Thursday, March 03, 2005

Spend the Children

I like to keep a weather eye on the consumption patterns of America. So I look around, I read the press, absorb the stats, and if I don't exactly bathe in the advertising, I do let it rain on me a little.

And merely because I'm hanging around this century, I've become dimly aware of how commercialized holidays of every kind are becoming. Christmas has been a longstanding challenge for me personally, but apparently the conquest of the rest of the consuming public is complete, because the marketeers have long since moved on to fill the calendar with sales. If you don't buy, you get to be a Scrooge twelve months of the year.

Valentine's Day, for instance. I've certainly felt a certain authenticity drained from this holiday, along with many more less traditional ones, by their relentless promotion. Like Christmas, it seems if you don't buy your sweetheart a diamond or at least a tasteful luxury automobile, your love will be called into question, and definitely not rewarded if you know what I mean.

I find it difficult to mark the lesser holidays at all anymore, because I feel so manipulated. I've attributed this primarily to the greeting card companies. But in that I have apparently been too specific.

I've likewise seen the numbers and the documentaries on the tremendous trends in marketing to children and teenagers, but it's generally not something I feel in my own life, since I don't have children (and consequently, grandchildren). So I have to admit to being a little startled by recent observations of writing colleagues who have each. Children and grandchildren, that is. What we do have as common reference are holidays and birthdays.

In her capacity as an on-line editor and writer for Trek Today, Michelle Erica Green occasionally writes a "site column" that includes personal observations. A recent one began: "When did Valentine's Day turn into Halloween? I got an inkling of what was to come when my younger son informed me that, in addition to cards, he would need to be giving out chocolate...He came home with a bag bigger than the one from the school Halloween party, decorated in hearts and filled with everything from boxes of Sponge Bob chocolate hearts to colored pencils..."

A child in school doubtless places Michelle in better position to realize that "Halloween has become big business in the US, catching up on Christmas in terms of dollars spent, and Valentine's Day shows every sign of following." I didn't know this, but it's not exactly a shock. There was a wonderful Preston Sturges comedy called "Christmas in July." Now apparently there's Christmas in October and February as well. And like the December edition, it's hectic with products linked to feelings, and so-called tradition becoming social pressure, felt by children and therefore, their parents (and grandparents.)

I do have nieces and a grand-nephew so I do know something about the rounds of closely scheduled activities that have apparently replaced the major occupation of my childhood, which we called---let's see if I can recall this arcane concept---playing. Or a little later, messing around. Not that we wouldn't have traded some forlorn boredom and longing for some better equipped and more organized activities, and certainly the character of much of our activity had to do with lack of money and access to today's more widely available amenities. Still, there was a simplicity that seemed appropriate.

As for celebrations, their joyousness or obnoxiousness seldom hinged on material factors, once the basic message was conveyed: yes, your parents love you enough to give you what kids get, and you don't have to be embarrassed in front of the other kids---at least not by this. I don't imagine it's all that different for today's children. But getting those increasingly complex basics together seems more of a problem for today's parents and grandparents. It certainly seems like more work, and of course, it's more expensive.

Or so I gather from a column by San Francisco's finest, Jon Carroll, writing about his granddaughter's fourth birthday. That he refers to her as The World's Most Perfect Grandchild (or TWMPC) should give you an idea of his attitude and willingness to indulge. But I have to admit to a certain culture shock in his description.

Birthday parties, even for my now-in-their early twenties' nieces, were cake and ice cream, presents, and maybe some balloons and paper plates, and a lot of kids running around screaming. No longer enough. You need the bounce house.

"...inflatable boxy structures where kids can hurl themselves about in a no-sharp-edges environment," Carroll patiently explains, and adds for the benefit of fellow birthday customs retards, "Bounce houses are to modern birthday parties what cakes were to the birthday parties of my youth."

Carroll's youth was just a bit before mine, so he's talking my language. The bounce house could be one of those items that parents pass around as needed. But what about the hired clown? Apparently also a new necessity. "I am not sure how the infrastructure of children's birthday parties has metastasized so much in 20 years" Carroll writes, but in outline it's easy enough to figure it out.

We writers often note that our holiday customs mostly come from a bizarre grabbag of folk cultures. Easter is a prime example (and of course immediately after V-Day, the stores restocked with Easter items), what with the rabbits and the eggs, the chicks and the chocolates, the risen Christ as the waking bear, all from different times, countries and cultures along with even more ancient vestiges of spring festivals and renewal ceremonies.

But that's only part of the holiday/ceremony story. It's not often noted that many of the most essential stylistic customs are associated with what the royals and the other rich do, or used to do, before their subjects aped them. The royal court furnishes the template for ceremonies from weddings to the high school prom. It used to be observed that the only time a laboring man wore a tux was at his wedding and his funeral. Limos, no longer the preferred transport for the rich, spend most of their time on our streets ferrying families from the church to the reception or the cemetery, or kids to the prom.

As the rich and famous adapt new customs, sooner or later they filter down to the suburbs and the town, to become the new necessity, especially for teenagers and children, who know nothing but the present and all the social pressures that surround them and their peers to be just like everybody else, except maybe a little more.

Among the latest migrations, it seems, is the goodie bag. It seems like only a few years ago that after some lavish party or ceremony like the Oscars, Hollywood celebrities began taking home goodie bags of very expensive items that they but few others could well afford, that were nevertheless given to them for free (usually by their manufacturers or purveyors).

No doubt the pedigree of the goodie bag goes back further than that, but the migration to childrens' birthday parties may well have been direct. In any case, Carroll informs us, the goodie bag given to all the kids as they leave the party, is "now an established custom, like Halloween."

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