Easter and Commercialism

There’s an article up at Slate on why Easter “resists the commercialism that swallowed Christmas”. The author, James Martin, argues that Easter’s central theme and message- the death and resurrection of Jesus- are inherently less suited to commercialization. While the Christmas story lends itself to a sort of warm ‘n’ fuzzy non-denominational enthusiasm, the Easter story is rife with gory trappings, and strikes at the central themes of what it means to be a Christian.

I don’t buy Martin’s argument. I’d argue that Easter is no less commercial than Christmas, it’s just the magnitude of the attention given to them that differs. Easter isn’t less commercial, it’s just less popular. For reasons unrelated to the Christmas story, Christmas is able to draw the attention of non-Christians and marginal Christians, while Easter- again, not because of its religious content, but rather because of accidents of the calendar- does not.

First, we have to look at a central tenet of Martin’s argument: is Easter less commercially exploitable? A quick trip to the supermarket tends to dispel this notion. Pallets of jelly beans and chocolate bunnies fill most groceries and drug stores this time of year. Stuffed rabbits and ducks festoon shelves. Egg dying kits are ubiquitous, along with plastic eggs and sales of baskets and easter grass. The face of Easter that is shown to the public is, in general, not the face of crucifixion and resurrection that Martin suspects that the public might object to. Another face for Easter- the older pagan trappings of the spring fertility festival- have long-since acted as a commercially viable stand-in for images of the crucifixion. In effect, it doesn’t matter if the image of a crucified Christ is unmarketable- there are other images that can stand in, just as the image of Santa Claus or Frosty can take the religious edge off of Christmas.

So why is Easter not a commercial monsoon on par with Christmas, if there’s nothing about the holiday itself that really discourages consumerism? One argument might be that the calendar can only hold so many commercial blockbusters; fore reasons unrelated to religious content (mostly the tradition of gift-giving, which has only the most tenuous connection with the story of the nativity), Christmas established itself as the primary gift-buying season of the year. That process has fed on itself- once retailers realized that the collective wallet was opening in the November – December window, more and more commercial ventures began to be packed into the same window.

Martin argues that Easter’s position out on its own in the early spring season situates it to be a better commercial magnet than it is: the outdoor season is on its way, and there aren’t the distractions of surrounding holidays. I’d argue that the opposite is true. Part of the commercial drive of Christmas is the intensity of the surrounding holiday season, which is furthered by the winter weather. What is often regarded as a single Christmas binge is really the collected purchases of an entire social season. Large purchases of food and decor purchased for Christmas serves double-duty for New Years. Cold weather and time off from work encourages large-scale buying- you know you’ll be home, and you know that you won’t want to go out. Why not buy an entire ham and have sandwiches for a few days, in case somebody drops by?

The timing of Christmas- being fixed on December 25th- raises its profile as well. Easter always falls on a Sunday, a day when people are already off work, and which has traditionally been a time for family. Christmas creates an unusual interruption in the work schedule encourages both additional attention and travel. The position of Christmas in the middle of a busy holiday schedule for other faiths- such as Hanukkah and Ramadan- encourages employers to permit time off, without creating the impression that they are paying undue attention to any single religious group. The proximity of Christmas to New Years encourages employers to give people multiple days off, encouraging travel. Meanwhile, Easter’s position on an unpredictable Sunday in the spring lowers its profile, particularly among non-Christians, and the absence of a companion holiday or a regularly scheduled day off causes Easter to pass unnoticed for many non-Christians.

The notion that the gruesome spectacle of the crucifixion, or the theological implications of the resurrection, make commercialization impossible seems likewise implausible. What’s commercial about making offerings to the spirits of the dead? And yet Halloween is a successful commercial holidays, marked more by the sales of candy and costumes than by attention to the theological issues that ostensibly give it form. Why should the recollection of the dead of war inspire a picnic or barbecue? Experience seems to indicate that to the average person, a day off is a day off, and no origin- no matter how solemn or macabre- will get in the way of a good party, if there’s one to be had.

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