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From Christian ideals to chocolate treats, Easter’s fall from grace

Commercialisation isn’t all bad. lynn/flickr

Easter, ideally, is the time when we should turn our attention to the grandest themes of existence. The Easter sequence of Christianity interweaves four wonderful ideas.

One: cultivation of the will through self-denial (called Lent). Two: the transmission of love by means of a memorial object (the Eucharist). Three: the life-affirming possibilities hidden in sacrifice and defeat (the Crucifixion). Four: the longing for recovery and the return of what has been lost (the Resurrection).

These themes can live outside a specifically Christian framework; but until very recently Christianity has been their powerful host.

Today, Easter means chocolate. It's quite a climb down. Easter has been commercialised and turned into an occasion to maximise sales of confectionery.

It’s not surprising that to many people, it is an article of faith that commercialisation is a dirty, degrading process. We wring our hands in lament at the way in which the pursuit of profit squeezes out devotion to the more important things in life.

The topic could be art or education or travel. The supporters and defenders of gracious or sacred things have typically seen themselves as threatened by commercialisation.

Why does it happen? Where does the threat come from? The answer is competition. There's competition for attention, admiration, time, devotion and other resources, especially money.

With Easter, it's not that chocolate manufacturers have taken something that everyone cherished and (behind our backs) turned it into a cash-cow.

Rather, they have come into an arena in which people are looking for alternatives. We had to lose faith, first, in Christianity, then in the themes it represents, before the manufacturers could get a look in.

We have to reframe commercialisation. It is not a hostile invasion. Commercialisation only happens with consent. The real issue is about values: what do you care about?

But what should one do? Perhaps it could be regulated against by politicians who are answerable to exactly the same audiences as the businesses: the consumer-voter. The answer, I believe, is this: we must commercialise better.

The problem isn’t that Easter is commercialised, it’s that what is important about it hasn’t been able to find a strong enough market; while some quite minor (though charming enough) side issues have been amazingly successful in getting attention and money.

So is it about gaudying up the churches, keeping the punters happy, maybe lightening up some of the themes (as in Gnomeo and Juliet)? Making it nice and normal.

But that isn't the task. The aim isn't to get people in or interested in just anything. This is a crucial error: we think we know that commercialisation looks ugly and stupid. The task is to get the thing you care about more powerfully into people's imaginations, so that they will give more resources to it.

There are some intriguing examples from the past. Baroque architecture, for instance, was developed in the second half of the 16th century in order to give a powerful emotional and aesthetic platform for Roman Catholicism. It was a commercialisation of the deepest claims of that institution.

It required vast investment, which had to pay its way: it had to return enough money. And it did. But those buildings stand amongst the most refined and impressive achievements of western art.

What is commercialisation? At its simplest it is putting a price tag on something, working out how to make a profit, getting it to market and working out how to make a profit in the process.

Why is commercialisation so successful? Is it the robber-barons of the free-market imposing their crass self-interest on the good folk? No, what happens is that businesses identify what people are willing to pay for; that is, what people are actually prepared to support.

Think of what happens in good commercialisation. National parks are (although we dont say so) commercialisations of nature. The public, through government, agrees to forego the benefits that could arise from treating that land in other ways. We pay for national parks. And a good thing too. But that had to come about through persuading enough people that it is worth the cost. And maintaining such an agreement so that there is no political advantage to be gained by offering to over-turn the legislation.

Perhaps we need a better word than commercialisation. It is persuading enough people to meet the real cost of what you care about in an environment in which there is radical competition for resources (time, money, attention). How does this differ from commercialisation? Only in a small way: the latter adds in that the process be efficient enough to leave over a profit for the person who makes it happen.

Our civilisation has suffered from a split between noble purpose and commercial means. But noble purposes will be forlorn and impotent if they cannot do most of the things that commercialisation does. The deep question is: how can one get other people to meet the real cost of providing something that one takes to be genuinely good?

Back to Easter: a profound religious ceremony, taking place in a cathedral, requires the concentration of material resources: the building must be built and maintained; able people must be educated and employed in the clergy; the message has to be spread. So although there may not be a bottom line profit at the end, much of what happens is (though we hate to say it) a process of commercialisation (turning an idea into a practice whose real cost can be met).

And I believe that the blanket hostility to commercialisation has hidden the centrality of these concerns. The more elevated and noble your concerns, the more - not the less - you should be interested in commercialisation.

Let me put my cards on the table. I’m completely devoted to noble ends, I want beauty and seriousness to prevail in the world.

Commercialisation is not the name of the enemy. It is one of the names of the arena in which the soul of a culture is fought over. If we revile commercialisation we are, despite our fine intentions, giving over the world to those who do not deserve to possess it.

In a moment of exasperation, one of Trollopes’ (Anthony, not Joanna) characters speaks to this effect: if good people will not fight for ownership of the world, the bad people will get the lot.

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