Signgeist 4: Truth in (Seasonal) Advertising

What’s the one thing missing from our urban holiday “spirit”? Humble honesty.

Oh, the joy of the holidays—family, food, friends; traditions old and new; a coming together of past and present; a seasonal smorgasbord of do-it-yourself optimism; and a visual bombardment of twinkle and glitter…green, red, and otherwise.

Everywhere around us—from the uber-urban metropolis of New York City to far-away havens in the country—seasonal signs are popping up, offering everything from Christmas trees and turkeys to yoga, parking, and whoopie pies. Goofy graphics, cheesy fonts, and a palette of seasonal colors are hallmarks of holiday signs from coast to coast. No matter what the weather in your neck of the woods, you'll find signs large and small depicting evergreens and snowmen creating a cartoon kaleidoscope that is at once comforting, familiar, and predictable, yet frustrating in its sameness. 

Pre-fab or homemade, signs and decorations start to creep out before Thanksgiving, and before long, they cover every available surface proclaiming, "JOY!", “'TIS THE SEASON!!", "PEACE!!!", BUY BUY BUY SHOP SHOP SHOP!!! Many are crass advertisements, disguising their blatant commercialism in a sticky, saccharine, and insincere red and green holiday missive.

Regrettably, one thing that is missing in all of this urban holiday “spirit” is a sense of honesty. Real truth in advertising! If you want to find it, head outside the cacophony of the city. In rural areas nationwide, tree farmers promote their products with simple handmade signs. While garden stores and city vendors may employ a more upscale approach with banners from the local sign shop, it is the wonderful homemade signs that genuinely reflect their makers: imperfect perhaps, a little rough-around-the-edges, but honest, earnest, and true. These are the ones we love!

A favorite example of ours—that has since disappeared—was a child-like depiction of a pine tree with the words U-CUT and an arrow. It was simple, unpretentious, direct, and very, very clear. This sketch is what the sign looked like before it vanished—probably hit by a passing car.

Courtesy David Vanden-Eynden


Other roadside signs involve cutting a shape out of a sheet of plywood, painting it green, and embellishing it with a bit more information like a price and a touch of snow.

All photos courtesy David Vanden-Eynden, except where noted

Some signs are more stylized, reducing the tree form to a simple geometrical shape and adding the enticing word “Fresh” to make the sale.

Courtesy of David Vanden-Eynden

Humble honesty is reflected in this example. The humanistic touch here, aside from the imagery, is the addition of lights connected by a long, long string of extension cords—and the bonus apostrophe.

True, many of the images we see at the holidays are cutesy or simplistic: puppies and kittens wearing Santa hats, penguins with scarves, elves and reindeer and giant candy canes. However, some images can be a bit unsettling. The walking/talking Christmas trees in particular are a little frightening—close your eyes and imagine a smiling, talking pine tree coming closer, closer, closer…

But it is not only tree growers that get in on the act. Folks selling fruit, flowers, pies, grave blankets, and wreaths are all part of the holiday marketplace, red, green, and white featured prominently.

Like a handwritten letter or package from home, there is something comforting about simple, handmade signs. Gotta love the string of lights and the bow as the dot for the exclamation mark!

Courtesy of Linda Jones

But this is what the season is about, isn't it? (Not the stalking pine tree, the other stuff…) It is about sharing, about family, about giving. And while the chaos of the season is a bit much at times, it is the simple gestures that really matter and that are a reflection of something we all have in common–the honest and true spirit of the holiday season. Everyone can get in on it. Everyone plays a part. And, it’s affordable to all!

So, as the season swings into full mayhem mode, let’s do a few things together. Let’s keep it honest, keep it simple, keep it real.

Happy Holidays!

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