When Did Christmas Become So Commercial?
December 19, 2013
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,
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,
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,
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."
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.
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