Christmas and Salesmanship

I TAKE a grim and gloomy pleasure in reminding my fellow hacks and hired drudges in the dreadful trade of journalism that the Christmas which is now over ought to go on for the remainder of the twelve days. It ought to end only on the Twelfth Night, on which occasion Shakespeare has himself assured us that we ought to be doing What we Will. But one of the queerest things about our topsy-turvy time is that we all hear such a vast amount about Christmas just before it comes, and suddenly hear nothing at all about it afterwards. My own trade, the tragic guild to which I have already alluded, is trained to begin prophesying Christmas somewhere about the beginning of autumn; and the prophecies about it are like prophecies about the Golden Age and the Day of Judgement combined. Everybody writes about what a glorious Christmas we are going to have. Nobody, or next to nobody, ever writes about the Christmas we have just had. I am going to make myself an exasperating exception in this matter. I am going to plead for a longer period in which to find out what was really meant by Christmas; and a fuller consideration of what we have really found. There are any number of legends, even of modern legends, about what happens before Christmas; whether it is the preparation of the Christmas tree, which is said to date only from the time of the German husband of Queen Victoria, or the vast population of Father Christmases who now throng the shops almost as quickly as the customers. But there is no modern legend of what happens just after Christmas; except a dismal joke about indigestion and the arrival of the doctor. I am the more moved to send everybody an after-Christmas greeting, or, if I had the industry, an after-Christmas card; and in truth there is a craven crowd who escape by falling back upon New Year card. But I should like to examine this problem of after-Christmas custom and festivity a little more closely.

Of course it is a mark of a commercial community that it thus advertises in Advent. The whole object of such a system is to deliver the goods. When once they are delivered there is a deadly silence; at least an absence of any burst of joy over the creation of new things; a comparative silence about morning stars singing together or the shouting of the suns of God. In other words, when we have delivered the goods, it is not now quite certain that anybody has looked on them and seen that they are good. And an immense importance of announcement everywhere diminishes the corresponding importance of appreciation. I know that in the commercial case there are sometimes proofs of appreciation. I know that noble ladies and actresses (I hope this is the right order of precedence) do write testimonials about their pleasure in consuming some sort of soap; and that leading literary men are found to declare that they would have been practically half-witted but for some training of the mind. But, taking modern announcements and advertisements and assertions as a whole, there is no comparison between the bulk of promises and the bulk of acknowledgements. Everybody knows the advertisements, but few could quote the acknowledgements. This is all the more obvious in the case of Christmas, because Christmas is still rightly recognised as a feast of children. Perhaps it is natural that telling a little boy that he is going to have some toffee should be more explicit and explanatory than the little boy himself when he is eating the toffee; when he is stuffed and is stuck to his chair with toffee; and is in no mood to symbolize gratitude except by greed. One would not ask of him even a lyric cry that might become a hymn of thanksgiving; still less a perfect prose analyzing his own impressions. Little boys should be seen and not heard. In other words, they come to buy toffee, not to praise it. So long as no excessive noises are made in the mastication of that confection, we will excuse the youth from any long oratorical exercises in the way of returning thanks. And a certain amount of this natural disproportion between thrills and thanks is to be allowed for among all young people. The dreary agonies through which many a little boy must be going at this moment, in order to write three lines of thanks to his grandmother who gave him the toffee, is in itself no reflection on the toffee. Gratitude, being nearly the greatest of human duties, is also nearly the most difficult. And as grown-up people hardly ever think of being grateful for the sun and the moon and their own souls and bodies, it is easy to excuse the immature for finding it difficult to say thank you for a bag of sweets. Only, as I say, when all of these allowances have been made, there is still a disproportion between the promise of any great symbolic feast and the strange silence about any fulfilment of the promise. And it is connected with a certain commercial habit of certain people promising everything or anything, so that the other people have a tendency to thank them for nothing. There is a sort of silence about the absorption of many modern things, as compared with the loud shouts that heralded their arrival.

I cannot help suspecting that in this there is a snag about what is enthusiastically called the Art of Salesmanship. I do not say that salesmanship cannot be an art; nor do I say that it has become too artful. Yet it is not its foes but its friends who are always hinting that it does make people buy what they do not want.  A transaction of that sort would fully explain the happy noises of the opening negotiations as compared with the silence afterwards. It is the triumph of the salesman that he has made the customer realise that he has a long needed an electric tooth-brush or a self-starting pencil, which he has never heard of before. But it is not always the triumph of the customer when he rightly and gravely considers them afterwards. And it does seem to me that our civilisation is in some degree out of joint, at the precise point of this juncture between the fierce and eager supply and the somewhat faint and wavering demand. There is such an impressive pressure of praise and recommendation, on the one side and such a lack of reaction either of protest or praise on the other, that I doubt whether the consumer is contributing enough constructive criticism to the State. After all, the original foundation if all trade is that the ideas came from the consumer; and that he really did know what he wanted to consume. The dreams and visions of the consumer were then embodied and, as it were, incarnated, in the crafts and arts which fulfilled them. Of course, the craftsmen and the artists did something in detail which the consumer could not do for himself; but the consumer had done something not in detail but design. In a sense, he was the architect and they were the builders. But if the architect is to be covered with a totally different sort of building, and told that this what he really wanted without knowing it, then he is not being housed, but buried. My only point at the moment is that, when all is said, he is now rather silent in his tomb.

I know there is a great difficulty about organising any expression of those who really have got what they liked; chiefly because it would involve the alarming alternative of their expressing themselves about what they did not like. I suppose there has never been a really convincing advertisement of Smith’s Soap or testimonial to Tomkinson’s Tea. For the one really thrilling assertion about Smith’s Soap would be that it is much better than Brown’s Soap; and the one quite convincing commendation of Tomkinson’s Tea would be a testimonial saying, “What a relief it was after the absolutely filthy taste of Wilkinson’s Tea.” And this is forbidden by all commercial custom; and I rather fancy even by the law of the land. I do not say for a moment that it would be easy to get a real record of the reception of good things, especially when they are really good; and if the modern world were in that mood, I fancy there would be a longer period of appreciation, and perhaps even some final festival of thanks after the festival of Christmas. Puritans in America established Thanksgiving Day in order to avoid Christmas Day. It would be a real Anglo-American reconciliation to combine the two; and have a Thanksgiving Day for the Turkey we had eaten at Christmas.

~G.K. Chesterton: The Illustrated London News, Dec. 28, 1935.

The Collected Works of G.K. Chesterton, Vol 37: 
The Illustrated London News, 1935-1936.