Every year I contemplate the meaning of Christmas. I don’t know why I do this. I guess it’s because we make such a huge deal of Christmas every year that I feel it really ought to have some meaning, beyond a couple of days off work and The Wizard of Oz on the telly.
As an atheist, the whole ‘birth of Jesus’ thing doesn’t work for me. I know some atheists like to pretend they’re really celebrating the pagan mid winter festival of Saturnalia, to avoid any Christianity tainting their festive enjoyment. This is clever up to point, namely the point at which you remember that paganism isn’t a variant of atheism but another form of religious belief. Substituting one religious festival for another doesn’t strike me as a very effective expression of one’s atheism.
Traditionalists, Christian and otherwise, might argue that the real meaning of Christmas is something along the lines of ‘peace on earth and goodwill to all mankind’. This is a fine sentiment, as it goes. It is clearly devalued somewhat by being ascribed to St Luke the Evangelist and Apostle rather than, say, Stephen Fry or Russell Brand. And it suffers one other fatal flaw as a representation of the true meaning of Christmas: how do you monetise it? Because what I have learned from the media and Twitter is that the true meaning of the modern British Christmas is very simple: buying stuff. If your Christmas is about anything other than massive levels of over-consumption then you might as well have ‘humbug’ tattooed on your forehead.
I have seen the true heralds of Christmas. You might think that Advent begins on 1 December – perhaps because that’s the day you get to open the first door on your Cadburys advent calendar – but this is an archaic, Victorian notion. There are many signs that Yuletide is upon us, but three currently predominate: the John Lewis TV ad; the Coca-Cola TV ad; and red cups at Starbucks. Only when you understand this can you begin to grasp the true majesty of Christmas. Be gone ye acts of kindness, of community spirit, of family togetherness. This is what Christmas is really about: a penguin-themed face cloth in a star-shaped box and a 400-calorie coffee-influenced hot drink in a red cardboard cup.
What the cynics and curmudgeons who irrationally resist this true meaning of Christmas fail to understand is the sheer genius at work here. People who work in marketing – people who talk about brands as if they are living beings, with social and moral value, and who describe themselves without apparent embarrassment as “passionate about great brands” – like to ‘own’ things. Not in the conventional, legal-title-to-property sense. But in the much more substantial and vital sense of forming such a strong association in your mind between their brand and some positive abstract idea that when you think about the latter you automatically think about the former. What John Lewis, Starbucks and Coca Cola want to do is ‘own’ Christmas. Or, to put it another way, they want to be, for you the consumer, the true meaning of Christmas. And why the hell shouldn’t they? It’s not like anyone owned it before. Did St Luke put his goodwill thing onto face flannels? No, he didn’t. He wasn’t serious about Christmas, and he wasn’t adequately passionate about his apostolic brand.
Not only are we willing to let these companies own Christmas, we’re positively enthusiastic about it. Over 5,000 people have retweeted Starbucks UK’s announcement of the arrival of red cups. John Lewis Christmas TV ads are treated like major cultural landmarks, with people falling over themselves to demonstrate how emotionally transformed they became by watching them. People declare, with no apparent trace of irony, that they finally feel Christmas has arrived when the Coke ads appear. Clearly, this is the true meaning of Christmas over which I have needlessly agonised each year.
I, for one, welcome our new commercial overlords. I find supermarket Christmas advertising fabulously useful for helping me make food buying decisions that I would obviously be incapable of making unaided. For example, it’s helpful to see families sitting around tables containing about six times more food that they could ever be capable of consuming because it helps me banish the unhappy idea that gluttony and waste are somehow un-Christmassy. And when a TV ad portrays Christmas as some kind of obsessive competition, in which we must all strive to out-do each other to create, every single year, the ‘perfect Christmas’, it’s as if they’ve found a way to gaze deep into my soul. I particularly appreciate the seasonal advice to make sure I have lots of ready-made party food in, for when friends unexpectedly drop by. Every Christmas, all my friends seem to do is make constant random unannounced visits – so much so, that I worry they haven’t left themselves enough time for shopping. And, of course, I do the same to them in return and, frankly, if I’m not immediately greeted with fully-stacked plates of Chinese duck spring rolls and Tuscan charcuterie, along with a brimming glass of Iceland Cava, then I start to wonder if they’re really taking Christmas seriously enough, and then I start to reconsider our friendship.
The Coke ads, meanwhile, are ingenious on two levels. First, they are absolutely right, Christmas is all about Coke. Nothing makes a more impressive centre-piece for your Christmas table than a 2-litre plastic bottle of Coke right there next to the gravy boat. I’m surprised the Queen doesn’t send someone out to get her a little bottle with ‘Elizabeth’ on the label that she can sip from during her Christmas broadcast. But, secondly, I’m almost certain Coke is available to buy at times other than Christmas, so it’s like having a little bit of Christmas all year round, which is really clever.
There will be those who continue to maintain, in the face of stark reality, that Christmas ought to mean more than raging consumerism and obscene calorie intake. These people are waging a war on Christmas and should clearly be dismissed as the weirdos that they are.
