I assume you agree that summer is a terrible bore.
The hot weather. The barbecues. The boat trips. The jumps off sun-warmed canyon cliffs into icy waters. The fruity drinks on balmy decks. The velvety boom of fireworks over gently lapping waves.
Does all this indolence and relaxation make you yawn?
Why, just the other day I heard about a tedious afternoon my hairdresser spent, when she and her gal-pals headed out to a local lake equipped with music and a cooler full of cold drinks and snacks. Instead of squeezing themselves onto the sand along with hundreds of other well-oiled sun-worshippers, the women loaded their tunes and tipples into an inflatable boat, threw themselves onto their air mattresses, and spent hours floating in the water together, far from the madding crowd.
When you're reminded of summer activities like these, there’s probably one question you feel you must ask. And according to American retailers, it’s not “Can I borrow your inflatable boat and your bottle opener” but rather, “Where was Santa?”
For some of them seem to think we North Americans can’t imagine anything more thrilling than Christmas. That’s certainly what Sears and Kmart were banking on as, shortly after Independence Day, they launched their own version of Christmas in July. Through July 25th, we could “Shop Christmas Lane” on the stores’ websites. We could browse for decorations, stocking stuffers and “Winter Readiness” items at snow-covered online shops that looked nothing like Sears or Kmart, all to the tune of xylophone music resembling the happy hammering of Santa’s elves. If there were a way to send cinnamon-y gusts of mulled wine scent out through the computer screen, Sears and Kmart would have done it.
The trappings appeared not only on the web, but in 372 of the company’s stores, price-tags firmly attached. I’d have rushed right down to the closest participating Sears or Kmart to paw red felt stockings and animatronic reindeer, but I was waiting for my elf suit to return from the drycleaners.
The Chicago Tribune noted that Sears usually waits until Nov. 1 to move into full holiday mode. “But with the recession putting a crimp in spending,” it reported, “the retailer is hoping to attract holiday shoppers early.” Time magazine headlined its story on the subject “Kmart’s Christmas in July: Inspiration or desperation?” but reached no firm conclusion. A Sears spokesperson justified the idea to Time by saying that among other things, the company wanted to make sure people knew about its wonderful Christmas shopping layaway plan.
While some commentators said the move smacked of retailer neediness, others suggested Sears and Kmart were merely leading the way in a sluggish economy. Apparently we should expect Christmas marketing in general to start this year around Columbus Day -- October 12th.
The Christmas in July concept is hardly new -- it’s just that here in North America, it has never seemed to be marketed so literally. Down under, I hear, people like to have a festive occasion in July, when the ski resorts are at their snowiest and the weather elsewhere in the country is at its dreariest. In North America in the summertime, we have no such excuse. Our spirits hardly need to be raised through commerce.
According to Wikipedia, the concept of an actual celebration of Christmas in July dates back to 1933, at a summer camp in North Carolina called Camp Keystone. Gifts were exchanged and Santa paid a visit. I remember celebrating Christmas in July at my camp in the 1960s, as well. I guess it was an excuse to sing cheerful songs everybody already knew, eat a meal everybody liked, and give away some of our goofy handmade crafts.
An aunt of mine recently told me that somebody she knows celebrates Christmas in July by getting the family together for a meal at the cottage, with Santa canoeing in across the lake. She loved the concept and proposed that our extended family follow suit.
I thought it was the perfect way to ruin a get-together, because if there’s one thing I love about summer, it’s that it isn’t Christmas. For me, the very idea of strolling into a store in hopes of discount beach towels and being confronted instead by the repulsive winking of a disco-dancing Santa is anathema.
Retailers, however, evidently hope that when the going gets tough, the tough will once again go shopping. They’re eager to lure serial spenders in ASAP, before their cars are repossessed and they have no way of getting to the mall.
My guess, therefore, is that Sears’ Christmas Lane probably won’t be offering as gifts two books, jointly discussed by Carol Midgley in the newspaper Times Online, on the topic of “turbo-consumerism” -- shopping for shopping’s sake. Geoffrey Miller, in a book he called Spent, says out-of-control shopping leaves in its wake only “narcissism, exhaustion and alienation.”
In his book, All Consuming, Neal Lawson calls compulsive shopping “the heroin of human happiness,” because our addiction relies on our inability to be satisfied. “The brief high we feel is compensation for not having a richer, fuller life,” says the Times’ review.
Lawson decries turbo-consumerism, and touts an “alternative hedonism” that shifts from a pursuit of the new to making the most of what we already have. That includes eating our meals slowly to better enjoy them, cycling rather than driving -- things we can easily do in Canada in the summertime. “We are losing the pleasures of time and taste. We feel less alive and more like plodding robots,” he writes.
You know when I feel most like a plodding robot? When I’m compelled to be in a shopping mall, something that happens most in the lead-up to Christmas.
So down with Christmas in July. Instead, why not July in December? Replace a month’s worth of self-inflicted anxiety and reckless spending with a week or two of intentional loafing around, having friends over for impromptu parties, and chattering for hours over a meal that would ordinarily be dispatched in 30 minutes.
More summer, less winter. I’m telling you, this concept could catch on.