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A Defence of Commercial Holidays

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Every Christmas, as well as every Easter, Valentines, Mother's, Father's and Arbour day I'm assaulted by the same tiresome complaint from whichever people I happen to be around at the time. This is the bi/tri/oct-annual moan about how commercialized these sacred days have become...except for Arbour day which isn't nearly commercialized enough. Apparently these days used to represent something more than material gain, but that original meaning has now become a thing of the past - immaterial even.

As with so many popular gripes, the problem I have with this one is not which side of the argument you're on; the problem is that you're having the wrong argument in the first place. Surely the first question to ask is 'are these things worth celebrating at all?' To kind of paraphrase Kennedy for a few words, ask not whether or not Tescos or Wallmart have found a way to make money from a holiday, ask whether or not it's a holiday that deserves having in the first place.

Let's begin with an 'A': Arbour day. Surely I was just being silly about that one: nobody even knows when that is!* In at least some seriousness though, why don't we make a fuss about Arbour day? A day to celebrate trees? Those things which produce oxygen, pretty up gardens and provide affordable housing for squirrels, wood pigeons and large sections of the pre-tween population? What a great idea. Let's go even further and have a world environment day. Sadly this already exists (5th of June) but nobody knows about that either. The problem is World Environment Day is sponsored by the United Nations, not Starbucks. The planet's just not commercially sexy...not until Al Gore loses some weight anyway. Replace him with Simon Cowell - then at least people will watch one of these days and vow that if it's ever rescheduled out of winter, they'll actually get involved (* again). To begin with it needs some proper PR and a half decent slogan: 'Would the last Polar Bear please turn out the Northern Lights?' Needs some work but it's a start. Neither Arbour nor World Environment day are in any danger of taking off any time soon, at least not until someone finds a way to make money from them.

But (and here's my point again) if and when that happens, that shouldn't stop the do-gooders from supporting it. A good cause needn't stop being a good cause because someone becomes wealthy off the back of it. Must every worthy crusade be stopped in its tracks because it's not blemish free? No, and certainly not in this case. The planet's not a band that used to be cool before it became popular.

Why do we force those trying to do some good to do so all off their own bat for pure altruism? We rationalise the last tiny fraction of our disposable income when, and only when, it's going to a probably-good cause, but never second guess our donations to less-than-charitable causes in this way. If we're buying McDonalds or filling up the car to drive to McDonalds - entirely self-serving acts ('scuse the pun in the latter instance) we don't question whether or not the pickles in a Big Mac are corn fed or the oil is 100% vegetable. We don't know and we care even less; regardless of how many shoulder massages you give your animals on the way to the abattoir, you fry it, we'll buy it. We've got our burgers and we'll be slightly less hung-over in the morning. Job done. Our charity change however? Well that's different: that needs to be pure.

Parents' days are next on my hit-list. Father's day, of course, is all about Fathers giving money to their children to go and buy things that a cardboard dad from the background of Mad Men would enjoy. 'Ohhh another pair of tartan socks! Fantastic, it matches the carpet I can't afford to replace because you're off spending all my money on socks. How did you know? I hope you kids didn't forget to spend all of my change on ice-creams!' But there's money behind it because there's money to be made from it, so we rush out to buy our fathers one of a very small range of things he neither needs nor wants.

There's no report card for it either. At the annual children's awards - a.k.a Christmas - nominees have to show whether they've been naughty or nice. No such stringent rules for Father's Day. Perhaps if Dad has come home blind drunk less often than not and kept his affairs and fist fights to a minimum this year then he's earned that pair of socks. Until then I'm afraid he's just going to have to put up with indoor footwear he likes and buying power tools he may actually use.

Mother's Day is a day to celebrate motherhood - the female side of parenting - or at least it used to be. 'Mothering Sunday' implied some kind of ongoing parenting. Now it's just 'Mother's Day'. For some reason we've forgotten about the bringing up side of mothering and are happy just to celebrate breeding. Fathers never had this problem. To be a father only requires you to have had sex at least once and 'fathering' lots of children may mean you're not looking after any of them. Looking at the difference I'd have thought that the problem was on the male side of the equation, but whoever names these things went the other way.

The problem here is clear: we've moved from celebrating parenting to a PG rated orgiastic celebration of breeding. It's just another celebration of fertility and we've already got days and statues and symbols and cave paintings for that. Some people are making money from Mother's day? So what? The Body Shop gets to expand their empire, a few children burn themselves trying to please Mummy bringing her breakfast in bed (they should know not to startle her when she's smoking), everyone's a winner. Think about what we're celebrating, then gripe about someone cashing in.

Same goes for Valentine's day. I have two problems with Valentine's day, but neither of them have to do with St Teleflora making a quick buck. The first problem is the notion of prescribed romance, which I find decidedly unromantic. 'Tell me again why you love me.' 'Because the calendar on the fridge says so.' Pardon me if I'm not getting all misty-eyed at this declaration. The second problem is that, as well as being a day for lovers, it has now become a day for persecuting the single. Unattached people are exhorted to attend 'Desperate-and-Dateless' balls, hoping to end their terrible spinsterhood. With the world's population now somewhere around the seven billion mark, do we need to have two days to celebrate breeders and another to exhort non-breeders to become so? Don't single people deserve just a little thanks now and then? If there's not already a gay day, this needs adding in as well.

Easter is the day when we thank Jesus for services to acupuncture and coming again in the form of Dave Grohl, by eating lots of hollow chocolate and spiced buns with a strangely symmetrical crucifix on the top. I don't know who made this leap or why, but Father forgive them, they knew exactly what they were doing. Say what you like about the passing of Mr Christ, but it's been a delicious wake. Confectioners cashing in from what used to be a religious festival? I'm appalled. Since when has the Church been about making money?

And finally Christmas, perhaps the most hyped of all holidays - certainly in the parts of the world that are more likely to be reading this anyway. It's often said that we've forgotten the true meaning of Christmas. That nowadays children think it's all about them getting lots of presents. They need to remember the 'true' story of Christmas - the story of a baby with royal (and yet paradoxically disputed) lineage receiving inappropriately expensive gifts from three different Monarchs. I think the kids have got this one about right.

*England doesn't seem to have an Arbour Day as such. There is National Tree Week at the start of November though. Good thinking: let's schedule a necessarily outdoor activity in a cold country just as we're heading into winter. I'm not just having a go at Blighty though: my home country (New Zealand) celebrates it on World Environment Day - June 5th - right in the middle of our winter. Brilliant.