A Christian feast celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ. Although there is no historical account to prove the exact day of his birth, the Christian church began celebrating the “Feast of Nativity” on December 25th from the 4th century on by the Western Church, and from the 5th century on by the Eastern Church. Many historians dated its first celebration in Rome in the year 336 AD, when Roman emperor Constantine I made Christianity the new official religion of the empire. Despite its Christian origin, its celebration, from the beginning, was always associated with pagan rituals that celebrated the end of the year. Thus, when the North American continent was colonized by English Christians, they brought with them customs, rituals and religious feasts interspersed with religious and pagan traditions (Karnal, Pundy, Fernandes, & Morais, 2007).
The very first Christmas Eve originated long ago on a cold night as a man sought shelter for his pregnant wife.
Biblical texts describe how Roman Emperor Ceasar Augustus issued a decree demanding that all those within the Roman empire return to the city of their birth for a census. So a man named Joseph made a ninety mile trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem with his pregnant wife Mary to obey the emperor.
Joseph, as the biblical Gospel of Matthew describes, had discovered that Mary was pregnant before they were married. “Being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame,” Joseph had “resolved to divorce her quietly.”
But Matthew writes that while Joseph was sleeping, an angel appeared to him in a dream and warned him not to do this. The angel told Joseph that Mary was pregnant through the Holy Spirit and would “bear a son” who would “save his people from their sins.” Joseph obeyed the angel, and while Mary was still pregnant, they set out for Bethlehem.
But when Joseph and Mary arrived in Bethlehem, the couple could not find anywhere to stay. They were forced to stay in a stable that night of their arrival, the biblical gospel of Luke describes, and in this stable their son Jesus was born.
“While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born,” Luke writes, “and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.”
That same night, Luke writes that shepherds who were tending their flocks in the hills outside Bethlehem were startled by the appearance of an “angel of the Lord.”
“An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.’”
Luke describes the shepherds hurrying into the city to find the baby Jesus “lying in the manger.” When they saw Jesus, the shepherds “spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child:” that the baby was a long-awaited “Savior” or “Messiah.” This Messiah had long been predicted to rescue the Jewish people from oppression.
All who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them,” Luke writes.
The baby Jesus would go on to suffer and die on a cross, both Mathew and Luke write. He would inspire thousands to follow him, to call themselves Christians, and to imitate his lifestyle and teachings. These Christians would found the Catholic Church, suffer gruesome deaths at the hands of the Roman empire, and stubbornly cling on to their Christian beliefs for thousands of years.
And to this day, Christians remain the world’s largest religious group. (Infowars)
Christmas, as it is seen in Brazil, is a very close reproduction of American Christmas. McKechnie and Tynan (2006) recognize the influence of American Christmas practices on the celebrations of many Western cultures, so understanding the history of Christmas in the United States is relevant to understanding the meanings attributed to this date on Brazilian soil.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, the Christmas celebration had not yet spread, and faced opposition in England and by many American settlers, specifically Puritans, Baptists, Presbyterians, and Quakers. At this time, Christmas was the most important feast for the Church of England, but the English Puritans disagreed with the way the feast was carried out, for in their opinion it had lost its Christian centrality and had become a secular and profane party, with the inclusion of rites and festivities that were far removed from their genuine and pure sense (Barnett, 1954, and Miller, 1993). Miller (1993) reinforces the idea that the Puritan founders of the United States were not, in fact, responsible for implementing the practice of Christmas. The author believes that the influence spread from the work of certain writers who wrote on the subject, but mainly from English writer Charles Dickens’ book A Christmas Carol, which brings back the spirit of Christmas. It is only in the middle of the 19th century, however, that the author finds records proving that the tradition of celebrating Christmas settled in once and for all in the US, and “it is only from this point on that we begin to find the crystallization of a range of attributes of modern Christmas from a variety of regional sources into a single, homogenized version that has regional basis” (Miller, 1993, p. 4).
Another fact that collaborates to establish the celebration of the date is the officialization of December 25th as a national American holiday. The formal recognition of the holiday diminishes the initial resistance of the Puritans to the date, and perhaps this fact contributed to their eventual acceptance. “It is suspected that the recognition of the date was a sign of an emerging national selfconsciousness, which found symbolic expression in the Christmas festival” (Barnett, 1946, p. 19-21, apud Belk, 1987).
