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SAIC Faculty and Students Publish the Business of Holidays

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By Michelle Zis

I hate holidays. The Fourth of July means too hot and too crowded. On Valentine’s Day, despite my appetite for the candy-hearts that say, “be mine” and “call me,” I find myself trying to pretend that I am not depressed. For Thanksgiving, my family orders in “dinner for six” from Max and Benny’s Deli after my parents got sick of arguing, year after year, over who ruined the turkey. New Year’s Eve stabs me: another year gone by, and what do I have to show for it? This year I was relieved that if I had to get the flu at least I got it on Halloween. Oh, and don’t get me started on Christmas.

Although I consider myself an optimistic girl, I am a total grinch when it comes to holidays. “And what an evil business it is,” was my first thought when I heard about The Business of Holidays, edited by Maud Lavin, Graduate Director of Visual and Critical Studies and Associate Professor of Art History, Theory, and Criticism.

The idea for this book sprung three years ago out of Lavin’s Graduate Visual Communications seminar. A student’s presentation, discussing designer Bruce Mao’s slightly overstated theory that Coca-Cola invented the popular image of Santa Claus, propelled the class into an eager discussion of corporate culture’s influence on holidays.

Lavin’s response to her class was, “We should write a book on this.” It was no joke. When Lavin wants to write a book, she writes a book. She recommended that those students who were interested in collaborating on the book register for her Design and Writing course the following semester, while other SAIC students were recruited for the endeavor.

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The Business of Holidays is more optimistic than not in looking for signs of hope in the everyday culture of celebrations; it also strives to be comprehensive in its understanding of how consumer culture capitalized on and promotes that hope,” Lavin states in the book’s introduction.

The lush photographs of endless rows of greeting cards, a Sweetest Day sign hanging in dime store windows, and close-ups of gingerbread men and Hanukkah gelt are even more enticing than the depicted merchandise displays used to entice buyers.

The Business of Holidays includes essays by Lavin and 29 contributors, 25 of them now SAIC alumni. The main designers, Melanie Archer, Amy Tavormina Fidler, Benjamin Finch, Alyson Priestap-Beaton, and Jason Warriner, were all graduate students in the Visual Communications department (except for Finch who was an undergraduate). “We did everything,” says Lavin. It is rare to be responsible for both the writing and the design of a book.

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It is also a unique experience for students and faculty to work as peers in the creation of a book. Lavin explains that most schools would implicitly be against this type of book because a tenured professor is supposed to stand out as an individual and act competitively, whereas working so close with students would seem anti-hierarchical.

SAIC, where, according to Lavin, “teaching is prized,” provided support. Each contributor received fellowships and Lavin received two research grants that she put toward the book. When Lavin and the five contributors were ready to visit the publisher in New York, armed with 150 pages of the book, the Visual Communications department covered their airfare. Lavin and the team made the book half in color. The Monacelli Press changed their minds and told them they want to do the entire book in color and that they should get wilder with the design. “They invested more and we invested more, ” says Lavin of the publishers.

Divided by fiscal quarters, the sections include playful essays that cover 35 holidays with titles such as “Valentines Day: Viagra and Valentines,” “Passover: The Mainstreaming of Kosher Foods,” and “Fathers Day: The Ties That Bind.” One essay examines how Labor Day is really about back-to-school sales: new backpacks and notebooks for the kids. Another essay discusses the alcohol consumption on St. Patrick’s Day.

The thing about holidays is that they are unavoidable. We do not pencil Mother’s Day and Easter Sunday onto our calendars because they are already printed there. The Business of Holidays gives the reader the sense that these already unstoppable holidays are just getting bigger and bigger. Yet, even the holiday-spirit-disabled will feel the joy that went into the making of this book.

Business of Holidays, edited by Maud Lavin, published by The Monacelli Press in 2004.

There will be a book reading of The Business of Holidays at The Book Cellar on December 9 at 7 p.m., www.bookcellarinc.com. And photographs from the book will open at ThreeWalls on December 10 from 6-10 p.m., www.three-walls.org.

December 2004

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