Come in Spinner: Bah humbug

PR takes many forms and is practised by many people who would hotly deny being PR people. But the stereotypical image of the PR person is someone who spends their time planning manipulative ways to make you think something different, buy something or do something different.

If there is anything that arguably demonstrates that the stereotype has some validity it is the festive season in general and Christmas in particular.

Christmas is one of those invented traditions that Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger described in their edited collection The Invention of Tradition. Contributors to the book discussed a range of ‘traditions’ from modern Scottish tartans to the Welsh romantic tradition through the alleged centuries old British monarchical ritual traditions to the mass production of nationalist mythologies in the late 19th century.

Try to tell your average Irish-Australian that Oliver Cromwell was not especially violent and awful to the Irish and that his evil reputation was largely a 19th century invention and you will face horror, the loss of friendship and some aggression. Yet Toby Barnard in his contribution to Images of Oliver Cromwell (Ed R.C.Richardson); Tom Reilly in Cromwell an Honourable Enemy; and, Philip McKeiver’s A New History of Cromwell’s Irish Campaign go behind the myth creation and depict the reality.

Christmas is not as controversial – unless you happen to be in a country which persecutes Christians in the way Christians have traditionally persecuted other religions and each other – but it is just as much an invention.

Those consummate propagandists – the early Christian Church – even invented the alleged birth date on which the celebration takes place, most probably in the early 4th century CE for the Roman Church and the 5th century CE for the Eastern Church. The celebration itself is probably a simple adaptation of the Roman winter solstice festival or Saturnalia. There were echoes of Saturnalia in 19th century US Christmas celebrations when it was considered a good time for the poor to petition the rich for gifts and behave badly. Indeed, perhaps Brian’s mum got it right – he wasn’t the messiah just another Saturnalian naughty boy. Christmas isn’t the only invented (or adapted) Christian festival of course – Easter and others are based on earlier pagan and other festivals.

A mixture of traditions – St Nicholas for instance and various Nordic gods – seeped into the celebrations over the centuries but the Puritans in Britain and the US (Cromwell allegedly among them) in the 16th and 17th centuries were distinctly ambivalent about the festival, seeing it as biblically unsanctioned and insufficiently serious. There is little known about the real Nicholas other than the fact that there was an Asia Minor Bishop of that name who attended the Council of Nicea in the 4th century and many modern tours of Turkey take you to his church along with the house from which Mary ascended to heaven!

There is, by the way, an excellent joke in Marcello Craveri’s Life of Jesus about Joseph’s reaction to the news of the ‘virgin’ birth which is reminiscent of the Jewish joke about a supposed Trotsky telegram – “Stalin you are the true heir of Lenin” – to Stalin at Lenin’s funeral. Both are indications of how different sub-texts and renderings can shed light on traditions. To get the joke, think how Zero Mostel would read the respective lines.

But it was really the 19th century which created our modern Christmas traditions and begun the process of commercialisation. Christmas trees were popularised by Prince Albert and Queen Victoria when Albert introduced a variation on a German tradition and Dickens’ A Christmas Carol added a new pathos to Christmas traditions as well as popularising the Father Christmas concept. Christmas carols had been around for centuries – as had a type of Christmas card – but it was the 19th century when Sir Henry Coles popularised the printing of what are recognisably modern Christmas cards and many of our favourite carols date from late in the 19th century.

It was also the late 19th century when Santa Claus began to replace baby Jesus as the focal point of Christmas and where the PR people got down to what they are often very good at – encouraging people to buy stuff for people they don’t like things they don’t need.

Thomas Nast, an illustrator for Harpers Weekly, created a jolly Santa figure which began to feature in advertising and promotions. The figure was transmogrified into our modern Santa in the 1930s when Haddon Sundbloom created the jolly re-faced, red-suited Santa figure as part of a Coca-Cola promotion. Rudolph the re-nosed reindeer was created for a Montgomery Ward in Chicago sales promotion. Many other Christmas inventions are detailed here.

The final outcome in the US – a shopping spree beginning at Thanksgiving and extending through Chanukah, Christmas and Kwanzaa

Back in Australia we have produced our own Christmas traditions while amalgamating traditions from elsewhere. Every Australian family celebrating Christmas has variations on them making for ever denser tapestries of tradition and invention.

Ringing home at Christmas has often been popular but a Telstra PR promotion caused the number of calls to sky-rocket just as every day retailers dream up new promotions to get us to buy, buy, buy. These promotions extend all the other invented traditions – Easter eggs, St Valentine’s Day, Fathers’ Day, Mothers’ Day – which dot the retail calendar encouraging us to spend.

The odd thing about the tradition is that Christmas is a less than happy time. People spend money they can’t afford. Lonely people get lonelier surrounded by images of people playing happy families. Fathers have heart attacks playing cricket in the backyard with the children after eating and drinking too much. Few Christmas parties end without some family outburst because people are made tense and anxious by being forced together with others they are supposed to love but actually detest.

So this Christmas remember the best Christmas greeting – Bah Humbug – and don’t forget to blame it on the PR people, from the early Christians onwards, who created the monster which is the festive season.

Ritual declaration of interest: The author is a Cromwell Association Life Member and worked on Telstra and various other retail Christmas promotions.