In its earliest conception, the celebration of the date was associated to the religious rituals involved in celebrating and worshipping Jesus Christ in Christian temples, permeated by prayer, devotion, and reading of biblical passages. Celebrating in the family – a space marked by a purely affectionate relationship – was also a tradition. Even with the ritual of exchanging gifts, this was represented by an exchange motivated by the establishment of affective social bonds, as opposed to the commodification and impersonality that characterized the modern world (Miller, 1993). Although the tradition of “donating gifts” was an unusual practice at the time, American settlers maintained an old “obligation” to offer gifts to the poor. At that time, there was no “exchange” of gifts, but rather donation. Following socioeconomic changes and developments, practices changed and thus began the ritual of exchanging gifts among friends, relatives and neighbors. At the end of the 19th century, this custom spread significantly throughout the US and became a traditional seasonal practice among adults and children (Barnett, 1946, p. 80, apud Belk, 1987).
The ritual of giving and the intense commercialization of Christmas became more evident with the rise and growth of department stores in the early 1870s. “Emerging from simple and small establishments, department stores grew after the Civil War to become giants of modern retail, great bastions on the skylines of urban America and primary institutions in the rise of consumer culture” (Schmidt, 1991). Department stores became a “threat to churches, because of their high popularity; they were considered the new cathedrals of Urban America, places elected as the new centers for celebration of the holiday” (Schmidt, 1991, p. 12). Perhaps that is why they are considered one of the greatest promoters of Christmas, often more than churches themselves. By the end of the 19th century, department stores began to promote advertising campaigns on a large sale. The first Macy’s store was opened in 1862, and, in the mid-1870s, it was already an attraction in itself, drawing in thousands of consumers during the holiday season (Schmidt,
The review of national marketing literature on the subject points to a “silencing” about the date. This is curious, given its economic, social, cultural and symbolic relevance, and its status as rich phenomena for marketing researchers. A review of Portal Spell and of the annals of the Meeting of the National Association of Postgraduate in Administration, both maintained by the National Association of Postgraduate Courses in Administration (ANPAD) brought only three papers, namely: Casotti, Campos and Walther (2008), who carried out a study with young upper middle class university students in Rio de Janeiro, about the meanings attributed to Christmas by young people. The results indicated that young Brazilian people value traditions, although they do not participate actively in it, since it offers few elements that are to their liking. However, childhood memories are a place of refuge, and raw material for future plans.
Oliveira and Vieira (2010) sought to understand the influence of religious aspects on the establishment of meanings attributed to Christmas gifts exchanged by young Christians, based on the religious aspects related to the individual perception of the lifestyle and the meanings that these goods represent in individuals’ relationships. Religion appears as an important value in the individual cognitive structure of these consumers, because material and symbolic religious practices, such as those performed at Christmas, guide the individual decision-making process, as well as the establishment of meanings and, consequently, the processes of individual and collective decision within the consumer market.
The most recent and also more focused article, written by Pinto and Cruz (2014), describes an empirical research with the objective of studying consumption experiences related to Christmas in cities in the Minas Gerais countryside, in order to investigate consumption in this important date, from a regional, Brazilian perspective. The results suggest that Christmas represents a symbolic-imaginary place in the experience of these people, and is an important moment for a better understanding of consumption acts, their subjects and contexts.
In international literature there are articles that, in some way, mention issues involving the celebration of Christmas. In the late 1980s, Russell Belk published texts on the issue of Christmas. Belk’s (1987) text defends the idea that Christmas is more than a feast based on abundance, prosperity and wealth, because it is also a celebration of consumption, materialism and hedonism. Belk (1989), in the same sense, emphasizes that Santa Claus can be considered a god of materialism and hedonism in modern consumer culture. A few years later, Belk and Bryce (1993), based on analysis of films produced at different times, came to the conclusion that Christmas has become a postmodern spectacle. Both researchers have claimed that Christmas celebration has moved from churches to shopping malls. From a managerial perspective, Laroche, Saad, Kim & Browne (2000) sought to identify the effects of moderators such as general information, specific information, and vendor assistance in shopping for clothes on Christmas.
