Guest Post: the Christmas Snow Globe

Every year, Exeter Geography graduate and intern Jemma Sherman gives her Dad a snow globe for Christmas. After taking our Geographies of Material Culture module the term before Christmas 2017, she made a new one. Here it is. And here’s what she wrote to him in his Christmas card… [actually it’s Jemma’s coursework. We really liked it].

Dear Dad,

Merry Christmas! I’m looking forward to getting home from Uni to see everyone again. For your present this year I’ve done something different – I hope you don’t mind! You see, I’ve been having these lectures which focus on the hidden lives within my commodities; the people who produce the components, assemble them and transport them. Our most recent task was to create an art-activist project on advent calendars. Art activism includes a “broad range of artists’ practices” (Grindon and Flood, 2014:10), highlighting social, political … and cultural struggles” (Darts, 2004:315). Flanagan (2009:3-4) says an artist is anyone who “creat[es] outside commercial establishments”, “making for making’s sake”. We discovered terrible things about the lives of those making these calendars, with children as young as twelve being exploited (Andrei, 2017). And this got me thinking about what else I get around Christmas time, which led me to our tradition. Well, your tradition really. I love it. Most years you get me a snow globe (if you can find one with a cute enough scene). I know that Carrier (2004:68) says “gifts within the core family are given without the expectation of equivalent in return”, but this year I wanted to give you one. You can open your present now – sorry, I’ve kind of ruined the surprise. There’re just a few instructions you need to follow (read first):

  • Move to a desk.
  • Unwrap it (don’t be fooled, I’ve just recycled some old packaging).
  • Open the box, but DO NOT look inside!
  • Close your eyes, reach into the box and grab the contents. Give it a shake and place on the desk.
  • Open your eyes – surprise! Now wait for the glitter to settle and enjoy.

Not what you were expecting? Let me explain…

You may think I’ve given you a snow globe like the ones I made when I was younger. In essence, I have. But with a twist. It’s a disobedient object; an “object appropriated and turned to a new purpose” (Grindon and Flood, 2014:14). Such objects “embody knowledge, … they are not formed from nothing” (ibid:18). So, what knowledge does this embody? Clearly, the scene inside is not like the ones you gave me. There’s nothing ‘cute’ about it. The scene is in fact an imitation of one in a factory in Yiwu, a small city in China’s Zhejiang province (Babones, 2016). My snow globes are all made in China, and Yiwu makes “60% of the worlds Christmas decorations” (Chapel, 2015:np) where no-one makes “more than £1 an hour, … [earning] £200-300 for a month of gruelling, 12-hour shifts” (Broomfield, 2015:np). Given “20,000 different Christmas items are made [in Yiwu] and shipped [globally]” (ZoominTV, 2015:np), it’s likely mine were made there. Instead of a nice Christmas scene, this globe shows a worker making baubles, in a factory where everyone must paint 100 daily (ibid) in hot conditions. As much as you and mum want me to still indulge in the magic of Christmas, where it’s made “by rosy-cheeked elves … somewhere in the Arctic” (Wainwright, 2014:np), it’s not fair to discredit the work that the real ‘elves’ do. The truth is, they don’t even know what Christmas truly is (ibid). Wei, aged 19, thinks it’s “like Chinese New Year for foreigners” (ibid). He, and the other ‘elves’ wear Santa’s hats. Not because they’re getting into the Christmas spirit, but to stop their hair from staining red (ibid). That’s what the rest of the globe shows; the red glitter demonstrating the “fine crimson powder” which covers them “head to toe” as they coat 5000 polystyrene snowflakes daily (ibid), the hat acting as protection. For us, red symbolises a merry Christmas, as we groom our house with decorations (McKechnie and Tynan, 2006). For them, it resembles a gloomier picture.

Shake it again. What happens as the glitter settles? You’re making the invisible visible. In the West, if we “have the luxury of not seeing an uncomfortable truth, [we] simply won’t” (Bloch, 2012:152). We don’t encounter these factory scenarios, and so we don’t think about them when shopping. That’s what art activism aims to reverse; “uncovering … ideological struggles within the realm of the everyday” (Darts, 2004:315). As Mitchell (1998:86) says, it’s a “mediation on blindness, the invisible, the unseen, the unseeable and the overlooked”. I don’t mean for you to feel uneasy, dad. It’s normal for arts, such as disobedient objects, to “move us into spaces where we can envision other ways of being” (Greene, 1995:135 in Darts, 2004:319). That’s a good thing. It means we can feel empathy. We can “step into another person’s shoes and … look at the world from their perspective” (Krznaric, 2007:9). We can appreciate workers such as Wei, “as a unique human being rather than a faceless representative of [a] social group such as … ‘a Chinese [man]’” (ibid:11). Krznaric suggested that “you may find yourself compelled to take action on their behalf, especially if you come to understand that they’re suffering in some way” (2007:11). And he’s right. I did. I made this globe.

