One quarter of the year now dedicated to the X-mas potlatch of conspicuous consumption

Congratulations to Frontgate, a retail company selling home décor and furnishings with locations in Georgia, North Carolina and Ohio, plus a website and catalogue business.

Frontgate is the first company to try to sell me something related to Christmas this year.

The Frontgate Christmas catalogue arrived in the mail on September 25, more than a month before Halloween.  Frontgate wants us to bypass Halloween and Thanksgiving and go right to Christmas.

What Frontgate wants to sell us symbolizes the conspicuous consumption that long ago took all celebrations hostage in the United States (with the possible—and I stress possible—exception of Thanksgiving).  Frontgate is peddling wreathes, flameless candles, candle holders, fake holly displays, nutcracker soldiers that light up, artificial trees with and without lights and frosting, ornaments for the tree, lights for outside, Happy Holidays doormats, five-foot tall drummer soldiers beating snare drums, giant figurines for the lawn including Santa’s helpers and a dog with reindeer antlers replete with small cat sidling up to it and a sign that reads “Santa’s Little Yelper.”

Embedded in this list of items for purchase we can find many of the ideological corollaries of the basic principle of American consumerism: that all human experience—be it celebration, expression of emotion, response to challenge or interaction with others—reduces not just to products and services, but to the purchase of products and services.

Here are some of the themes of the consumer ideology that I recognize in what Frontgate mongers:

  • Buying stuff people used to make as an expression of the holiday spirit. People used to display their ingenuity and express their love by making things and giving it to friends and neighbors. That’s the origin of Christmas gift-giving. In an agricultural society, wreathes would be a natural gift and some might carve nutcrackers—perhaps not five-foot leviathans. The ideology of consumerism tells us that instead of making it, we should buy it.
  • Buying fake instead of real: Artificial wreathes and flowers belong with the rest of ersatz or pseudo culture, which also includes theme parks, casinos that are imitation European cities, ethnic food at fast food, theme restaurants and McMansions.  These fake experiences are all exhortations to consumers—buy the doodads for sale at the gift shop—it will all look comfortably alike except for that icon that has been trademarked by another kind of leviathan.
  • Showing off in front of the neighbors: who can outdo whom, keeping up with the Jones and the Cohens—there are lots of metaphors and aphorisms to describe buying stuff and showing it off to everyone you know hoping to inspire admiration and envy. All that wealth display takes a lot of spending, and it replaces other types of interaction with the neighbors— as conversations about stuff replaces conversations about the families, politics and community affairs or joining together in volunteer efforts (as opposed to giving money in return for your name on a building, room or brass tree leaf). Lots of the Frontgate Christmas stuff ends up on the kind of lawns that people drive miles to see in suburbs and that often infuriate the neighbors who sleep with artificial light in their eyes for six weeks or longer in the dead of winter. If that ain’t conspicuous consumption, I don’t know what is.

It was the early 20th century economist Thorsten Veblen who coined the term conspicuous consumption, which he said was how the leisure class jockeyed for status: by spending the excessive amounts of money they have showing their friends, neighbors and relatives how cool they are.

La plus ça change…


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