Do you lament the commercial nature of Christmas? Do you pine for the days of your youth when Christmas wasn’t about buying things in stores, but was instead about family and goodwill?
You’re not alone. Given the state of things — Black Friday brawls, broken family get-togethers, loads of credit card debt — it’s easy to be bitter about Christmas, to wish for Christmas the way it “used to be.” What happened to the old fashioned Christmas of our parents, where it was all about family and where presents had meaning to them?
Whatever happened to that Christmas? And more importantly, when was that Christmas, exactly?
Deck the halls with advertising,
Fa la la la la la la la la.
‘Tis the time for merchandising,
Fa la la la la la la la la.
I am a child of the 1980s, and the Christmas of my memory was a purer, much less commercial holiday than it is now. I remember decorating the tree, visiting relatives, eating cookies, and fondly watching some of my favorite Christmastime TV fare: How the Grinch Store Christmas and A Charlie Brown Christmas.
Every year, I would laugh at the antics of the Grinch, delight in the soundtrack, and smile when the Grinch learns his lesson in the end: “Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before. Maybe Christmas, he thought, doesn’t come from a store. Maybe Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more!” And then there’s hapless Charlie Brown, who groans when he sees Snoopy decorating, “Oh no! My own dog has gone commercial!” Later in the special, Lucy says to Charlie Brown, “We all know Christmas is a big commercial racket” before ordering him to get a “modern” aluminum Christmas tree (in pink!). In the end, Linus has to remind us all “what Christmas is all about.”
As a child, though, I never stopped to think about how old these specials are. A Charlie Brown Christmas was made in 1965. How the Grinch Stole Christmas was made in 1966, from a book written in 1957 that carried the same theme. In other words, people were complaining about commercialization fifty years ago!
But if they were complaining about commercialization in the 1960s, that means this consumerist creep began earlier then that. So when did it begin? When was Christmas untainted by this commercial crap?
We wish you a merry Christmas,
We wish you a merry Christmas,
We wish you a merry Christmas,
And please buy our beer!
Maybe the unadulterated Christmas happened when the baby boomers were growing up. After all, the post-war period was a defining moment in the American landscape. Their Christmas must have been full of Christmas trees, happy children, stockings by the fireplace … and Miracle on 34th Street, which was released in 1947 and became quickly popular at Christmastime.
In Miracle on 34th Street, Kris Kringle, working undercover in Macy’s department store, tells his friend Alfred that “I’ve been fighting against [it] for years, the way they commercialize Christmas.” Alfred replies, “A lot of bad ‘-isms’ floating around this world, but one of the worst is commercialism.” Later, after the famous scene where Kris begins sending parents to other stores for their toys, a woman tells the Macy’s manager, “I want to congratulate you and Macy’s on this wonderful new stunt you’re pulling [… ] Imagine a big outfit like Macy’s putting the spirit of Christmas ahead of the commercial.”
Okay, so the commercialism-free Christmas wasn’t the baby boomer Chirstmas. Which isn’t too surprising, since Miracle of 34th Street came out nearly a decade after Mongomery Wards introduced what would become one of the crowning icons of Christmas: Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Their purpose? To generate sales for their stores.
Christmas comes but once a year,
So you better make hay while the snow is falling,
That’s opportunity calling you!
So when was that pure, unmolested Christmas? Perhaps we need to go back further, to the very origins of our holiday. No, I don’t mean Bethlehem; as any student of history knows, our modern Christmas tradition dates back to the 1800s. Today’s Christmas imagery is loaded with nods to the Victorian Era where many of the traditions we hold dear, from Santa Claus to wrapping paper, were born. Truly, this was where the pure, non-commercial Christmas can be found!
Or not. Victorian Christmas, as it turns out, was very much a manufactured product and it had a capitalist bent from the get-go. Stephen Nissenbaum has cataloged the rise of Christmas in his book The Battle for Christmas. It’s a fascinating chronicle of the way in which Christmas was shaped, and part of that shaping was the need of the people to buy things. In particular, the rise of the concept of the Christmas present — “the kind of gift that could be most conveniently procured through a purchase” — was there from the very beginning. Already by the 1820s publishers were producing fancy and expensive “gift books” and other specialty gifts specifically for giving during Christmas. By the 1840s merchants were using the image of Santa Claus in advertising as a way to entice spending. In fact, Nissenbaum concludes that in the 1800s, “Christmas became a crucial means of legitimizing the penetration of consumerist behavior into American society.”
