees and lights in the front yard that we put up haphazardly because it’s the social norm?
As you run your errands this holiday season, pay attention to your surroundings. Ask yourself if these built environments are really emblematic of the “greatest nation on earth” or if they serve the purpose of interests—Wall Street and global corporations—not in line with your own best interests and those of your community. We vote with our pocketbooks. If enough of us reject the seeming enticements of the malls and strip centers, we can restore a more humane holiday season. Instead of bumper-to-bumper traffic, cold parking lots, and sterile big-box stores, you might again have a place where you can tell that it is indeed beginning to look a lot like Christmas.
Matthias Leyrer lives in Mankato, Minn. He has also written at Strong Towns and his blog, keycity.co. Follow New Urbs on Twitter for a feed dedicated to TAC’s coverage of cities, urbanism, and place.