Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Goodwill Towards Men?

Those of you living in the United States may have seen Best Buy's "Game On" adverts, in which people try to top Santa Claus when it comes to giving gifts. To many these commercials may seem like mildly amusing spots of no importance. As for myself, I find them somewhat disturbing. To me they portray gift giving as a competition, in which the importance in giving gifts is not their significance to the individual but instead the amount of money spent on gifts and the sheer number of gifts given. Indeed, to me they point to something that has disturbed me for some time. I think that the meaning of the holidays may well be getting lost in the crass commercialism and consumerism that now accompanies the season.

Of course, complaints about the commercialisation of Christmas are nothing new. Complaints about commercialism with regards to the Yuletide have existed as far back as the classic movie Miracle on 34th Street in 1947.  It seems to me that as the years have gone by such commercialism has grown even worse, to the point that not only is too much emphasis placed on the buying of expensive gifts, but people are becoming downright rude and even aggressive during the one time of year when they should be treating everyone else well. One need look no further than an incident this past Black Friday, in which a woman in Southern California pepper sprayed fellow shoppers at a WalMart simply because she wanted an Xbox gaming console. If this was simply an isolated incident one could simply dismiss it, but the plain truth is that acts of violence throughout the United States while shopping occur with alarming frequency on Black Friday and other times during the Christmas shopping season. Quite simply, it seems to me that people are putting more emphasis on buying expensive gifts than on the goodwill towards one's fellow man that is central to the season.

The phrase "goodwill to men (often accompanied by the phrase "peace on Earth") " has long been associated with Christmas. The line "peace on Earth, goodwill to men" occurs in various Christmas carols, most notably Longellow's "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day." The phrase has its origins in Luke 2:14 from the Christian Bible, which reads "Glory to God, and on Earth peace, and goodwill towards men." That having been said, the idea of "goodwill towards men" during a holiday season in December probably pre-dates the advent of Christianity. Modern Christmas in the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand owes a good deal to the pre-Christian, Germanic holiday called in Old English Géol and in Old Norse Jól--modern English Yule. Not only was Yule a time of gift giving and merriment, it was also a time of peace and goodwill. Violence appears to have been forbidden during the holiday. In Svarfdæla saga a man postponed a duel until three days after the Yuletide. Grettis Saga referred to Yule as "..greatest mirth and joyance among men." Even if one is not Christian (as I am not), to celebrate the holidays without expressing goodwill towards one's fellow man is then ignoring one of the most ancient, most central, and perhaps most important aspect of the season.

Of course, I suppose some might point out that we should always treat one's fellow man with goodwill, regardless of the time of year. I certainly cannot argue against that. That having been said, I see no harm in having a time of year when goodwill towards men is emphasised, so as to serve as a reminder of how we should behave all times during the year. Whether the pagan Yule of centuries ago or the Christmas of more recent centuries, I think that was one of the purposes the holiday served.  Sadly, I think it is this goodwill that has been lost in the crass commercialism and consumerism that developed during the late 19th Century and throughout the 20th Century. Quite simply, the emphasis is being placed entirely upon the wrong things during the holidays.

Here I must point out that I do not believe that gift giving is one of those wrong things being emphasised during the holiday season these days. Gift giving was a part of the pagan holiday of Yule and has been a part of Christmas for centuries. The problem is not an emphasis being placed on the giving of gifts, but on how much those gifts cost and how many gifts are given. Indeed, as a child it seems to me that gift giving was actually more common. One did not simply give gifts to those in one's nuclear family, but one's extended family as well. That having been said, the gifts given were not expensive Xboxes and IPhonees, but gifts of a much simpler nature. My aunts would bake cookies and candy to give as gifts during the holiday. My godmother always gave our family a fruitcake. As a child I received hand sewn Christmas stockings. As a child I appreciated all of these gifts. Even though they were not expensive, they showed that the individuals giving them had placed time and effort in creating them. Indeed, as an adult some of my most prized gifts have not been very expensive--DVDs of my favourite movies from the $5 bin at WalMart, a calendar of pinup art, and so on.

The problem is then not the gift giving at the holidays, but the idea that one should buy expensive gifts and buy many gifts with which Madison Avenue has brainwashed the average American for nearly the past 100 years. The purpose of giving gifts at the Yuletide is to show one's appreciation for others, not to show how much money one can spend or to buy a more expensive gift than others. Gift giving should be an extension of showing goodwill towards one's fellow men, not a competition to see whose gifts cost the most.

Sadly, I do not know if there is any way of returning to a time when goodwill played a significant role in the holidays without a total sea change in the way Madison Avenue and corporate America approaches the season. As long as companies insist on emphasising the cost of gifts and how much one buys, there will more incidents such as pepper spraying fellow shoppers just for an XBox and very little goodwill to be seen in sight. This is sad to me as not only in emphasising crass consumerism has Madison Avenue and corporate America reduced goodwill during the Yuletide, but in reducing the goodwill that should be inherent in the season they have also taken away much of its joy and fun as well.

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