People at the time were aware of this. In 1850, for example, Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote the story “Christmas; or, the Good Fairy,” wherein the main character laments, “Christmas is coming in a fortnight, and I have got to think up presents for everybody! Dear me, it’s so tedious!” Her aunt responds, “when I was a girl […] Presents did not fly about in those days as they do now.” Later in the story the main character asks her aunt, “But don’t you think that it’s right for those who have money to give expensive gifts?” The story’s theme? Gifts are better given from the heart than purchased from a store.
“Well, I guess you fellows will never change.”
“Why should we? Christmas has two S’s in it, and they’re both dollar signs.”
Okay, so the Victorians did it. They ruined the real Christmas for us all. Right?
Maybe. But before the Victorian Era, the Christmas we know, the one we celebrate and have fond childhood memories of, didn’t really exist. Before 1800, Christmas was a very different affair, one celebrated mainly by the rich via the hosting of lavish dinners and the giving of alms to the poor. And even then, people were complaining. Ronald Hutton, in his The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual year in Britain, documents primary sources dating into the 1600s that record not only traditions of spending and gift-giving engaged in at Christmastime by wealthy households, but also complaints of the skyrocketing expense of meals, entertainment, and charitable gifts to the servants.
So if Christmas has always been so commercial, where does this idea of “the way Christmas used to be” come from?
I think that it has to do with perspective. As children, we were not confronted with, nor interested in, the most “commercial” parts of the holiday. We didn’t know anything about how much Christmas cost, or the pressure our parents were under to buy things. Christmas was the wonderful time when we were given things and saw our families and ate big dinners and danced to Christmas music. Anything having to do with the commercialized side of the holiday—the advertising, the merchandising, the spending—was just part of the background noise. It’s only as we get older that we become more aware of the mercenary side of Christmas, and we mistakenly interpret it as a change in the holiday rather than a change in our own awareness.
Buying and selling and spending have always been part of Christmas, and so has lamenting about the loss of the glorious days when it wasn’t. This notion that Christmas used to be pure is part of the sentiment built into the very fabric of the holiday. We need to feel like it was better once; we need those warm fuzzy memories of a past that never actually happened. It gives us something to strive for today—futile, Sisyphean, but something all the same.
It makes me wonder: if were we able to go back far enough, would we find the Wise Men complaining about the price of myrrh this time of year?
[All lyrics are from “Green Chri$tma$” by Stan Freberg (1958).]
Hutton, R. (1999). The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain. Oxford University Press.
Nissenbaum, S. (2010). The Battle for Christmas. Vintage/Random House.
Stowe, H. B. “Christmas; Or, the Good Fairy.” In J. Charlton & B. Gilson, A Christmas Treasury of Yuletide Stories and Poems (2002). Barnes & Noble Books.
About Alison HudsonAlison is a writer and educator living near Ann Arbor, MI. She blogs regularly about skepticism, games, and the transgender experience.
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From gift wrapping to Christmas trees, department store Santa’s and beyond, what started as a religious holiday has taken on commercial significance.
Entrepreneurs, marketers and businesses large and small have certainly all played a role. But how did Christmas become so commercialized? Read on for a detailed overview.
It was F.W. Woolworth who first brought glass ornaments from the German cottage industry to the mass market in the US. In 1880, $25 worth of hand blown glass ornaments were purchased for his variety store in Lancaster, PA – all of which sold within two days. Fast forward to ten years later and more than 200,000 glass ornaments made from more than 6,000 recorded designs, each by individual families, were being imported into the US.
The rest is, as they say — history.
The first documented Christmas tree in the US was recorded in 1747. This was in Bethlehem, PA at the Moravian Church settlement there and it was reportedly a wooden triangle covered in some evergreen branches.
