By: Stuart White 05-02-2021
‘TIS THE SEASON TO SPEND LOLLY
This time last year, whilst we all went about our ordinary lives, some of us caught news reports of an outbreak of some ‘flu-like bug in a city in China called Wuhan. Not only had we never heard of the place before, but the reports seemed remote and irrelevant to life in southern Africa and anyway, China always seemed to be breeding some sort of superbug in any given year. If it wasn’t Avian ‘flu it was Asian ‘flu or Swine ‘flu or SARS. Fair to say, we largely ignored it. If the residents of Wuhan were confined to quarters, so what? Keep calm and carry on, as all the icons keep telling us. The shops were full of Valentine’s merchandise with motifs of red hearts – boxes of chocolates, lingerie, pink sparkling wine, soppy greetings cards, fresh red roses and tacky plastic ones. Restaurants were plugging their couples’ special suppers and everyone with something to sell was cashing in on the month of love.
The following month, too, we shut our eyes to the dark clouds gathering on the horizon. That ‘flu now had a name – Corona virus– cases had been spread to other parts of the world through the miracle that is modern air travel and parts of Europe were also being placed in various stages of lockdown. Local retailers now turned their attention to the next big seller on the calendar – Easter. More chocolate to be shifted, hot cross buns to be baked and flogged, pastel-coloured pretty things to be plugged.
But the rumour mill was gearing up. Sporadic cases had cropped up across our southern border, RSA was considering a shutdown and the old adage of ‘When South Africa sneezes, Botswana catches cold’ was looking all too literally likely and it seemed inevitable that here too, life as we knew it would change. And so, on April 1st 2020, our iron curtain came down. Borders were closed, airlines were grounded, and ‘non-essential’ shops were also forced to shut their doors. I use the apostrophes on purpose, since I consider the phrase ‘non-essential’ to be, like beauty, in the eye of the beholder. If your child has outgrown their shoes and needs a new pair, if your electric kettle has given up the ghost and must be replaced, if the weather has turned cold and you need to purchase extra blankets or even if you are desperate for reading material because you are stuck at home and needing a distraction, then surely shoe shops, electrical appliance outlets, bedding stores and bookstores are all, in their own way, ‘essential’? But those outlets, along with many others which had stocked up with non-essential Easter goodies, had no option to remain locked and bolted, their seasonal stock becoming evermore superfluous.
I reference these events because almost one year later, nothing much has changed. True, there is no technical lockdown and most businesses are doing their best to soldier on but there is no denying that times are tough, whatever goods you sell or services you offer. And whilst no doubt some red undies and the odd box of Ferrero Rocher will be off-loaded, this year’s Saint Valentine’s Day will be a low-key affair, coming as it does, in the midst of an on-going curfew and curtailment of alcohol sales, both over-the-counter and in bars and restaurants.
Some of you may be thinking that’s no bad thing. It’s easy to deplore the over-commercialisation of these festivals, the blame for which can fairly be laid at the feet of American retailers and the great US merchandising machine which year on year has ensured even more commercialisation with little thought to the original meaning of festivals like Easter, Christmas Halloween etc.
Once a single day to send an anonymous card or small love token to the beau or belle you admired from afar, Valentine’s is now a couples’ affair, courtly love has given place to overt sexuality and forget anonymous cards – the only one needed is the plastic variety, preferably swiped in the jewellery and high-end clothing stores, Easter has lost all connection with any ancient act of crucifixion and is instead a paean to the art of the chocolatier, Christmas is another way of saying ‘spend, spend, spend, eat, drink and be merry and shop till you drop and ‘Away in the manger’ has become ‘away with the manger’. And as for the saintly All Hallow’s Eve, this has been turned completely on its head to become a ghouls, ghosts and devil worship fest that appears to requires as much if not more decking of the halls than December, along with compulsory costumery and face painting. And what do all of these festivals have in common? Quite simply the worship of Mammon, an old god but a goodie, one that encourages excess in all things and compulsory hedonism.
And whilst we may deplore the descent of sombre, Christian rites into a series of Bacchanalian feasts, we yet have to accept that to the manufacturers and purveyors of all their associated paraphernalia, these occasions are a quick cash cow, a means of boosting coffers which are built into financial projections and annual budgets. And all of these have taken a huge hit over the past year. Factories, shops, restaurants, pubs and countless other related businesses have been forced out of business, unable to function properly under current restrictions, not just here but all over the world. And as those enterprises floundered, staff lost their livelihoods and business owners went bankrupt.
So next time you feel inclined to have a moan about shops setting out their Christmas stock in September and Easter eggs appearing as soon as the New Year has been ushered in, consider the Covid factor and the fact that catching a metaphorical cold can be as bad, if not worse, than a dose of the real thing.