Around the globe, people decorate this season. The retail sector the world over leaps at the excuse to adorn shops at this time of year, and American retailers are, of course, no exception. Even in “Communist” China and Shinto Japan, where most do not celebrate Christmas, shops are now brightly decorated. In Europe, lavishly decorated pedestrian shopping streets and traditional Christmas markets are seasonal pleasures. Some of the littlest towns or dorpies in South Africa have the fanciest Christmas light shows down their main streets.
The singularly American aspect to this decorating frenzy, I think, is the way in which Americans adorn the outside of their homes. While many in countries celebrating Christmas decorate inside their homes, nowhere in the world does one experience such fervour in decorating the exteriors of houses. Here in the United States, if you celebrate Christmas—and, sure, many do not—the chances are you will decorate the outside of your home. Working class, middle class, wealthy, religious, secular, elderly, young, you name it. If you celebrate Christmas here, you decorate outside. Some of it is very creative, tasteful, and discreet; some of it just too much and outrageously over the top. But, hey, it’s Christmas in America!
The paraphernalia for this outdoor decorating is readily available. Thanks to cheap Chinese imports, strings of LED lights—white! multicoloured! on green wire! on white wire!—can be purchased very reasonably. And one can connect lots of these together to create a quite dazzling effect; a box of lights notes that a maximum of 43 strings can be linked together. Another favourite is a type of “net” with white or multicoloured lights, which can be draped over bushes or railings. Every year, there are new lights, gimmicks, or other innovations on offer (clever Chinese), so you can always expand your collection. All this illumination gives communal cheer on these chilly winter nights when it becomes dark so early. Yet spiked electricity bills should give pause to those who overdo it, and overall increased energy consumption certainly gives this dimension to the season here an environmental cost.
One of the weirder manifestations of this decorating obsession is how some even jazz up their cars. Wreaths on the bonnets of cars are common. The one that always makes me giggle is the reindeer thing: A pair of “antlers” emerging from opposite side windows, with a red “nose” on the bonnet. Seriously!
European bakers are frantically busy at this time of year. The Germans, Swiss, Belgians, Dutch, Scandinavians all indulge in wonderful gingerbread, almond, cinnamon, shortbread, anise, and chocolate cookies around Christmas. Americans are also munching yummy cookies in December, with typical flavours including apple, pumpkin, oatmeal, cranberry, coconut, peanut, and chocolate.
The American twist on cookies at Christmas is the “cookie exchange”. Trust ever-practical Americans. The idea is that each person arrives with, say, three dozen of their favourite home-baked cookies, and then departs with the same amount of cookies chosen from the array of those others contributed. A key dimension, even etiquette, to this ritual is that the cookies have to be something over which one has taken time and trouble. It would be bad form to participate in a cookie exchange with goodies that involved little effort or were purchased, even if very special.
Giving is an essential part of Christmas. Americans are very generous people; indeed, they do the giving part of Christmas exceedingly well. In these depressed economic times, needs have increased everywhere, and one is inundated with requests for assistance. One’s mailbox is filled with requests for help, newspapers and churches list volunteer opportunities at nearby soup kitchens and charities, schools ask for assistance in providing gifts for needy children and constantly run food drives for local food pantries. The focus, as it should be at Christmas, is on giving. Yes, cynics note, charitable giving is tax deductible, and the tax year ends soon. But it’s the spirit of the giving—often anonymous—that illustrates my point:
Kmart announced that secret Samaritans in stores in Iowa, Indiana, Michigan, Montana, and Nebraska had paid off many layaway accounts on toys and children’s clothing, leaving only a few dollars or cents so the items remained in the system. An Indianapolis woman paid off about 50 people’s layaway orders and handed out $50 bills as she left the store—in memory of her husband who had just passed. For the fifth year in a row, a Salvation Army collection kettle outside a Clarksville, Tennessee supermarket has had a krugerrand placed into it. A Salvation Army collection point near Harrisburg, PA, announced recently that it too had received a krugerrand. Cynics may suspect drug smugglers laundering their ill-gotten gains, or former criminals trying to make good, but I’m not so sure.
The materialism of the receiving part of the American Christmas experience can be repulsive and excessive, although the capacity of that great engine of the global economy—the U.S. consumer—is greatly diminished in recent years. Numbers from “Black Friday” (the shopping day after Thanksgiving when stores traditionally move into the black for the year) and “Cyber Monday” (the day for deals on electronics, especially for online purchasing) were up this year from last. Obviously, it’s too early to tell if the Christmas shopping season overall has been successful for retailers, but the frequency with which one sees UPS brown trucks and FedEx Home Delivery vehicles on the road suggests that people have been shopping hard. A middle-class suburban detail that amazes this South African is how parcels are dropped off by front doors and then left there, awaiting collection when people return home at the end of the day. Such parcels would quickly disappear in middle-class suburban Johannesburg or Cape Town–and perhaps not fare too well either in most American towns or inner city neighbourhoods.
Yet the most noteworthy aspect of Christmas in America is high attendance of church services, a phenomenon that is well documented elsewhere, and one that is categorically not true of all societies celebrating Christmas. Whether you go to church or choose not to go this Christmas, a very merry Christmas to all!