Santa Claus – as We Know Him
In the early part of the 20th century, Santa Claus (otherwise known as “Sinterklaas” in Dutch) was rather spooky looking and certainly not the jovial fella’ we’ve all come to know and love in modern times.
So what changed?
Nothing really – other than the influence of Coca Cola and some well executed holiday marketing.
Coca Cola ads featuring Santa Claus first began in 1920 in the Saturday Evening Post. By 1931, Santa was making appearances in Coca Cola ads in popular magazines, but a more wholesome Santa was desired. It was then that Coca Cola commissioned an illustrator by the name of Haddon Sundblom.
That year, in 1931, a more jolly Santa Claus appeared in National Geographic, Ladies Home Journal, and the New Yorker among others. Sundblom’s work and his version of Santa Claus (pictured above) in those years is now some of the most desired depictions of holiday advertising (and Santa Claus himself) for Christmas collectors and advertising collectors alike. The original artworks are housed in the Coca Cola archives and they have since been exhibited all over the world.
Ah, our “deer” Rudolph. This little guy wasn’t born under a hemlock tree in the forest. Oh no. Our dear Rudolph (who was almost named Reginald) was born — at Montgomery Wards. Yes, that’s right. He’s another example of genius marketing, timed just right. Rudolph was born from a massive marketing campaign in 1939 in a book written by a company advertising copywriter by the name of Robert L. May.
The purpose? To drum up newspaper coverage.
The book Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer was authored by May and was then given away for free. (More than 2 million copies were distributed during a time when 50,000 was considered huge).
“Then how all the reindeer loved him, as they shouted out with glee, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer . . . you’ll go down in history.”
Truer words were never spoken.
Black Friday stemmed from the tradition of department store parades sponsored around Thanksgiving that were meant to kick off the holiday shopping season and push consumers into stores. The term “Black Friday” first started to appear in the mid 1960’s, but didn’t really catch on until about two decades later in the 1980’s. The first documented use of the term was in 1961 in a statement made by Denny Griswold of Public Relations News:
“In Philadelphia, it became customary for officers to refer to the post-Thanksgiving days as Black Friday and Black Saturday. Hardly a stimulus for good business, the problem was discussed. He recommended adoption of a positive approach which would convert Black Friday and Black Saturday to Big Friday and Big Saturday.”
As you can see, those suggested terms never caught on. However, in the mid-80’s, retailers began to divulge that the term was actually in reference to the day after Thanksgiving being the first day profits would move out of the red – and into the black. Ka-ching!
Cyber Monday and Small Business Saturday
When it comes to Cyber Monday, this too was birthed from marketing by a division of the National Retail Federation, Shop.org, in 2005.
“In 2010, the Small Business Saturday promotion was created and sponsored by American Express, who registered the URL SmallBusinessSaturday.com and registered the trademark for the term Small Business Saturday,” according to SmallBusiness.com.
Candy Canes and Yule Log — And Cake
When it comes to holiday treats like candy canes and the Yule Log, both have a long history dating back centuries.
According to WhyChristmas.com:
“The Christmas Candy Cane originated in Germanyabout 250 years ago. They started as straight white sugar sticks. A story says that a choirmaster, in 1670, was worried about the children sitting quietly all through the long Christmas nativity service. So he gave them something to eat to keep them quiet.”
And History.com reports:
“The history of the Yule log cake stretches all the way back to Europe’s Iron Age, before the medieval era. Back then, Celtic Brits and Gaelic Europeans would gather to welcome the winter solstice at December’s end. People would feast to celebrate the days finally becoming longer, signaling the end of the winter season. To cleanse the air of the previous year’s events and to usher in the spring, families would burn logs decorated with holly, pine cones or ivy. Wine and salt were also often used to anoint the logs. Once burned, the log’s ashes were valuable treasures said to have medicinal benefits and to guard against evil.”
Shopping Mall Santas
Shopping Mall Santas started in 1841 at a Philadelphia store that had a life-size model of a Santa Claus that drew children to it. This spawned a trend in which store owners offered opportunities to see a real “live” Santa. Scroll down in this story for more and check some other references to see if we can find the name of that store in Philadelphia. R.H. Macy of Macy’s in New York City was one of the first department store owners to construct special holiday presentations. And in 1862, he was the first to feature an in-store Santa for children to visit. By the 1890s, the Salvation Army had begun the practice of sending “Santas” into the streets of New York City to solicit donations to pay for holiday meals for the needy.
