Some will make you believe Santa Claus wears red-and-white to honor the Coca-Cola brand colors. This is absurd. This great man was dressed in red and white years before Haddon Sundblom’s famous 1930s ads. He was also promoting White Rock while he was doing it. It is easy to assume that commercial Christmas has been growing steadily since at least the middle of the 20th century. It is actually more fascinating.
Santa Claus was not invented by marketing people. Rudolph, the red-nosed reindeer was, however. In 1939, he was created so that Montgomery Ward stores could distribute millions of copies.
History of Christmas
For a long time, it has been used by retailers to get us to spend more money. They are not necessary, but they do need us to throw a party. The puritans tried to stop blowout winter feasting long before Christianity. Instead, they made Christmas a day for penance. Oliver Cromwell’s Parliament made it a point to sit on Christmas Day while puritan town criers would shout,” No Christmas!” Just in case anyone was looking to have a good time, no Christmas!” In Massachusetts, Christmas was illegal in the 1660s-1670s.
When did the folk tradition that feasting gave way to an “only 11 days left” retail experience?
Stephen Nissenbaum points out that the festival was made a more domestic event than the street revelries the puritans tried to suppress. This marked a significant shift.
Clement Clarke Moore wrote the line “‘Twas Christmas night before Christmas” nearly 200 years ago. Christmas Eve in New York, New York, was a chaotic time. There were noisy gangs patrolling the streets. Moore wanted to invoke a peaceful, at-home family Christmas without any creature moving, not even a mouse.
Christmas was no longer a family event
People began to exchange shop-bought gifts instead. The retail revolution of the mid-19th century saw a surge in sales, which led to the commercial success of the Montgomery Ward Rudolph and Coca-Cola Santa. In the US, advertisements for Christmas gifts appeared in the 1820s. Santa Claus was already enthusiastically endorsing products in the 1840s.
Macy’s in Manhattan opened at midnight on Christmas Eve 1867 to accommodate last-minute shoppers. Charles Dickens also read A Christmas Carol to thousands in Boston that year. Massachusetts no longer penalizes keeping Christmas. (Dickens’s fantastic tale is rich in generosity themes, but it seems a bit light on the mentions of Jesus the infant.
The backlash against retail Christmas was apparent
“The days are near when everyone gives away something,” wrote one Boston newspaper editor in 1834. He added, “I am amazed by the deceitful way that the most useless and most valuable articles can be presented to tempt the unsuspecting purchaser.
It’s a common sentiment. Harriet Beecher Stowe, an 1850 author, complained that there were “worlds of money wasted at this time of the year in getting things nobody wants or cares about after they are obtained”.
Similar complaints are often made by economists, most notably Joel Waldfogel (author of Scroogenomics). While most people agree with Beecher Stowe’s concerns, we often buy junk when confronted with actual retail experiences. We are too confident in our ability to choose the right gifts. We pay too much attention and too much time to fancy packaging. Wishlists can be a great way to purchase a welcome gift that doesn’t seem too crass.
We often believe that it is the thought that matters, but then we buy without thinking
The good news about Christmas commercialism? It is much less problematic than people think. Professor Waldfogel uses December retail spending to estimate the commercial scale for Christmas. He compares it with the average spending in November and January. This rough measurement shows that Christmas relative to other economies has decreased since the 1930s.
Only 30 cents of every 100 dollars spent in the US over the course of a year are due to Christmas retail spending. Our homes and cars cost more than gift-wrapped lingerie, or a Lego set. Although Christmas spending can be wasteful, it is at least contained.
This is, I believe, good news. While there are many reasons to gift gifts to people you love, poorly chosen gifts are a waste of time, energy, and natural resources.
If it is the thought that matters, and not the money that counts, then we should be thankful that Christmas spending shrinks each year. Merry Christmas to all!