Santa Claus: the Patron God of American Consumer Culture
By Ryan Haecker
By Ryan Haecker
In the closing quarter of the 18th century, the United States would be, with great potential but an uncertain future, expressly founded as a secular republic. And although Protestant Christianity had then, and still retains, the greatest number of adherents, our nation has always lacked a single unifying faith. In the past, great civilizations have found the need for expressions of public rejoicing in parades and religious festivals. In antiquity, the Athenians showed their adulation towards their patron goddess Athena during the Pan-Athenian festival. This important practice serves to unite a community, not only in honoring their Gods, but perhaps more importantly, in publicly reaffirming a communal ideology and identity.
Although America may at first appear to be lacking in such a festival, we are in fact united yearly in a singular common celebration. On a cold winter day, before the coming of the New Year, Americans unite to offer an enormous monetary sacrifice to impersonal financial powers of which give structure and meaning to our cosmos. On Christmas day, Americans celebrate their material abundance and consumer culture through the oblation of mass consumption. And the personification of this orgy of spending is Santa Claus: the patron god of American consumer culture.
Before the modern era, European towns would often be overlooked by the looming presence of castles and monasteries. These medieval structures dotted the hilltops and served to remind the townsfolk of the dual powers of church and state. Today the bastions of American power are to be found, not in the temple or the army barracks, but in the towering buildings of the financial district. Here great cathedrals of capitalism soar to the heavens. Here it is that the ruling bourgeoisie venerate the esoteric workings of an impersonal global economy through the daily liturgy of financial transactions.
It was once believed that that the practice of ascetic self-sacrifice could appease the Gods and ennoble the faithful. Today, consumer spending and fiscal responsibility are the indicators of a healthy economy and a prosperous society. Local parishes and ancestral shrines once provided agrarian peoples with a means of communion with their Gods. There was thought to be an organic correspondence between the environment on earth and the heavens above. Today we disfigure the countryside with expansive shopping malls and glorify the bull market through the veneration of our purchases.
With the ever increasing complexity and importance of global financial institutions, we have, in the past four centuries, come to replace our communal adulation of the divine with a new faith in the esoteric workings of global capitalism. Already, we have erected temples to this new deity whose offerings take the form of the dollar and whose omens are revealed by the Wall Street ticker. Christmas carols may still retain some semblance of the Christian religion, but for many they are now a mere façade to hide the hideous fact that what we now value is not our religiosity but our material commodities.
In the increasingly secular setting of the 21st century, we are beginning to witness an apotheosis of Santa Claus from merely one among many Christian saints to an icon of consumer spending and mass consumption. American society, bereft of a common faith, has found, in Santa, the perfect representation of their communal preoccupation with material commodities. At one time Saint Nicholas was venerated on account of his piety and generosity. Today we find that Santa Claus is represented as an obese toymaker indoctrinating children into the cult of materialism. In him we find a perfect personification of America’s grossest vices of gluttony and avaricious consumption. It is time to abandon the consumer culture of Santa and save the real meaning of Christmas.