the Christmas factory
Today it’s Christmas in Osaka and, appropriately enough, this afternoon we had the first flurries of snow of the winter season. Not really enough to stick, but it’s still nice to go stand outside while the soft, white flakes slowly navigate their way to the ground.
Since it’s the Christmas season I’ve been teaching Dickens’s A Christmas Carol in my reading class. It’s been ages since I’ve read A Christmas Carol and I had forgotten what a strong indictment of industrial capitalism it contains. For some reason I’d come to think of A Christmas Carol as watered-down Dickens, more of a story of the personal redemption of Scrooge than the explicit attack on the ills of industrialism and poverty that’s contained in so much of his other fiction. In fact, however, Dickens uses the story of Scrooge’s individual redemption to tell a much wider story about the ills of poverty in Victorian England. Since it’s Christmas and I’m feeling lazy today, I’ll let Wikipedia tell the full story:
Dickens was keenly touched by the lot of poor children in the middle decades of the 19th century. In early 1843, he toured the Cornish tin mines where he saw children working in appalling conditions. The suffering he witnessed there was reinforced by a visit to the Field Lane Ragged School, one of several London schools set up for the education of the capital’s half-starved, illiterate street children. Inspired by the February 1843 parliamentary report exposing the effects of the Industrial Revolution upon poor children called Second Report of the Children’s Employment Commission, Dickens planned in May 1843 to publish an inexpensive political pamphlet tentatively titled, “An Appeal to the People of England, on behalf of the Poor Man’s Child” but changed his mind, deferring the pamphlet’s production until the end of the year. He wrote to Dr. Southwood Smith, one of four commissioners responsible for the Second Report, about his change in plans: “[Y]ou will certainly feel that a Sledge hammer has come down with twenty times the force – twenty thousand times the force – I could exert by following out my first idea.” The pamphlet would become A Christmas Carol.
If A Christmas Carol is only read as a story of personal redemption then we end up missing half the point — it’s also an indictment of a society that allows radical poverty to be generated by the same forces that produce the mountains of gold that people like Scrooge are busy greedily accumulating.
A Christmas Carol is, in fact, largely responsible for providing us with the images of traditional Christmas that we carry with us today. The Ghost of Christmas Present — that “jolly giant” filled with laughter and Christmas cheer — is one of the many influences that has fed into the contemporary image of Santa Claus (jolly old St. Nick) that seems to adorn just about every bit of advertising that appears for the last two weeks of December.
The original Saint Nicholas — who was born somewhere around 270 CE in a Greek colony in what is present-day Turkey — was also famous for gift giving. In fact, it’s quite possible that several contemporary Christmas rituals stem from stories surrounding the aid he gave to those who were suffering from extreme poverty. From Wikipedia, again:
However, in his most famous exploit, a poor man had three daughters but could not afford a proper dowry for them. This meant that they would remain unmarried and probably, in absence of any other possible employment would have to become prostitutes. Hearing of the poor man’s plight, Nicholas decided to help him but being too modest to help the man in public (or to save the man the humiliation of accepting charity), he went to his house under the cover of night and threw three purses (one for each daughter) filled with gold coins through the window opening into the man’s house.
One version has him throwing one purse for three consecutive nights. Another has him throw the purses over a period of three years, each time the night before one of the daughters comes “of age”. Invariably, the third time the father lies in wait, trying to discover the identity of their benefactor. In one version the father confronts the saint, only to have Saint Nicholas say it is not him he should thank, but God alone. In another version, Nicholas learns of the poor man’s plan and drops the third bag down the chimney instead; a variant holds that the daughter had washed her stockings that evening and hung them over the embers to dry, and that the bag of gold fell into the stocking.
Somehow, over time, the gifts of St. Nicholas have stopped being exclusively associated with the poor and the needy and instead have come to represent an overflowing cornucopia of consumerist abundance, with the latest plastic gifts on offer for any kid who has merely ‘been good.’ Those kids who haven’t been good might be told that they’ll get a lump of coal in their stocking, but even the youngest children these days know that when a parent tells them to be good or Santa won’t leave them anything under the tree, it’s nothing but a bunch of hot air.