And speaking of wars, I think we should take a moment to salute the fine people of Sainsburys who have produced a double-whammy of a combined Remembrance Day/Christmas ad. It depicts British and German soldiers in the (magically sanitised) trenches of the First World War, sharing a brief period of carol singing and football playing before returning to mindlessly slaughtering each other again. As they part, a British soldier gives his coat to a German soldier and there’s a bar of chocolate in the pocket that the British solder received from home and now the German soldier has it, leaving the British soldier to stare forlornly at his army biscuit ration. It’s a poignant moment because those two soldiers will resume trying to kill each other in a bit, but at least they’ve shared some chocolate. And it’s really clever because there actually is some chocolate that you can buy in Sainsburys where the profits go to the Royal British Legion (RBL). Not since the writers of ‘Allo ‘Allo realised how hilarious it must have been to be in the French Resistance has there been such a perfect combination of the horror of war and the hollowness of television.
Here’s how I imagine it went at the marketing meeting where this idea came up. “Let’s find some way to help the RBL,” someone said. “We could make them a TV ad about the importance of remembering the war dead – it would be like a big donation from us to them. It could be an epic, emotional tale of sacrifice and humanity and, because we made it and paid for it, there could be a little ‘with thanks to Sainsburys’ thing in the corner at the end.”
I imagine the person who said this was young and idealistic and probably had a fairly short career in marketing ahead of them because someone wiser and more passionate about great brands then spoke up and said: “But what’s in it for us?”
Then this person revealed their genius by coming up with another idea, just off the top of their head. “How about we make it a Sainsburys ad, but it’s still an emotional epic about sacrifice and humanity but it’s also got a food product in it and we can make a product to tie in with the ad that will bring people into our stores where they will buy lots of other things, too. We can give the profits of the sale of this thing to the RBL (just the profits, mind, once we’ve covered our costs; we’re giving them the ad as it is, no reason to pay for the chocolate as well, eh?) so they get something, but mostly we’ll get lots more footfall into our stores just in the run-up to Christmas. It’s a win-win!”
There are those who might find this astonishingly grotesque, the sacred act of remembrance made profane for the sake of fourth-quarter market share, and who might feel disappointed at RBL’s keen involvement. But this is to miss the bravery of Sainsburys. Until now, no one had had the sheer balls to find commercial opportunity in Remembrance. If you’d suggested this idea at any other marketing meeting, someone would have said something unhelpful like, “do you not think this is massively offensive, exploiting for profit people’s desire to honour the soldiers who died defending our country, and cheapening the act of remembrance by reducing it to buying a bar of chocolate?” These people are losers. They lack passion for great brands.
And that is why it is not they, but Sainsburys, who had the audacity to ‘own’ Remembrance. Next November, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see angry Daily Mail headlines about BBC newsreaders who haven’t yet bought their Sainsburys Remembrance Chocolate and who, therefore, must hate the troops. The chocolate bars will become a symbol of the freedom for which people fought and died – the freedom to buy chocolate in a shop (which you couldn’t do in the Kaiser’s Germany, probably).
Others may try and muscle in on this now. I was thinking about those ads that Hellmans do where they try and ‘own’ Boxing Day leftovers. I thought they could do one that picks up from the Sainsburys ad and shows the British soldier in the trenches cheering himself up on Boxing Day by adding Hellmans mayonnaise to his army biscuit ration and then maybe there’s a comedy moment at the end where he tries to eat it but forgets he has a gas mask on and gets mayonnaise on the front of his gas mask. There could be special squeezy mayonnaise bottles with antique-looking labels on them that you could buy and 10p would go to the RBL.
But Sainsburys was there first. They get first-mover advantage. For now, they ‘own’ war remembrance. It’s a proud moment in advertising, I’m sure.
I was going to close by thanking the great men and women of marketing for being passionate about great brands and ‘owning’ things and thereby resolving my quest for the true meaning of Christmas (and, indeed, much else besides). But then I realised that the solution came not from them but from you – you, the people who sob uncontrollably at 30 seconds of emotional manipulation involving penguins and then tweet about how lovely it was. You, the people who excitedly take photos of red cardboard coffee cups and post them online because, oh my God, red cardboard, can you imagine anything more festive? You, the people who get cross when the shops start selling tinsel and mince pies before the Coke truck has made its first appearance on TV, winding along its snowy roads. You, the people who breathlessly announce on Twitter who has won the Christmas advertising contest that exists only in your minds. Of course, we have always spent more money at Christmas so there has always been Christmas advertising chasing that money. But what now makes that advertising intrinsic to Christmas, allows brands to ‘own’ it, and thereby inject themselves into its meaning, is you, the consumer who thinks that it’s simply “wonderful” and “heart-warming” that you’re being sold stuff. Ignore those who carp and criticise. They don’t understand the profound and spiritual festive joy you feel as you look at your red cup and weep at the penguins. They haven’t found what you have found: the true meaning of Christmas.