Other more recent articles can be mentioned, however. Among them, we can mention the works of Clarke (2006; 2007), who sought to measure the spirit of Christmas. Tynan and McKechnie (2009), in an experiential approach, sought to understand how consumers establish hedonic meaning through the family Christmas celebration. Through the analysis of 422 letters sent to Santa Claus by Australian children, O’Cass and Clarke (2001) suggested that children, in their Christmas buying behavior, are oriented towards famous brands. Also through analysis of children’s Christmas letters, Halkoaho and Laaksonen (2009) concluded that children’s letters for Santa Claus contain expressions of need, wishes, desires and dreams related to Christmas. These authors also emphasized that Christmas seems to be more of a “festival” of gifts than a feast with spiritual characteristics.
Among the various possibilities of “reading” and theoretical “cuts” related to the phenomena attached to the date, this article chose
the materialism imbricated in all situations of consumption on Christmas, a theme that will be unveiled in the next section.
Christmas and Materialism
On December 24, 1951, in front of several hundred French children attending Sunday school, Santa Claus was hanged and burnt. The executioners were the priests of the Dijon Cathedral who condemned Santa as:
a usurper and a heretic. He was accused of paganizing the festival of Christmas and installing himself like a cuckoo, taking up more and more room (Levi-Strauss 1963).
Pimlott (1962) calls the coexistence of the religious celebrations of the Christmas Nativity and the more Saturnalia-like secular celebrations of the same occasion, “the paradox of Christmas.”
The present paper first presents a brief history of the modem Christmas and redefines the paradox of Christmas. It then explores the shifting ways that Americans look at Christmas, as evidenced by mass media treatments, considered both qualitatively and (for a subset of media treatments found in selected consumer magazines and in Christmas comic books over the past 40 years) quantitatively. These analyses suggest that there is little real threat to the sacred status of Christmas, primarily due to the increasing interpenetration of values celebrated by the Christian and commercial sponsors of Christmas.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE U.S. CHRISTMAS AND ITS TWO MODERN DEITIES
Although Christmas itself may be traced to a number of pagan winter festivals such as the Teutonic Yule and the Roman Saturnalia in pre-Christian Europe (Golby and Purdue 1986), neither these nor the various later European Christmas celebrations are sufficient to explain the modem American Christmas. This lack of continuity is partly due to one of the first backlashes against Christmas. This reaction arose among the religious immigrants to the American colonies. As Barnett (1954) notes, Puritan reaction against the “wanton Bacchanalian feast” of Christmas led these colonists to begin shunning the holiday as early as 1620. By 1659, the colony of Massachusetts had passed an ordinance to fine anyone caught observing Christmas by abstaining from labor, feasting, or other celebration.
It took another century before Christmas celebrations began to emerge in America among pockets of Dutch, English, and German immigrants, especially in New York and Pennsylvania (Golby and Purdue 1986, McGinty 1979, Shoemaker 1959, Snyder 1985). And legal recognition of Christmas day by states and territories did not take place until the 19th century (1836-1890). Christmas celebrations are thought by some to have been dying out until a group of 19th century writers began to revive interest through sentimental Christmas tales tying the holiday to Victorian celebrations of home, family, and children (Golby and Purdue 1986). The most influential of these Writers Were Charles Dickens from England and Washington Irving from the U.S.. Dickens’ (1843) A Christmas Carol was and remains the most influential of these tales. Barnett (1954) may overestimate Dickens’ influence as almost singlehandedly reviving Christmas, but his work clearly has had a dominant influence.
Changes in the U.S. Christmas
Because Christmas in America reemerged as an amalgam of various European celebrations, it is appropriate to speak of the American Christmas celebration as unique. Present U.S. Christmas traditions and iconography include the German Christmas tree, the British Christmas card, and the Dutch Christmas cookie. While our modem Santa Claus draws on earlier European figures, he is a distinctly American creation (Belk 1987). Certain Christmas traditions such as Christmas dinner, charity to the poor, and role reversal and other social tension-reduction mechanisms have pre-Christian roots. However, most of our current Christmas celebration, including emphasis on family, card exchange, gift exchange, decorated Christmas trees, Christmas shopping, Santa Claus, Christmas carols, and Christmas cookies, and candy, either emerged or reemerged during the Victorian period (Snyder 1985, Golby and Purdue 1986).