Things are a little bit different in the central and eastern Alps of Europe where there’s an especially interesting Christmas folk tradition involving a demon-like creature called the Krampus. The Krampus is Santa’s evil double and, if you’ve been naughty rather than nice, the Krampus will punish you. People dressed in Krampus costumes roam the streets during December and frighten children with chains, bells, and whips — a lot like those New Year demons from Akita Prefecture, the Namahage.
The Krampus is a figure that reminds us that the Christmas season has a dark side in addition to the jolly images of fat Santas, adorable reindeer, and bulging sacks of presents that clutter up every inch of available space during the last few months of the year. One rather obvious aspect of this dark side is the exploitation of labor that occurs around the world in order to produce the cheap toys, trinkets, and decorations that become so ubiquitous during the winter season. Most of the world’s toys are now produced in Chinese factories and a huge amount of these factories engage in illegal, and often quite harmful, labor practices. This situation results in a great deal of tiresome China bashing when in reality the overall situation is the result of scandalous international corporate practices that implicate American and European corporations just as much as the owners of sweatshop factories who eke out their profits at the expense of workers while the parent corporations turn a blind eye. And the consumer of these goods is implicated as well. After all, who among us can truly claim that we don’t know full well the conditions of labor that must necessarily be the foundation for such “low, low, everyday prices”? If you need to be convinced, there’s a fantastic video called Santa’s Workshop that you can watch here, and here’s a 2003 snip from MediaMouse.org about Christmas toys and child labor:
It’s Christmas time of year here in the United States which means Americans will be spending billions of dollars on toys. One of the ugliest aspects of globalization is that the plastic playthings Americans buy for their children are often made by third world children working in sweatshop conditions. Over 50 percent of all toys sold by Wal-Mart, Mattel, Hasbro, Disney and Toys R Us are made In China. “Made in China” often means made by children working in unsafe environments for exploitative wages. During the “busy season” in China, three million toy workers — mostly young women — will be locked inside 2,800 factories. They will be forced to work 15 hours a day, seven days a week, thirty days a month, handling toxic chemicals with their bare hands, while they are paid wages as low as 12 cents an hour making toys for our holiday season.
But there’s another question that I think we need to think about as well, and that is to what extent the demands of the Christmas season have turned consumers themselves into a class of deterritorialized factory workers. Think about all of the incredible labor expenditure that goes into a typical Christmas season: shopping for Christmas presents; buying, writing, and sending Christmas cards; choosing and trimming a tree; using money that you’ve generated through work to buy airplane tickets so you can visit the family; driving, driving, driving, driving; buying special ingredients for all of the holiday meals that get cooked; and so on. All of this Christmas cheer is mediated through the corporation, and the (unpaid) labor that you put into Christmas consumption ends up helping to line the pockets of the very same corporations that exploit factory labor in other parts of the world.
I’m not suggesting, of course, that we should throw the baby out with the bathwater and get rid of Christmas altogether, but rather that we should stop consuming Christmas and instead concentrate on recreating the holiday in a form that we can manufacture by ourselves, and as a community. Somewhat ironically, A Christmas Carol — a book written with the intent of exposing child labor — has become one of the prime forces behind the growth and popularization of the “Merry Christmas” craze that currently underlies so much of the exploitation that factory workers experience during the season of holiday cheer. But if you look at A Christmas Carol closely you’ll see that one spirit that is almost entirely absent is the Ghost of Consumption Present. Aside from the consumption of food in the form of the Christmas feast (a tradition that surely predates capitalism) the book concentrates instead on the production of community bonds and DIY Christmas cheer. The revelers in A Christmas Carol don’t buy their happiness — instead they create it by holding dances, playing games, singing songs together, sharing good food, and giving some of what they have to those who have less. That is the secret of joy, not another totally useless Christmas toy with a “sell by” date that’s already expired.
I’ll close this already way too long Christmas post with a video that I think perfectly illustrates the schizoid tendencies of consumerist Christmas culture — a mashup of the 1964 Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer animated television special with Immortal’s dark and Krampus-like song “Blizzard Beasts.” Enjoy.
Filed under: culture, economy, literature, religion, society | 4 Comments
Tags: A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens, child labor, Christmas, Christmas toys, consumerism, dark side of Christmas, exploitation of labor, factories, industrialism, Krampus, poverty, Saint Nicholas, Santa Claus