It’s hard. We’re such a loving family. Gifting is such nice experience, and opening them one-by-one is such as big part of our Christmas. For lots of others, gifting too plays a big role (Caplow, 1982; Waldfogel, 2009; Farbotko and Head, 2013). But as fun as it is, we both know that the shopping experience can be stressful (Kasser and Sheldon, 2002), and it just promotes the materialistic aspects of Christmas (ibid). It also decreases well-being (ibid), not just for you and I, but for those making commodities. In China, “questions have been raised as to the ethical complexion of its capacity to meet the West’s…demand for Christmas goods and decorations” (Hancock and Rehn, 2011:740). So, I hope you don’t mind but I’m not giving Christmas presents this year. I’ve sent this to you early so you can pass on my message to mum; I don’t want you to buy me any either. Being back together as a family will be just as good in my eyes!

Love you lots,

Jemma xx

Reference List:

Andrei, M. (2017) Why Nestle is one of the most hated companies in the world, [online] (19 May 2017) Available at <> [Accessed 30th November, 2017].

Babones, S. (2016) China’s Economic Trajectory: ‘Good Enough’, [online] (26 June 2016) Available at: <> [Accessed 3 December 2017].

Bloch, N. (2012) Make the Invisible Visible, in Boyd, A. and Mitchell, D.O. (2012) eds. Beautiful Trouble: A Toolbox for Revolution, New York, OR Books: 152-153.

Broomfield, M. (2015) Yiwu Christmas Village: The Chinese City Making the World’s Decorations, [online] (24 December 2015) Available at: <> [Accessed 5 December 2017].

Carrier, J.G. (2004) the Rituals of Christmas Giving, in Buchli, V. eds. (2004) Material Culture: Critical Concepts in the Social Sciences, London, Routledge: 66-82.

Caplow, T. (1982) Christmas Gifts and Kin Networks, American Sociological Review, 47(3): 383-392.

Chapel, C. (2015) The Chinese Town That Makes Your Christmas, Available at: <> [Accessed 4 December 2017].

Darts, D. (2004) Visual Culture Jam: Art, Pedagogy and Creative Resistance, Studies in Art Education, 45(4): 313-327.

Farbotko, C. and Head, L. (2013) Gifts, Sustainable Consumption and Giving Up Green Anxieties at Christmas, Geoforum, 50(1): 88-96.

Flanagan, M. (2009) Introduction to Critical Play, in Critical Play: Radical Game Design, Cambridge, MIT Press: 1-15.

Grindon, G. and Flood, C. (2014) Disobedient Objects, London: V&A.

Hancock, P. and Rehn, A. (2011) Organising Christmas, Organization, 18(6): 737-745.

Kasser, T. and Sheldon, K.M. (2002) What Makes for a Merry Christmas?, Journal of Happiness Studies, 3(1): 313-329.

Krznaric, R. (2007) Empathy and The Art of Living, Oxford, Blackbird.

McKechnie, S. and Tynan, C. (2006) Social Meanings in Christmas Consumption: An Exploratory Study of UK Celebrants’ Consumption Rituals, Journal of Consumer Behaviour, 5(1): 130-144.

Mitchell, W.J.T. (1998) Showing Seeing: A Critique of Visual Culture, in Mirzoeff, N. ed. (1998) The Visual Culture Reader, London, Routledge: 86-101.

Wainwright, O. (2014) Santa’s Real Workshop: The Town in China That Makes the World’s Christmas Decorations, [online] (19 December 2014) Available at <> [Accessed 3 December 2017].

Waldfogel, J. (2009) Spending and Satisfaction, in Scroogenomics: Why You Shouldn’t Buy Presents for the Holidays, New Jersey, Princeton University Press: 6-22.

ZoominTV (2015) Yiwu: The Village That Supplies the World with Christmas, Available at <> [Accessed 4 December 2017].

Reference this blog post:

Sherman, J. (2018) The Christmas Snow Globe. 12 December ( last accessed <add date here>)

And here’s the original card and the scene inside the globe…

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