Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Delaying Xmas shmaltz isn't denying Christmas

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Shoppers Drug Mart was still selling off half-price Halloween candy when its stores started playing Christmas songs. This led to a small-scale consumer revolt, mostly through social media. And this led to a Nov. 2 announcement via the chain's Facebook page that all Christmas music would be temporarily suspended. "We do take customer feedback to heart, and it does lead to change," read the notice.

The response was immediate, though generally polite and Canadian. Some saw the Jingle Bells crackdown as Grinchy. ("I guess the scrooges win again," groused one online commentator.) Others applauded the retailer for listening and responding to their customers' concerns. ("There is a Santa Claus after all," wrote another.)

In a followup statement to the Toronto Star, a Shoppers spokesperson made it clear that the store hasn't actually cancelled Christmas 2012. The Xmas tunes will be back, just closer to the big day.

Still, the debate goes on, often with the holiday-song faction sounding as if Shoppers were taking away small kiddies' toys rather than delaying the endless, inevitable loop of Little Drummer Boy and Deck the Halls.

Most of the complainers aren't stridently anti-Christmas. For many people, it's about timing. It's not Christmas that bothers them: It's Christmas in November. Others want to banish the songs not because they're "politically incorrect," but because they're musically excruciating, at least in their bland pop-music form.

Some commentators reference what was a long-running though unofficial Canadian tradition that hardcore Yule displays should wait until after Remembrance Day, to avoid overshadowing the Nov. 11 event.

I'm a Christmas lover from way back, and these all seem like valid points to me. But other festive fans view Shoppers' decision to give in to customer complaints as an escalation of "the war on Christmas" -- you know, that popular idea that secular humanists are out to steal everyone's Silent Night and Christmas cards and roast beast.

How about this, though? Maybe the decision to delay Christmas music could be seen as supporting the holiday. Maybe the best way to honour Christmas is to see it as something special, something worth setting apart, rather than an overwrought consume-a-thon that occupies one-sixth of the retail year.

The major western Christian denominations, which are on record as being pretty pro-Christmas, consider the beginning of the Christmas season to be four Sundays before Dec. 25, which this year will fall on Dec. 2. This Advent period is considered long enough to allow celebrants to spiritually prepare for the coming of the Christ Child.

Do we really need more time than that to stock up on wrapping paper and milk chocolate reindeer while humming along to a hip-hop take on Silver Bells? You don't see "Advent creep" taking over the Christian liturgical calendar. So why is Christmas creep covering the mall?

If stores keep trying to outdo each other in premature jollity, Christmas merchandising will end up on a collision course with the ramped-up commercialization of Halloween. At some point, jack-o'-lantern displays will crash into racks of Santa Claus hats, like some crazed retail re-enactment of Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas.

Businesses aren't going to stop, as long as they believe that shoppers have a Pavlovian response to shiny red and green objects and easy-listening versions of O Tannenbaum. Consumers will have to be the ones to back away from this stretched-out, over-advertised, ultimately cheapened Christmas season. The Shoppers Drug Mart protest could be a quiet step in that direction.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 10, 2012 E3

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