As some of you may be aware, Christmas is fast approaching. I like Christmas. My parents and my brother and his wife and I get together, have some rituals, give each other presents. We try to detach the idea of giving from the idea of buying as much as possible, which isn't much, y'know, but it's at least something to try for. I'm a fan of the gift economy to begin with, so Christmas is a natural (even though in practice I'm usually terrible with gift ideas).
I'm interested here, though, in how Christmas functions in the workplace. In this context, I hate Christmas.
The workplace is where we go to create wealth for other people (through our labor), in return for which we are given permission to create wealth for still other people (by spending our wage or, failing that, saving it in a profitable way). Christmas, in this system, serves as a sort of guilty conscience urging us on to better participation. Sure, you've been working hard, but maybe you haven't been spending enough--isn't it time you go out and do that?
A few weeks ago one of my coworkers sent around an email asking for us all to chip in for a "nice present" for our managers. I would say I couldn't believe it, but unfortunately I could because this kind of thing is not at all uncommon. The best part is that if I don't give some of my money, my name won't go on the card that comes with the gift--an omission the managers are not likely to miss. Anyway, if I didn't give, my coworkers might start to suspect I'm not a team player! So now it's an obligation--which, incidentally, makes it by definition not a gift. Day in and day out, year round, I do what these people tell me to do in order to extract my wage, part of which I must now return to them.
My managers, being wage slaves themselves, are probably right now doing the same for their own managers.
Meanwhile, some of the more spirited of my coworkers went out and enriched the owners of chintzy crap producing companies by spending a portion of their wages on a whole bunch of utterly hideous Christmas decorations and spreading them all over the office. These decorations are, from the perspective of these companies, the gift that keeps on giving. They make money off of them at the point of sale, and from then on the decorations function as all-purpose advertisements. It's the holiday season, they declare. Only so many shopping days left until Christmas, you better go out and spend. The earlier they can convince us to buy their advertisements, the longer the holiday season is, and the more they can wring out of us. This year, the decorations went up in my office two weeks before Thanksgiving.
And the songs! Naturally, stores want to start playing Christmas songs as early as possible, so while you're in there your Pavlovian programming will kick in and remind you that you have to buy more than you were planning on. Many Christmas songs are traditional, and many more are decades old. This has the advantage of being cheap (no need to pay anybody for writing new lyrics or performing new songs, and often no need to even pay for rights). It does, however, have the disadvantage that many of these songs predate the establishment of current best practices for holiday consumption, and so while they function well enough as all-purpose advertisements, are not always as explicit as they could be. So, in case they are too subtle, every few years a new song with more direct lyrics will be introduced into the rotation, becoming one of the "classics" almost instantly.
So the stores are all playing Christmas music. The songs move into the workplace, too (obviously for those of us who work in stores this is the same thing, but for those of us who do not it is a separate phenomenon). There they serve as a helpful reminder of why we're working.