Christmas the American Way


Date: 20 Jan 1997

To: American Way Magazine

From: Shannon Manning

Subject: Letter to "Voices"

I read "Christmas Around the World" because the introduction proclaimed "if marketing tarnishes the meaning of your holiday tradition, reacquaint yourself with the magic of the Christmas message." The photo essay purported to "proclaim joy and hope" by showing people around the world celebrating the holiday in different ways.

But one photo shows women not celebrating at all; instead they are sweeping outside a mall in China decorated with Christmas trees and a giant Santa Claus. Never mind what this photo says about the loss of national and ethnic traditions with the spread of global consumer culture, or of Santa replacing Buddha at the front door of this new place of worship- the mall. What troubled me is that the accompanying text and its inclusion in this essay imply that while we may not share the same religion, culture, economic or political system, these workers make our holidays better by being the world's largest producer of Christmas lights, ornaments, and artificial wreaths and trees. No mention is made of conditions by which this cheap (but not cheaply made in human terms) product reaches our Western markets. No, it does not fill me with joy and hope to see the women and children of the world's most populous nation exploited by the biggest consumer nations in the world.

What does give me hope is the growing trend toward responsible purchasing, both by consumers and retailers. For those wishing to avoid complicity in human rights violations committed in the name of corporate greed, the US Department of Labor maintains a list, aptly named "Trendsetters," which includes retailers that monitor the labor practices of their outside vendors. The list is still open, and can be found on the Web ( after a click on the No Sweat Hot Button. And yes, Kathy Lee Gifford's line is on the list now, but only after people stood up on behalf of the children who could not. This is the best message to send our "brothers and sisters around the world," not just during the holidays but year-round.

Shannon Manning

Date: 21 Jan 97 15:38:37 EST

From: Dana Joseph Williams <73041.2671@CompuServe.COM>

To: Shannon Manning

Subject: Joy to the World

Dear Shannon,

I am writing to you from American Way magazine, where I'm a senior editor. I'm the one who put together the text for the "Christmas Around the World" piece that you wrote to us about. I wanted to write to you myself (not exactly in my professional capacity) to say that I understand what you mean.

Unfortunately, I wrote the text without looking very closely at the slides the designer chose and so did not anticipate how painfully ironic that picture from the mall in China would appear. When I wrote "If marketing tarnishes the meaning of your holiday tradition, reacquaint yourself with the magic and joy of the Christmas message," I meant that from my own heart to the reader's, and was not really considering closely (as I should have) how that line would play with the images. The book itself seemed to being trying earnestly to portray the joy of Christmas, even if it represented much of (and is itself a part of, I suppose) the global commercialism that has tainted the holy day. There is much exploitation and loss of true tradition because of Christmas consumption, and I agree with you that it is tragic.

I am sorry that the photo essay brought you down by unwittingly being an example of the very thing it hoped to shun. The intent was to cheer you and wish you all the love that should be present in Christmas. It did not succeed, and for that I apologize.

Though I feel apologetic, I also feel grateful for your thoughtful letter. Even when something I do fails, it is always encouraging to hear from an intelligent reader who takes the world -- with all its joys and ills -- seriously.


Dana Joseph Williams


To: Dana Joseph Williams <73041.2671@CompuServe.COM>

From: Shannon Manning

Subject: Re: Joy to the World

Dear Ms.Williams,

I wanted to send a belated thank you for your kind response to my letter. I was very pleased (and a bit surprised) to see it printed. As you pointed out, I do take the world seriously, but I also wish to emphasize the joys rather than the ills. When I see the ills, I try to point them out and provide alternatives instead of just ranting. As such, I am saddened that you chose to leave off the plug for labor-friendly purchasing. The editorial choice is understandable, since your readers are the CEOs that are committing these crimes, but is nonetheless disappointing since that was my whole point in writing.