While first generation European immigrants to America tended to preserve the celebrations of their home countries, adoption of U.S. Christmas traditions such as Santa Claus and exchanging gifts on December 25th rather than earlier or later in the month became a mark of acculturation in second and later generations (Sereno 1951, Shoemaker 1959). So strong were these symbols of Americanization that Santa and the Christmas tree were even adopted to some degree by second and third generation Jewish immigrants (Witt 1939, Matz 1961).
One inhibition to Christmas gift-giving in America, especially among English immigrants, was the prior tradition of giving only to servants and the poor during this season. As Snyder (1985) notes:
In the antebellum South, as well as the North the association of Christmastime gifts with servants and slaves played a major role in holding back more widespread gift giving (Snyder 1985, p. 60).
Snyder (1985) found that between 1820 and 1870 there was only a small amount of Philadelphia and New York newspaper advertising for Christmas presents, and these were most commonly presented as New Year’s gifts or generic “holiday gifts”. Based on his analysis of popular periodical editorial and advertising material, Waits (1978) finds that the period from 1880 to 1920 saw not only a great escalation in Christmas gift-giving, but a gradual shift from handmade gifts to manufactured gifts.
Several other phenomena in Victorian America supported this development of the commercial Christmas. One was the “Fancy Fairs” which were popular charity bazaars in which handmade Christmas gifts made primarily by women were sold (O’Neil 1981). Another was the development of opulent displays of Christmas merchandise by retail stores. In 1874 Macy’s New York store presented a $10,000 tableau of imported dolls that started a tradition of Christmas window displays and gave birth to the occupation of window dressing (Snyder 1985). New York City Christmas shopping became a popular tradition, sanctioned by U.S. presidents and New York socialites. Just a year after Macy’s first Christmas window display, the Christmas card was introduced from England and soon became a widely adopted part of U.S. Christmas tradition. While recent evidence suggests that religious themes are rare in contemporary Christmas cards (Hill 1969, Johnson 1971a, 1971b), Buday’s (1954) history of the Christmas card and the sample of cards presented by Holder and Harding (1981) suggest that religious Christmas card motifs were always in a minority. Instead, popular themes were and remain home and family (especially nostalgic renderings of “old fashioned” homes and family life), Santa Claus, children, animals, and nature (especially snowy scenes).
The explosion of commercial Christmas in Victorian America was not without resistance and criticism. Editorials in The Ladies Home Journal in 1890 complained that Christmas had become too commercial and was little more than a “festival of store-keepers” (O’Neil 1981). An early ethnography of department store toy departments in the weeks before Christmas found that clerks worked long days under trying conditions and that their Christmas commission- inspired eagerness irritated customers as well:
As soon as the elevators emptied themselves on the floor, there was one mad rush of clerks with a quickly spoken, “What would you like madam?” or, “Something in toys, sir?” And the responses to these questions were indicative of the characters of the people making them. The majority were rude, some amused, and a few alarmed at the urgency of the clerks. One young boy, on being assailed by half a dozen at once, threw up his hands in horror, and said: “For God’s sake, let me get out of here!” and fled down the stairs, not even waiting for the elevator (MacLean 1899, pp. 724-725).
