Monday, November 12, 2007

What's Behind the Magnetic Pull of the Christmas Season?

What's Behind the Magnetic Pull of the Christmas Season?

Millions observe Christmas because it's a feel-good time with holiday music filling the air, brightly decorated trees, Santa Claus for the children and family togetherness. But does the Christmas season have a strong, commercially motivated magnetic pull that goes unnoticed by most?

by Jerold Aust

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Justin and Dena were married shortly before Christmas. They had grown up in families that celebrated the Christmas holidays. This was a special time for them with thoughts of falling snow, a glowing fireplace, holiday songs and colorful gifts placed around the well-decorated tree. The winter holiday season was exciting and alluring, as it is to millions.

They badly wanted to invite their families for a sumptuous Christmas Day dinner and the traditional exchanging of gifts. Everything seemed to work out all right except they were short of money to pay for the obligatory gifts. So they went shopping armed with their credit cards.

As they shopped around from store to store, the atmosphere of the music, colorful gifts and inviting decorations lured them into spending much more than they could reasonably afford.

Then in late January, the bills started coming in. They had precious little money set aside to pay them. They struggled to keep enough food on the table, pay the house rent and make the car payment. They realized too late they had succumbed to all the Christmas advertising—ending up with a painful financial hangover.

Could this story also describe your circumstances?

Christmas is big business

Those Christmas bells chiming during the holiday season might be likened to cash registers ringing up millions of dollars in retail sales. Christmas is very big business and is thought to be great for the national economy. But has anyone thought to ask whether this type of wild spending is really in people's best interests, either now or, more importantly, for their long-term spiritual well-being?

Should we be buying gifts others frequently don't want or need with money we don't have? It's a logical question.

Yet people will defend observing Christmas by countering that it's a celebration honoring Jesus' birth. If that's true, why buy gifts for others and not Jesus Christ? Is Christendom behind the presumptive trappings of a pre-Christmas season or is it being promoted by secular businesses for their own gain?

Purdue University professor Richard Feinberg understands the commercial value of the Christmas shopping season. He found the retail forecast of the 2004 Christmas season to be at least 75 percent of yearly profits. He predicted that 2006 Christmas holiday shopping would total an incredible $450 billion or more in America. Barring an economic downturn, it could be even higher this year.

Ironically, Christmas is so popular that millions of atheists and people of other religions celebrate the holiday. Why don't people, those who claim to be Christians or otherwise, resist the commercial aspect of the season?

What's behind the magnetic pull of Christmas?

Clearly the Christmas season has a strong magnetic pull, but most people don't fully realize it or know how powerful it is. Every year a Christmas advertising onslaught tries to influence the public to spend, spend and spend some more.

Some sociologists and social critics research and analyze why groups unknowingly do what they do. We'll focus on two.

Noted American journalist and best-selling author Vance Packard wrote a number of thoughtful books about how business advertisers motivate and manipulate the public. His groundbreaking 1957 book The Hidden Persuaders explores the use of consumer motivational research and other psychological techniques, including what he calls depth psychology and subliminal tactics by advertisers to induce desire for products.

As Packard explains, his book is about "the large-scale efforts being made, often with impressive success, to channel . . . our thought processes by the use of insights gleaned from psychiatry and the social sciences. Typically these efforts take place beneath our level of awareness" (p. 3). Packard was ahead of his time in describing advertising methods still commonly used today.

His book continues: "The use of mass psychoanalysis to guide campaigns of persuasion has become the basis of a multimillion-dollar industry. Professional persuaders have seized upon it in their groping for more effective ways to sell us their wares—whether products, ideas, attitudes, candidates, goals, or states of mind . . .

"The sale to us of billions of dollars' worth of . . . products is being significantly affected, if not revolutionized, by this approach . . . Two thirds of America's hundred largest advertisers have geared campaigns to this depth approach by using strategies inspired by what marketers call ‘motivation analysis' . . .

"What the probers are looking for, of course, are the whys of our behavior, so that they can more effectively manipulate our habits and choices in their favor" (pp. 3-4).

