November 23, 2016

Meaning Drift: The Season of “Giving”

Headshot 3.13 cropcompressBy Karen Sternheimer

Sociology teaches us to think critically about how we ascribe meaning to all aspects of social life, particularly how reality is socially constructed. The holiday season is a great example of how we ascribe meaning to events, and how our actions reinforce and reproduce these meanings.

Take the idea that the end of the year is a season of giving. In reality, this has come to mean a season of shopping and consumption. True, much of what we buy is presumably to give to others, but whether we give away what we buy is secondary to the act of buying itself. (Are you really going to buy that special someone on your list a new refrigerator or washing machine? Probably not, but all sorts of goods are marketed as holiday specials.) Retailers begin holiday-themed advertising in late October, hoping to create excitement for year-end shopping, which has become tied into the meaning of the holiday season.

The practice tells us more about our current economic and social context, where consumer spending accounts for a large proportion of economic growth, than it does about a shared past. Retailers look to “Black Friday” spending as important economic indicators, which the public regularly hears about as a barometer on our national economic health.

Are holidays about being thankful, relaxing at the end of the year and spending time with family, and celebrating religious miracles (as with Christmas and Hanukkah) or about overeating, shopping, and showing our love by giving people lots of stuff they may not even want or need? Holidays have largely become about accumulating things (and debt) and managing the accompanying holiday stress.

Our behavior can easily become ritualized, tied in with what we consider to be part of a cultural tradition. It’s what we do every year, right? But traditions can easily drift away from their origins, and we forget why we engage in these practices in the first place. Similar to goal displacement (which I blogged about earlier this year), when organizations gradually veer away from their original purpose, they may take on completely different goals. Likewise, the origins of the end-of-year holidays can easily get lost.

The first Thanksgiving was a celebration of survival after pilgrims had a successful first harvest in 1621 and was not a national holiday until during the Civil War in 1863, when President Abraham Lincoln sought to create a unifying celebration that might bring Americans together.

Christmas, the time when Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus, was not always linked with gift giving, but it coincided with pagan winter solstice celebrations that included gifts. Giving presents became part of the Christmas celebration during the Victorian Era. Likewise, Hanukkah is when Jews celebrate a military victory in ancient Jerusalem. It was not historically centered around giving presents, but often coincided with Christmastime and thus gift giving became part of the ritual in the early twentieth century.

The shopping frenzy that retailers hope for the day after Thanksgiving, “Black Friday” came much later, around the 1980s, as merchants hoped to draw shoppers who might have the day off of work. (To be “in the black” in accounting lingo means you have earned a profit; “in the red” means you have financial losses, thus the term “Black Friday.”)

In recent years “Black Friday” has crept into Thanksgiving Day, as retailers hope to draw shoppers in on a day they had previously been closed. Advertisers promote “pre-Black Friday” sales too. No need to stop shopping after Friday: American Express sponsors “Small Business Saturday.” Then comes "Cyber Monday" when retailers hope we shop online while we are at work. In 2012, a cultural organization founded "Giving Tuesday," where holiday shoppers are encouraged to donate to charitable causes.

When these practices become ritualized, they seem normal and natural. It’s just what we do at the end of the year...this is what sociologists mean by the social construction of reality.

Rituals have changed, and can be changed. This year, the adults in my family decided that we all have enough stuff, and rather than exchanging gifts we will be making donations to charitable organizations that we support in honor of one another. Yes, having new things can be fun, but we can buy new things any time of year. And there is something that feels good about this kind of giving, even more so than buying someone a new sweater or a gift card to their favorite store. Hopefully our giving will make a small difference for those who might not be as fortunate as we have been.

Is there a true meaning of the season? It is up to us to create meanings and act upon them.

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