Occasionally clergy railed against the commercialization of Christmas and demanded that Americans put the Christ back in Christmas (Barnett 1946, 1954). Such criticism was overcome by supporters of the popular Christmas in several ways. One was to invoke the metaphor of God’s gift of Christ as suggesting that we too should give of ourselves for the sake of humanity. Of course when these gifts come not from personal service or personal hand-crafting but from the displays of department stores, the illusion that we are giving from ourselves becomes a bit harder to sustain. As Waits (1978) perceptively notes, the problem then becomes one of sacralizing the transfer of these objects from the profane world of commerce into the sacred sphere of Christmas. Sacred as used here does not necessarily have religious connotations. It means instead that which is regarded as significant, powerful, extraordinary, and self transcending (Belk, Wallendorf, and Sherry 1989). Waits (1978) finds that manufacturers and retailers help to sacralize manufactured commodities by designating certain items as “Christmas gifts” rather than mere merchandise. Appearance in special Christmas catalogs, Christmas displays, and in the co-presence of Christmas icons such as holly, wreathes, Santa Claus, and Christmas trees all aid in this decommoditizing sacralizing process that Appadurai (1986) calls “singularization”. Another Victorian invention that helps separate items from the world of commerce is gift wrapping (Snyder 1985). We remove all evidence of an item’s commercial origin by removing the price tag, ceremonially wrapping it, creating mystery- a component of sacredness- (Belk, Wallendorf, and Sherry 1989). Based on his research on Christmas celebrations in Muncie, Caplow (1984) dubs this practice “The Wrapping Rule- Christmas gifts must be wrapped before they are presented.” We then ritually exchange and unwrap these gifts in the presence of extended family in a ceremony that heightens the feeling that these are not merely utilitarian commodities but are instead “gifts of the self “.
The popularity of “Christmas Clubs” since their 1910 origin is also testimony to the sacralization of purchased commercial gifts (Barnett 1954). Notably, these accounts are separated from regular savings accounts and they traditionally offer no interest (Waits 1978), although they may now offer token interest rates that are still below the market rates for other accounts. This helps to “launder” profane money and to reinforce the message that Christmas gift giving should be above considerations of mere investment and money. Separation of Christmas giving from the profane world of commerce would seem to be the most problematic when the gift is itself one of money. Indeed there are highly ambivalent attitudes toward money in our society (Belk and Wallendorf 1988). For instance, Webley, Lea, and Portalska (1983) found that holiday gifts Of money to one’s mother were widely seen as glaringly inappropriate. Although there is resistance to giving money to others as well, there are several ways in which even monetary gifts are sacralized. One is that almost all such gifts are from parents to children (Caplow 1982, Caplow, et al. 1982) or from other higher status persons to lower status persons (Cheal 1986, Moschetti 1979). This helps to define such gifts as charity. In addition, when cash is given it is sometimes disguised in the form of a check or gift certificate, making it seem less monetary as with casino chips. When this is not the case, the gift is preferably removed from associations with the filthy lucre by being in uncirculated bills placed in special gift envelope wrapping (Snyder 1985).
A further way in which the commercial Christmas was sacralized and by which objections were overcome, involves organized religion acting as a friend rather than a foe. As Barnett (1954) documents, the relationship between religion and secular aspects of Christmas has been one of ambivalence during the past century. While there are occasional religious condemnations of the commercial aspects of Christmas, it is now more common for a priest or minister to implicitly or explicitly Support the Christmas tree, Christmas gifts, Santa Claus, Christmas stockings, Christmas feasts and other aspects of the secular celebration. Barnett (1954) feels that this is an adaptive concession to inevitable forces, but this paper will later suggest other reasons for such a seemingly strange alliance.
Santa Claus as Secular Christ Figure
The contemporary commercialized U.S. Christmas is symbolized and focused not on the Christ child, but on Santa Claus. Scholars generally agree that Santa Claus is uniquely American (Opie and Opie 1959, Wolf 1964, de Groot 1965, Hagstrom 1966, Oswalt 1970, Jones 1978, Carver 1982, Samuelson 1982, Golby and Purdue 1986, Belk 1987). Belk (1987) suggests that the major differences from earlier European figures are these:
- Santa Claus lacks the religious associations of such figures as Santa Lucia, Saint Nicholas, Christkindlein, and the Three Kings.
- Santa Claus lacks the riotous rebelliousness of figures such as Saturn and Knecht Ruprecht.
- Santa Claus lacks the punitive nature of Sinterclaas (with his companion Black Peter), Ruprecht, Pelze-Nichol, and Saint Nicholas….
- Despite his mythical nature, with his many appearances on comers, in stores and malls, and in homes, Santa Claus is a more tangible and real person than his predecessors and counterparts …. As Caplow points out (Caplow, et al. 1982, p. 238; Caplow and Williamson 1980, pp. 224-225), Santa differs from the Easter Bunny by possessing a name, a known home and family, friends, great age, boundless generosity, and a gender.
