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CONSUMER RITES by Leigh Eric Schmidt


The Buying and Selling of American Holidays

by Leigh Eric Schmidt

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 1995
ISBN: 0-691-02980-6
Publisher: Princeton Univ.

Schmidt (Religion/Drew Univ.; Holy Fairs, not reviewed) traces the cultural and commercial history of American holidays with some surprising results. Christmas gift-giving pumps some $37 billion into the American economy every year, a figure greater than the gross national product of Ireland. About 150 million Mother's Day cards are sent annually. In short, holidays are big business in America, and many people are not too pleased about it. Schmidt focuses his attention primarily on showing how the commercial grinch crept into the picture in American celebrations of St. Valentine's Day, Christmas, Easter, and Mother's Day. However, he argues that the apparent taint of commerce is, in reality, as much in keeping with the ``festal excess'' at the heart of the notion of festivity as any religious recognition of these days, and can be traced in many cases back to the medieval period, when fairs and markets were common on feast days. He shows convincingly that the battle over the holidays in America is rooted not in recent commercialism, but in the fundamental difference between the somber Puritan and more indulgent Anglican/Catholic visions of religion. His argument founders, however, when he asserts that the excesses of American capitalism are in some way tied into the ``carnivalesque''—the term used by Russian critic Mikhail Bakhtin to connote bawdy, insurrectionary humor—mistaking mercantile vulgarity for Rabelaisian subversion. In general, his defense of holiday commercialism is not entirely convincing, but he offers a fascinating picture of key changes in American celebration, from a bewildering variety of antebellum Santas to quick biographies of Joyce Hall, father of Hallmark Greeting Cards, and Anna Jarvis, the creator of Mother's Day. Although the central argument of the book remains unproven, this is an enlightening and entertaining look at a relatively undiscussed aspect of American culture, particularly interesting for its insights into 19th-century mores.