As we lurch forward from one big American holiday to another, I spoke to a few of my friends about the way our two countries mark the passing of the seasons and holidays. I wondered why America was so big on the “fall.” It seems that our distinct social histories have led to us having very different attitudes to what are becoming more and more commercialized holidays.
After all, we have an attractive autumn in the UK as well. We celebrate Halloween, and the leaves also change colour, but nobody in Britain gets excited about the prospect of Autumn. We don’t have a new range of beers available in the stores to mark this change, special scented candles, pumpkins lining the streets or hayrides for the kids. At home, most people mourn the passing of our all-too-brief summer, rather than celebrate the arrival of the fall. In America there is great excitement, not just during this season, but others; I remember similar levels of anticipation as summer started to roll in — the prospect of grilling out, yet another range of seasonal beers, and trips to the beach.
I came to the conclusion that us Brits were generally just a miserable bunch.
Then, my American roommate came up with this theory: the prospect of making money has created a whole host of traditions that keep the juices flowing for Americans all year-round. Businesses thrive on the holidays, and the American public have bought into the celebrations. No sooner has Christmas finished up when Easter is round the corner, followed by the easiest product of all to sell – summer and 4th July, then Labor Day, Halloween, Thanksgiving, and it all starts over again.
I noted that Britain and America have almost identical signposts and holidays throughout the year, but the level of fanfare is markedly different.
I often meet people at home who sneer at Easter or Valentine’s Day, describing them as being “hijacked” by the chocolate companies. Conversely, I get the impression that here, most people embrace the notion of celebration regardless of whether someone, somewhere, is making money out of it.
There is something extremely subtle at work here, something lodged deep in the British psyche that drives us to resist the commercialisation of traditional holidays. Unfortunately, it’s time for a history lesson to try and explain it. The British attitude, which is generally to look down our noses at anyone who openly tries to make money, is rooted in our historically aristocratic society.
“New Money” was never popular in Britain. Historically, as soon as people made money, they immediately tried to cover it up and act as if their wealth was in some way effortlessly gained. In the 18th and 19th Century, people who got rich during the industrial revolution quickly bought up aristocratic titles (yes, you could buy something that was supposedly ordained by God), sent their children to the finest schools and universities, and hoped that at some stage they would be accepted by the elite. It was not considered gentlemanly to generate income by any means other than land-owning and agriculture, and the “conspicuous consumption” of some of the nouveaux riche was considered particularly distasteful. Of course, this whole system was a giant pile of crap, but its influence still lives on in modern Britain.
A gentlemanly culture persists at home: An underlying notion that entrepreneurship and naked ambition is in some way distasteful. Our most famous modern businessman – Sir Richard Branson – is often viewed with amusement and bemusement rather than admiration. The difference in terms of the issues at hand, is that people in Britain would often dismiss something like pumpkin beer or easter eggs as a money-making gimmick that they should not fall for. They might view the entrepreneur who tries to make money out of a national holiday, as a manipulator that should not be encouraged.
This British aversion to celebrating most holidays, except Christmas, during which time we turn a blind eye to our gross consumption in all meanings of the term, is particularly nonsensical for a couple of reasons:
Firstly, Americans gain a lot of pleasure and togetherness from celebrating their traditions; communities get together, children learn about their country, and everyone has a good time.
Secondly, through these celebrations, people are making money and getting richer.
While something deep inside my English brain makes me feel wrong to write this: Everybody is gaining from the American way of doing things. People are genuinely having a good time, it’s not a trick – they are enjoying spending time with their friends and families, regardless of whether they are putting money in the pockets of a businessperson somewhere.
Perhaps America’s own peculiar history drives its people to gather around such celebrations to retain their national identity — without these, they would share little in common as a people. Britain’s unity is assured by something that has evolved over a much longer period of time, through centuries of common experiences, and maybe that affords them greater freedom in their cynicism.
Complicated and never-ending, I would welcome people’s opinions on this debate.
Posted in Brit Bit