- Santa Claus is a bringer of numerous and substantial gifts, not merely the fruits, nuts, and simple homemade toys of the traditional European Christmas figures (Belk 1987, p. 87).
Shlien (1959) first suggested that the American Santa Claus is our most sacred folk hero after Christ, based on fulfilling most of Ragland’s (1937) criteria (subsequently criticized) for heroism:
- A distinguished or divine origin
- Mysterious portents at birth
- Perils menacing his infancy
- Initiation or revelation
- A quest
- A magical contest
- A trial or persecution
- A last scene
- A violent or mysterious death.
Hagstrom’s (1966) scholarly parody also seriously suggests that Santa Claus is a sacred figure in a Durkheimian sense, citing as evidence Christmas rituals involving Santa and Shlien’s (1959) finding that children were reluctant to eat cookie representations of Santa Claus.
Belk (1987) goes further in drawing parallels between the American Santa Claus and Christ:
The similarities of the secular Santa figure to the religious Christ figure include miracles (flying reindeer, traveling to all houses of the world in one night, and, reminiscent of the loaves and fishes miracle of Christ, Santa’s bottomless bag of toys), elves as Apostles, reindeer as manger animals, letters to Santa as secular prayers pledging “good” behavior if they are granted, and offerings of cookies and milk as sacrifices placed upon a fireplace mantle altar. It is also possible to consider Santa’s travels on Christmas Eve as parallel to Christ’s journeys and secular Christmas carols about Santa as hymns. Just as Christ brought his gifts of love and salvation to earth and then ascended to heaven, Santa brings his gifts of toys and treats to houses and then ascends up the chimney. Furthermore, Santa is immortal, omniscient, knows how children behave, and holds them ultimately accountable for their actions by bestowing the rewards that he alone can offer. Belief in Santa constitutes faith …. The title “Santa” also retains the ascription of sainthood. And somewhat more like contemporary images of God than Christ, Santa is portrayed as a wise and benevolent old man who sits on an ornate throne symbolizing his power and wisdom. He lives in the snow white purity of the North Pole, which has some parallels to heaven (Belk 1987, p. 90).
This is not to suggest that Santa Claus represents the same societal values as does Jesus Christ. In fact in many ways Santa may be seen a polar opposite to Christ:
In terms of appearance, Santa portrayals are old and corpulent while Christ portrayals are young and thin. Rather than humble white robes, Santa dresses in rich reds and furs, and sometimes smokes a pipe. Santa is also more jolly and is often portrayed laughing his characteristic “ho, ho, ho.” Christ lived in a land of warm deserts, while Santa lives in a cozy house nestled in the cold snow of the North Pole. Christ was single and Santa is married. And most importantly, the miracles of Christ provided health and necessities while the miracles of Santa Claus provide toys and luxuries. Indeed while Santa brings an abundance of good things, Christ often condemned these things and the wealth they represent (Belk 1987, p. 91).
Since the image of the contemporary American Santa Claus was heavily influenced by Clement Moore’s (1822) poem, “A Visit From St. Nicholas” and Thomas Nast’s illustrations in Harper’s Weekly between 1863 and 1886, Belk (1987) turned to Nast’s life and work to better understand the contradictions between portrayals of Santa and Christ. Based on Nast’s avowed desire to make Santa’s furs look like those of the Astors’, the similarity of Nast’s Santa figures to his characatures of nineteenth century plutocrats such as William “Boss” Tweed, and Nast’s very similar depiction of a drunken Bacchus, Belk concludes that the American Santa Claus is the God of materialism and hedonism. Further evidence supporting this contention may be found in the highly materialistic content of children’s letters to Santa Claus (Caron and Ward 1975, Richardson and Simpson 1982, Downs 1983, Bradbard 1985), the addressing of some of these letters to “Heaven” (Snyder 1985), the observation of children praying to Santa (Bock 1972, Waits 1978), the appropriation of Santa (but not Christ) in advertising and retail sales (Munsey 1972, Waits 1978, Watters 1978, Louis and Yazijian 1980), and in foreign opposition to (Pierce 1979) as well as support for Santa Claus as a symbol of American materialism (Plath 1963, Stenzel 1975, Yates 1985).
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