Friday, December 19, 2008

Consumer Brainwashing and Christmas

Any holiday that is celebrated in the home acquires its own traditions through the years. There are many such traditions connected to Christmas and many memory associations from childhood as well as other significant points in our lives.

Marketing, alas, plays a rather large part in the sights, sounds and even smells of the Yuletide season. If one pays attention to details, one can see that ornaments and other decorations used to trim a Tree as well as decorate a home change from year to year and decade to decade. Items considered essential suddenly may vanish from the marketplace and a tradition thereby is broken forever.

The silver icicles that once graced almost every Tree now have disappeared from the shelves of every market. I suspect this was due to environmental concerns, but I do miss them. Trimming a tree with icicles was quite an art, and I can recall how my mother instructed me in the right way and the wrong way to use them. One had to take only three or four at a time, make certain each was quite straight, then place each strand carefully on a branch of the Tree to hang perfectly.

Rather to my horror, when I trimmed a tree with another family one year, I saw that they simply THREW handfuls of icicles at the Tree! Mixed with the horror was more than a little envy though, at the fun they were having. Trimming the Tree in our house was an art and an almost sacred trust. One had little or no freedom where certain basic rules were concerned. The smallest ornaments were placed on the top branches and the largest on the bottom branches. As a young child, I saw all the efforts I had made to place a few ornaments on the Tree corrected by an adult, usually my mother, who carefully removed and repositioned each. (Sad to say, I was told by some one recently that it is not fun to trim a Tree with me. 'Nothing I do is right!' the individual protested. 'You always change it afterwards anyway.' What can I say? I was schooled well... but trimming a Tree OUGHT to be fun! Perhaps I need some re-schooling in this tradition.)

Whatever the method by which the icicles were added to the Tree, they apparently no longer exist at all. They were very pretty, as light as feathers, making them flutter with the slightest breeze, reflecting the lights of the Tree. When the icicles were added, the entire Tree appeared to shimmer with light. I loved the magic of that. Still, they probably were a nasty element in terms of Nature's ability to process them once discarded.

Fairy lights have changed over the years but still are fundamental. Where once they were large bulbs of the same size as nightlights, they now are tiny little points of light. This year, however, I saw some 'new' larger bulbs that resembled those used by my grandmother on sale at the market, being advertised as 'environmentally' more sound than the little ones.

Each year, there is something different on the market. Delightful tiny red birds decorated with real feathers were being sold everywhere a few years ago, but cannot be found now. During the same period, tiny red apples were sold and like the birds, now have vanished from the shelves. Blown-glass ornaments in every conceivable shape and form, dismissed as 'old-fashioned' by my mother's generation, now have become popular again.

Even the Fairy at the top of the Tree changes shape and design. There was a time when the Fairy was replaced on the market by a 'star'. I am not certain what is most fashionable now. The Fairy who presides over the Christmas Tree is one ornament that remains constant in my home.

In any case, the purpose of this post is not to muse over the fickle fortunes of Tree ornaments but to confess how completely I myself was brainwashed by the market.

When I had my own first Christmas Tree, I bought a 'stand' from a local shop for it. The stand basically had pins that would hold the Tree in place. One tightened the pins against the trunk of the tree.

It was a very large Tree and one afternoon, I was startled by the sound of breaking glass. The Tree had fallen, and many of the exquisite porcelain ornaments on it had broken. In my excitement at having my first BIG tree, I had spared no expense, buying ornaments that I hoped would become part of my own Christmas tradition. (Some of those ornaments still are in my possession, but they now are held together by glue.)

I vowed never to use THAT stand again. When I asked 'experts' what they would recommend, I was advised to purchase a stand that consisted of a strong metal spike. Bore a hole into the trunk, insert the spike and it would be far stronger than the pin method...

All very well and good as long as the person from whom the Tree was purchased remembered to bore a hole into the trunk.

This year, I arrived home with my fairly modest tree only to discover that no hole had been created in the trunk. I tried the DIY method, using a combat knife to whittle a hole into the centre of the trunk. It was extremely exhausting and after an hour or so, the hole remained far too shallow to be of any practical use.

The tree would not stand by itself. Even when I cut a hole in a box and wrapped blankets round the trunk inside the box, it only stood after a fashion and looked horrible.

If any one reads this, he/she probably would think me an absolute idiot not to have realised that a very simple, old-fashioned solution existed. In fact, not only did I fail to think of the solution but at least a dozen people who witnessed my predicament likewise did not think of it either.

What that means is that we have been so brainwashed by marketing that some of us cannot function if a ready-made solution is not offered in the marketplace!

The old ways usually are the best but a friend who is hundreds of miles away was the only one to suggest it to me. Take two boards, nail them together in a cross, then nail the Tree to the cross! Aside from the apt symbolism, it is the strongest base a Christmas Tree could have.

Fortunately, there were some boards in the garden. Although plastered together by ice, I was able to work two of them free and they now form the base of the little Christmas Tree which STANDS at last!

It is humiliating to realise that I, who spend so much time uncovering secrets in video games for my strategy guides, did not think of the obvious solution to my Yule Tree crisis. Furthermore, I pride myself on being an individualist who cares more about my own instincts than the current market fashions. Nonetheless, I had been brainwashed into belief that only a 'professional' stand could be used in this situation.

I had a little Epiphany of sorts as I nailed the Tree to the Cross. It was very satisfying emotionally and spiritually to MAKE my own stand and to interact with the Tree, covering my hands with sap and dirt, partaking in the ancient sacrifice that represents the sacrifice of the God and the promise of rebirth. The Tree that is cut and adorned with the 'fruits' of life is an integral part of the ritual of rebirth that occurs on Christmas Eve. Yes, it is ancient and pagan, blessedly pagan. It is the Tree of Attis, of Osiris, of Dionysus, but it is the Tree of the Christ as well. It is the old Asherah pole. (I believe as well that it is a symbol of the same ancient rite that is represented by the 'Alam of Abbas.) We recognise the Sacrifice and in doing so, partake in it both as the one who wields the blade and the one who is cut down. In this context, it is interesting to note that the old Northern rune Gebo is in the form of a Cross, and represents the 'Gift' both in terms of the one who make the Sacrifice and the one who IS the Sacrifice.

Those who purchase artificial Trees complete with decorations have a more difficult time connecting with the essential mystery of the season. It is not impossible. After all, a symbol is empowered by the significance attached to it. Even so, the scent of pine needles, the sticky sap that is so difficult to remove from the hands and the roughness of the bark is all part of the experience of the Sacrifice. The Evergreen that retains its life through snow and ice is cut down in its prime, then honoured by being trimmed with lights and ornaments that represent all the things in life that we hold dear. Ironically, this particular Tree was one of the smaller ones I ever chose, intending to do less trimming than usual because of physical problems. And yet, I have accomplished something very physical with boards and nail, and the price I paid in terms of physical pain afterwards was worth it. I have participated in the Sacrifice personally, and my own paltry suffering is nothing compared to the God who dies in order to be reborn to renew the life of the Earth. My Christmas Tree is, by virtue of the mystery it represents, a glorious little Tree.

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