One of the best examples of commercialism and now a multi-million dollar industry, the Christmas card dates back to 1843. The first commercial Christmas card was put out by Sir Henry Cole.
“Gift-giving has its roots in pagan rituals held during the winter,” the Christian Science Monitor reported. Also the twelve gifts associated with Hanukkah have contributed to the gift giving bend of the season.
Yule Log TV Program
Started in 1966, WPIX-TV (Channel 11) in New York City filmed the fireplace of then-Mayor John Lindsey at Gracie Mansion, the official mayor’s residence. The fireplace was aired with easy listening music in the background. The station cancelled advertising and a roller derby show to air the fireplace, which has become an iconic image of the holidays.
About the tradition of Christmas Cookies, The Culinary Life noted:
“Cookies have been around a long time (they probably originated as drops of grain paste spilled on hot rocks around a fire), but they became associated with Christmas in Europe in the 1500s. Gingerbread was a similar food, but laws restricted its baking to guildsman, however at the holidays these regulations were relaxed and people were allowed to bake their own at home, making a very special once a year treat.”
When it comes to the tradition of Christmas Dinner, The Mirror reported:
“The rich would have eaten goose and woodcock for Christmas dinner and, with the king’s permission, swan. The birds were covered with butter and saffron and then roasted. The poor could sometimes get goose from the Church, although it would cost up to 7 pence – then around a day’s wages. Venison was also on the menu for the rich and sometimes the poor would be allowed to have the deer’s leftover parts – such as the heart, liver, tongue, ears and brain — known as ‘umbles.Mixed with whatever else a cook could get, they were made into a pie — known as ‘umble pie.”
Elf on the Shelf
Alternatively panned as creepy and adored as a fun holiday ritual, the trademarked Elf on the Shelf dates back to 2005, when author Carol Aebersold self-published a tale of a little elf sent by Santa to report on children’s behavior leading up to Christmas. A toy elf sold with Aebersold’s book plays that role in thousands of homes around the country.
Store Sponsored Parade
As mentioned earlier, store sponsored parades were from the beginning a tradition driven by marketing more than by any other motivation. But the tradition did not start with the store now most associated wit a famous holiday parade. As History.com explained:
The idea of a store-sponsored Thanksgiving parade did not originate with Macy’s, however, but with Philadelphia’s Gimbel Brothers Department Store, which first staged a Thanksgiving procession in 1920 with 50 people, 15 cars and a fireman dressed as Santa Claus who ushered in the Christmas shopping season. Like Macy’s, J.L. Hudson’s Department Store in Detroit also planned a similar event in 1924. In New York, however, the only Thanksgiving parade that had previously passed through the city’s streets was its peculiar—and to many, annoying—tradition of children painting their faces and donning tattered clothes to masquerade as “ragamuffins” who asked “Anything for Thanksgiving?” as they begged door-to-door for pennies, apples and pieces of candy.”
Wrapping paper in some cultures, most notably Japan and Korea, goes back many centuries. But here in the West, wrapping presents in pretty paper dates back at least to the Victorian era. Today it is a $2.6 billion industry.
Department Store Window Displays
As Zady reported:
“R.H. Macy of Macy’s in New York City was one of the first department store owners to construct special holiday presentations. And in 1862, he was the first to feature an in-store Santa for children to visit. Several years later, in 1874, he created one of the first major holiday window displays with a collection of porcelain dolls from around the world and scenes from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin.’”
And where did Santa’s reindeer originate? Well, website AltogetherChristmas.com said:
“The first known written account of reindeer in association with the legend of Santa Claus occurred in 1821. That year, New York printer William Gilley published a sixteen page booklet titled A New Year’s Present, to the Little Ones from Five to Twelve Number III : The Children’s Friend by an anonymous author. In the book, reindeer are introduced into the Santa Claus narrative”
Santa, Sundblom Santa Images via Shutterstock, “Rudolph, The Red-Nosed Reindeer Marion Books” licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia.
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