The Holiday of the Spectacle

We all know an over-decorator.  Someone like this guy (yes, this is legit) who, every year, attempts to recreate the home lighting scene from National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.  Regardless of how you feel about these festive displays and their visual contribution to your neighborhoods, what sorts of signals do decorations send?

Some have argued that too much holiday “clutter” is a sign of a “cluttered mind.” Other studies have shown that -- regardless of intent -- decorations are read as a sign of sociability, community involvement, and general neighborliness.

Guy Debord famously argued that we now live in a “society of the spectacle” -- and, according to him, this spectacular life is composed of signs and dominated by appearances.  The appearance of these signs constitutes reality and anchors social life.

So what are the semiotics of this holiday spectacle?  Where do these ubiquitous traditions stem from, and what are some creative ways to consciously participate?

O Pagan Tree

christmas treeLike every good holiday symbol, Christmas trees are an interesting mix of Pagan and Christian traditions. Trees are thought to symbolize life, and evergreen boughs were brought into ancient homes as a reminder of the natural life cycle -- and also to keep away evil spirits.  The first official Christmas trees, however, are thought to have appeared in 16th century Germany.

  • Tip: Does the thought of acquiring and trimming a real Christmas tree overwhelm you (and your apartment)? Get a tiny, pre-litChristmas Tree, so you can partake in the tradition while avoiding the hassle and space crunch.

Let There Be Lights The 16th century appearance of the Christmas tree is thought to coincide with Martin Luther’s fabled addition of lighted candles to the tree.  After a tragic NYC fire induced by Christmas tree candles, fifteen year old Albert Sadacca invented electric Christmas tree lights as a safer, more practical replacement for candles.


  • Tip: Want one of those crazy lights and music shows for your home -- but don’t have the time or know-how to make it happen?  Hire a company like Light-O-Rama to do the dirty work (but don’t let your neighbors in on your little secret).

Wrapped To Impress shirt-wrappingFrom the days of wrapping gifts in brown paper parcel and tying with string to elaborately printed, mass produced paper and ribbon, gift wrapping has changed drastically in the last 200 years (not to mention the wrapping revolution that sprung from the launch of Scotch tape in 1930). Think wrapping is just a headache-inducing waste of resources?  It’s much more than that.  Studies have shown that a gift-wrapped item positively influences the recipient’s attitude toward the gift (and, by extension, the gift-giver).

  • Tip: Don’t have any wrapping paper and you’re running out for a holiday party? Use an old shirt! (Instructions here.)

Kiss Me, I’m Nordic mistletoe appEveryone’s favorite holiday aphrodisiac, mistletoe, dates back to the pre-Christian Druids.  It is thought to protect against poison and -- should the kiss be worth extending -- lead to fertility.  Kissing under the mistletoe is derived from Norse legends, but in some Scandinavian traditions, it’s also a symbol of peace, with truces signed under the mistletoe.

  • Tip: Sometimes mistletoe just isn’t hanging around when you need it most.  Download the Pocket Mistletoe app for a holiday (or year-round) excuse to kiss on the go, and rack up your smooch count this season.

Stuff My Stocking There are many conflicting theories about the origin of the Christmas stocking, and everything from boxes to shoes are used as alternative receptacles for holiday goodies across cultures.  Stockings are usually stuffed with small gifts or edible treats -- and you can thank the nuns of 12th century France who left socks filled with fruit and nuts at the homes of the poor for starting that tasty tradition.

  • Tip:  Branch out from the traditional stocking this year and substitute it with some boots (more room to fill!) or a stylish pair of over the knee socks that can be worn after the gifts are retrieved.