Battle of the Christmas ads

A Yuletide war between profane M&S and sublime John Lewis

Artillery Row

Christmas advertisements are a benchmark of British culture. Is a Spice Girl sashaying into a supermarket? It must be 2007, in the long lost pre-recession Britpop heyday, an era forever lost but still alive in the fond hearts and burning loins of Centrist dads across the land. Is a child melancholically waiting for Advent to end so (plot twist) he can give his parents a present? It’s got to be 2011 the age of austerity and pious Cameroonian volunteerism. Is a ballerina dancing alone on a roof in the snow despite her performance being cancelled? 2020, dah. 

It’s the classic Anglo dichotomy between puritanism and excess

So what do 2023’s ads say about Britain? Well this year’s Pandora’s Box brought us the Marks and Spencer’s Christmas ad, starring Hannah Waddingham (the current national treasure de jour) trashing unwanted Christmas rituals. Christmas cards are incinerated, a board game is tossed in the air, paper crowns are fed into a woodchipper, all to the sound of I’d Do Anything for Love (But I Won’t Do That). The tagline — Love Thismas, not Thatmas. The message? Christmas is a grim social burden, alleviated only by breaking with tradition and embracing individual choice (brought to you by M&S). Because the year is 2023, and God has apparently cursed us, the main controversy was not over this all out assault on Christmas, but the unhinged claim that red, green and silver crowns burning in a grate were meant to represent the Palestinian flag. This being 2023, M&S inevitably pulled the video and gave a grovelling apology to the lunatics complaining about this fictional flag burning. 

You get the sense with many of these productions that Christmas is seen as a problem, something audiences need rescuing from or resolving. Like classical theatre, British Christmas ads come in two fundamental forms — tragedy and comedy. There’s a strong strain of pathos followed by catharsis, with many festive offerings setting a surprisingly bleak tone. The other kind involves an almost hysterical Dionysiac joy to offset the Apollonian cool of the tragic form, with supermarket food force fed to Father Christmas, cheerful women with Estuary accents describing the succulence of pornographically filmed puddings and diverse partygoers throwing things at each other. 

It’s the classic Anglo dichotomy between puritanism and excess, as witnessed by our being the binge drinking capital of Europe whilst simultaneously having some of the earliest closing hours. The English “night out” is always conducted in fast forward, with drunken crowds jostling people leaving work, and taxis, buses and ambulances carting away revellers well before midnight. 

It would be tempting to blame all of the above on the Reformation, which no doubt plays a large part, but the somewhat hysterical emotional politics of Christmas has a much more recent vintage. Not very long ago the English had a far busier and more evenly distributed calendar of majors feasts, holidays and ceremonial occasions. The decline of major national celebrations marking Trafalgar Day, May Day, St George’s Day, Lent and Easter are a big part of the story, but so too is the winnowing away of more localised festivities around scout troops, launching ships, horse races, harvest festivals, breweries, beating the bounds, public weddings, baptisms and funerals, hunting, local sporting events, regatas, not to mention local survivals and revivals of once major festivals like Oak Apple Day, Hocktide and Plough Monday. 

The narrowing of familial social rituals to a single day really is oppressive 

People living more isolated and nomadic lives has been both a cause and an outcome of this general dying away of tradition and the ritual demarcation of time. But the social pressures and necessity for such rituals has not gone away, or even necessarily lessened, they’ve just become concentrated on the one surviving holiday that is expected to bear all the emotional, cultural and spiritual weight once distributed across many social and civic occasions. Though other holidays have survived and even grown in importance, like Halloween, Armistice Day and Valentine’s Day, none are an occasion for family gatherings. 

Precisely because Christmas must bear so much social and emotional weight, it’s also the fixation for otherwise unfulfilled iconoclastic progressive instincts. Atheists repeat disproven claims that our Christmas traditions are all pagan with near liturgical regularity as the day approaches. Trendy newspaper columnists explain while they’ll be spending Christmas alone, or on holiday, or will be observing their own made-up traditions, just so you know how special they are. But the reason such messages, including the literally iconoclastic M&S advert, is that the narrowing of familial social rituals to a single day really is oppressive. 

The decline of holidays, communities and public rituals is linked not only to secularisation, but also the expansion of the market to take over ever more of our lives. It was Margaret Thatcher who tried to relax Sunday Trading laws, and John Major who got it over the line. The weakening of trade unions, and the loss of dignity at work has made taking time for family and community harder. It’s not just working hours and time off; but the precarity of labour and the expectation of availability created by the internet and mobile phones. 

Thrown into the deep end of sociability and ritual for a single day before being swiftly dragged out again is hardly a recipe for profound Christmas sentiment. The answer isn’t, as M&S would have it, subtraction, it’s addition. Rummage at the bottom of Pandora’s Box, and you find hope, and a nation turns its weary eyes to John Lewis to provide it. In their 2023 ad, a young boy buys a “grow your own Christmas tree” in a Box of Delights-style wooden box. He plants the seed he finds there and it grows into a rather aggressive sentient Venus Fly Trap. To the buoyant strains of La Vita, La Festa it causes Paddington Bear levels of chaos before being banished to garden where it sadly looks on as a more conventional Christmas tree replaces it. Pity is taken upon the plant, and the family place their presents under the weird tree, which cheerfully unwraps them and spits them back into their hands. Let your traditions grow is the tagline. 

It’s a far better message for a festively fatigued country — rather than revolutionary change; organic growth, rather than individual choice; reciprocal gift giving; enchantment, not disillusionment. Celebrate all 12 days. Do Epiphany properly. Roll right on into Candlemas. Reject modernity this Christmas, and grow your traditions.

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