Love, Inc

The intersections of emotion and capitalism.

The Most Miserable Time of Year

Santa's race, Happy Holidays, consumer debt and other reasons for holiday misery

On Christmas Eve, I saw a guy driving around giving people the finger. Not people in particular but everyone he encountered shouting "F@*k you!" out his open window. My daughter laughed and said "Well, someone is in the holiday spirit" and I agreed, without irony, that his misery and anger were very much a part of the holiday season. People feel anxious and stressed around the holidays and are even more likely to break up in the two weeks prior to Christmas. Although feelings of depression and anxiety are extremely common in the build up to Christmas Day, things get really bad after Christmas. One large Danish study suggested suicides go up 40% after Christmas and psychologists have figured out, with mathematical precision, the most miserable day of the year that will occur in approximately 3-4 weeks. 

 ...dubbed..."Blue Monday", a date in January when post-Christmas gloom is at its worst. It is worked out with a formula taking into account six factors: weather, debt, time since Christmas, time since failing our New Year's resolutions, low motivational levels and the feeling of a need to take action.

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I am sure the psychologists are right about the causes of Blue Monday, but as a sociologist I think there are other more structural and historical causes as well. The first and most obvious cause is consumer capitalism. I mean, let's face it. We live in a culture that teaches us to express love through consumption. Worse, at least in the US, we live in a country that does very little to regulate access to high interest debt. Although the Credit Card Accountability, Responsibility, and Disclosure Act of 2009 (CARD ACT) has certainly helped lower late fees and rate hikes, the reality is that Americans still carry   a lot of credit card debt. Yes, it's true that about 26% of Americans now pay off their credit cards every month (compared to 19% when the Great Recession started), but those are mostly higher income Americans and 40% of poorer Americans are still using credit cards for emergency medical care and even paying the mortgage and utilities. And despite being more careful about credit card debt, Americans are still $704 billion in credit card debt with interest rates that hover at around 14.8%. More depressing still, Black Americans might be suffering more from the costs of credit card debt than White Americans. Because Black Americans have fewer assets on average than White Americans and what assets they had were tied up in real estate and the real estate crash disproportionately affected Black Americans, many are relying on credit cards to meet their living expenses. Black Americans are also far more likely to have their credit cards cancelled or be charged late fees, despite paying their bills on time at a rate similar to White Americans.

As if the credit card industry were not enough to make us miserable, there is the cultural industry that bombards us with images of perfect holidays in beautiful spaces populated by unbelievably happy families- or if miserable families, then at least ones that manage to reconcile by midnight on Christmas Eve (cue the Kleenex and the tears). But Americans are not happy. According to the World Happiness Report for 2013, Americans were less happy than Mexicans, Australians and Costa Ricans. That might be explained by the weather, but Canadians are happier too. Also, the happiest countries on earth are Denmark, Norway and Switzerland. So much for cold and dark climates determining our level of well-being. Actually, happiness seems to have more to do with things like "social support" and perceptions of generosity as well as corruption. It also has something to do with years of healthy life expectancy. Americans don't have a lot of social support. As for our health, Americans rank 43rd in the world and we have the highest rate of infant mortality of industrialized countries and nearly 22% of US children live in poverty.

Perhaps even more depressing than the constant images of happy Americans celebrating perfect Christmases are the images of angry journalists and politicians bemoaning the "War on Christmas." This year's Holiday Anger Fest came to a head when Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly was so upset by the idea that Santa Claus could manifest in a variety of bodies, including Black ones, she said

For all you kids watching at home, Santa just is white.  

Kelly went onto assure her listeners that Jesus was white too. This rather humorous display of white supremacy (presumably not a lot of children were watching Kelly's nighttime broadcast and so no children imagining a Black Santa or a Middle Eastern Jesus were hurt by her comments) was matched by a not so funny bill introduced into the US Congress.

To counter what they see as attacks on Christmas, House of Representatives Republican Doug Lamborn and 36 other lawmakers introduced a resolution saying "the symbols and traditions of Christmas should be protected for use by those who celebrate" the holiday.

The American culture of Christmas bombards us with contradictory emotions. We swallow the perfection of a happy holiday alongside the bitter pill of fear and anger among previously dominant and privileged White Christians. We are unsure how to feel or what to do so we do what Americans have always done: we visualize a more perfect future through consumption.  We buy stuff, lots and lots of stuff, wrap it up, give it to our loved ones on the 25th, and then find ourselves more miserable than ever on the 26th. 

But the answer to our misery is right in front of us: we don't need the new XBox or even that robotic puppy. What we need is more social support, generosity, healthcare and community. All I want for Christmas next year is universal healthcare,livable wages for all, a progressive tax system and an end to white supremacy. I hope racially ambiguous Santa is listening.

 

Laurie Essig, Ph.D., is a professor of sociology and women and gender studies at Middlebury College.

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