I was shopping for sunscreen in a chain store in October when there it was — the first Christmas sighting of the year. A few feet from the Halloween display stood a cluster of fake firs decked out in ornaments and lights. Adults ignored them. Kids raced right past, headed instead for the costumes and candy. It was late afternoon. The day was warm, the sun was still out, and the decorated trees looked silly.
A week later, everything changed. Daylight saving time ended, and instead of an incremental easing into winter, we were dumped right into darkness. For anyone leaving work that first Monday, fumbling for car keys in a dim and chilly dusk, those sparkly trees had new resonance.
It's the true tipping point of the holiday season, I think, that sudden shift of light. You're gobsmacked, and the people whose job it is to part you from your Christmas cash know it.
In a finely calibrated campaign that starts around Thanksgiving, they fetishize the symbols that offer solace as days grow short. It's everywhere — in TV commercials, in magazine ads, in the inserts and circulars that slip from your Sunday paper this time of year. The colors are rich and dark; the pictured rooms are filled with people, crowded with lovely stuff. It's as though, by the sheer number of things for sale, we can keep winter's bleakness at bay.
The brilliant part, though, the truly diabolical twist, is that the assault doesn't end with a Dec. 25 climax. Instead, advertisers turn on a dime (well, a dollar) and use all that imagery against you. The ad men of "Mad Men" couldn't do it better.
After seeing those Christmas trees in October, I noticed hints in my home-goods catalogs of the cold-weather season to come. There were photos of quilts piled high on a chair, cookies and hot chocolate in the kitchen, comfy throws warming the back of every couch. Christmas was still subliminal — a jar of red ornaments on a far table, the edge of a silver-sprayed wreath above a bed. In November, the pace picked up. Lights dimmed and colors grew richer still. More stuff filled the rooms.
Now, deep into December, the selling machinery's at full throttle. It's everywhere, but for sheer genius in igniting lust, it's hard to beat Pottery Barn. The December catalog is 166 pages of Christmas vignettes. They promise not just the ideal holiday but the ideal life. There's the snow-covered house decked out in wreaths where someone (not you) has just shoveled the walk. In the cozy dining room, a turkey dinner awaits. A close-up of the bar, frosty cocktails ready for guests, is a mixologist's dream. Every surface of every room is hard at work, crammed with stuff. It'll perfect your holiday. Heck, it'll perfect your life, if only you'll buy.
All of which makes the Dec. 26 curveball even more wicked. After all that buildup, after creating a vocabulary of comfort and joy, advertisers pull the plug. Just like that, Christmas will be gone. The wreaths and ornaments, ribbons and amaryllis, the pillows and plates and holiday knickknacks shot with near-pornographic intensity are banished. In their place come photos of sleek and stripped-down rooms. The close-ups now are of storage systems. The ad copy is about clearing and purging.
Those rich and vibrant colors? History. The lighting in the January ads is merciless. Its brightness equates Christmas with clutter and makes you want to pack away everything you own. The very imagery that sold us a happy holiday, that soothed and calmed us as the light continued to wane, is a weapon now. The new meme in those fresh pages is to pack it up, clear it away as quickly as possible, and with as many new gizmos and gadgets as you can afford.
Don Draper would be proud.
Veronique de Turenne is a journalist and the founding blogger of LA Now. She lives in Malibu.