I suppose the "Joy to the World" article hit home since I have been trying to escape our peculiar and stressful brand of Christmas consumerism through travel for the past several years. Ever since I was very young, I saw that the happiest, most peaceful Christmases were those when we had no money. I'm not going to tell you that it was at those times we had homemade presents for each other-- whittled toy dogs and gingerbread houses-- because that would be a lie. Instead we went to the 24-hour Walgreens on Christmas Eve and wrapped up necessities and niceties like toilet paper and toothpaste and chocolate, a tradition that had its own special charms. As I got older, I saw the stress and unhappiness of the commercial aspects of this holiday worsen, so rather than turn blue insisting I don't want or need any products (especially products made under slavery conditions) to discover the meaning of Christmas, I began to travel, looking for those idyllic imaginary places untouched by marketing.

Two years ago, I went to Paris and found Disney's Lion King and his friends painted in every brasserie window and splashed across the skyline from the view at Pont Neuf. I watched as a perfume company took over the Place de L'Opera with an angelic dance and spiritual music. The presentation culminated with lights spelling out the name of the perfume, and covering every building and church, a giant lighted billboard on the City of Lights. Christmas Eve I drank with disenchanted and socially undervalued Desert Storm vets in Montmartre, listening to their stories, watching as Domino's and Pizza Hut delivered holiday meals and old men entered the neon facades of the strip clubs. The landscape that soaked up the blood of revolutionaries, dying for freedom, is now littered with the garbage of the global culture. Meanwhile, fashionable nightclubs in Paris and the U.S. turn away the soldiers that fought in the Gulf for oil, the control of which makes all this consumption possible in our global economy. It is what the western world now most prizes and so is the cause for which we are willing to kill and die. No longer is the battle cry for freedom of religion, liberty, equality, or sovereignty, but for product as a sort of secular religion, for free trade, freedom of choice, for consumer equality, and for a promised, purchasable, independence.

The next year I went to Rome. My father had passed away that year, and a powerful childhood memory was sharing Midnight Mass with my father after his mother had died. I left the Vatican in disgust after witnessing the faithful masses armed with camcorders threatening ushers and knocking down children and the elderly in a hopeless attempt to record and document the spectacle at the expense of a real experience. I had the sad revelation that watching the Pope on television was more honest and meaningful than being there in that unholy chaos. Even Rudolf the Red-nose is more honest and meaningful.

This year, I stayed in Chicago with family and tried to see them more as the victims rather than the culprits of consumerism. Luckily, family-wide economic hardship encouraged a Secret Santa Grab-bag game. I gave an insanely huge bag of pasta and got back a very unnecessary Mr. Potato Head massager, but we ate and played and all had a wonderful time. Some babies have joined our company, which makes all the difference in the world.

When I returned home I made some hot chocolate and listened to Dylan Thomas reading his "A Child's Christmas in Wales," as I have done every year since a Jewish friend, shocked that I had never read the poem, gave me the recording. It was, in her opinion, "the only good thing about Christmas." She was right, and every year wherever we are, my sister and I listen to it or try to recite portions of it to escape the clamor. We improvise and brutalize most of it, but always remember how it ends: "I said some words to the close and holy darkness, and then I slept."

Let's not sleep forever. In the spirit of Christmas, whatever that means, let's demand corporate accountability for the inhumane course of the global economy. Demand payment of a living wage, here and abroad, free women and children from confined labor and guarantee basic human rights. Demand this and we could all feel great about the purchases we make, and the love we take, this holiday season and beyond.

Shannon Manning

1999 UPDATE: Seems the Department of Labor no longer maintains the "no sweat" list on their site, so check out these other resources, cribbed from Marc Cooper at the Nation.
United Students Against Sweatshops
The USAS's site lists the group's founding principles, has a news page with up-to-the-minute postings on student activism against sweatshops and a chance to join their email list.

Links to the Web sites of hundreds of American unions.

The AFL-CIO's extensive site has information on Union Summer, the Organizing Institute--which trains labor organizers--and issues of concern to workers, as well as advice on how to organize in your workplace.

A Short History of American Labor
Unionweb publishes this concise informative history of the US labor movement.

LaborNet International
LaborNet Int'l "supports human rights and economic justice for workers by providing labor news and information, complete International services, training and website design for union and labor organizers." It has information on saving Social Security, a link to Project Censored's "Most Underreported Stories of 1998" and a link to the AFL-CIO's 1997 "Ask A Working Woman" Survey.

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