Writing about a Chicago research firm that conducted psychoanalytically oriented studies for merchandisers, Packard states: "Motivation research . . . employs techniques designed to reach the unconscious or subconscious mind because preferences generally are determined by factors of which the individual is not conscious . . .

"Actually in the buying situation the consumer generally acts emotionally and compulsively, unconsciously reacting to the images and designs which in the subconscious are associated with the product" (pp. 7-8).

With far more technological advances than Packard could imagine in 1957, marketers and advertisers have a much greater capacity for influencing people to unthinkingly buy more and more during the Christmas season and at other times.

Manipulating our behavior

Dr. Robert Cialdini, a professor at Arizona State University, may be the most cited social psychologist in the world today. His book Influence: Science and Practice (1993) is a staple text in the academic world.

Cialdini writes: "It is odd that despite their current widespread use and looming future importance, most of us know very little about our automatic behavior patterns. Perhaps that is so precisely because of the mechanistic, unthinking manner in which they occur . . . They make us terribly vulnerable to anyone who does know how they work" (p. 9).

Do we imagine that today's advertising gurus don't know about human behavioral patterns?

Cialdini states: "Our automatic tapes usually develop from psychological principles or stereotypes we have learned to accept. Although they vary in their force, some of these principles possess a tremendous ability to direct human action. We have been subject to them from such an early point in our lives, and they have moved us about so pervasively then, that you and I rarely perceive their power. In the eyes of others, though, each such principle is a detectable and ready weapon, a weapon of automatic influence" (p. 10).

Observing Christmas because "everyone does it" is a trigger feature. Other triggers include the music, the lights, the decorations and the sentimental store displays, each of which can cause us to respond automatically—rendering us nearly helpless as we part with our money. But do we really honor God by uncontrolled spending during the Christmas season?

How should we honor Christ?

You can research the entire Bible and nowhere will you find Christ instructing His followers to remember His birthday. (However, He did teach them to remember His death through observing the annual Passover service—see Matthew 26:26-30 and 1 Corinthians 11:23-26.)

The Bible itself never mentions Christmas, nor does it instruct Christians to observe the holiday.

The reason becomes obvious when we understand the holiday's distinctly non-Christian origins. "Christmas has its origin in two ancient pagan festivals, the great Yule-feast of the Norsemen and the Roman Saturnalia. The Saturnalia involved the wildest debauchery. Naturally it came under heavy censure from the early Church and despite the fact that Jesus Christ and the saints gradually replaced pagan deities, it was long considered completely out of character with the Christian ideal.

"However, the festival was far too strongly entrenched in popular favour to be abolished, and the [Catholic] Church finally granted the necessary recognition, believing that if Christmas could not be suppressed it should be preserved in honour of the Christian God.

"It was only in the 4th century that 25 December was officially decreed to be the birthday of Christ, and it was another 500 years before the term Midwinter Feast was abandoned in favour of the word Christmas" (Man, Myth & Magic, 1983, Vol. 2, "Christmas," p. 480). Even secular history speaks the truth about the origins of Christmas.

God gave ancient Israel His annual Holy Days and festivals to observe (Leviticus 23). Though few realize it, they embody God's spiritual blueprints for the salvation of all humankind.

Jesus showed how people could act "righteously" without being truly righteous: "These people draw near to Me with their mouth, and honor Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me. And in vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men" (Matthew 15:7-9). This clearly applies to much of modern Christianity.

Jesus Christ honors those who honor Him: "If anyone serves Me, let him follow Me; and where I am, there My servant will be also. If anyone serves Me, him My Father will honor" (John 12:26; compare 1 Samuel 2:30).

The Father honors Christ's disciples with eternal life: "Blessed are those who do His commandments, that they may have the right to the tree of life [eternal life], and may enter through the gates into the city [the New Jerusalem from heaven]" (Revelation 22:14).

If you still choose to observe Christmas apart from Christ and the Bible's injunctions, then know that vested commercial interests have already planned to use your deeply embedded associations with Christmas, working the trigger features already conditioned in you over many years.

Indeed there is a great magnetic pull during the Christmas season, but it has nothing to do with the real Jesus Christ. GN

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