Christmas: The Holiday of Cultural Consumerism

Christmas is more than cold weather, hot-chocolate, and merriment. Some claim that Christmas is the season of giving, while one Christmas carol suggests, “tis the season to be jolly”. Yet before the official arrival of the Christmas season, streets are fluttered with Christmas decorations, carols can be heard in every department store, and the television and internet cluttered are with advertisements and sales promotions. What is the hype of the Christmas season all about? From a thorough research on this special season, its beginnings, and the so-called “spirit of Christmas”- Christmas is cultural consumerism at its maximum. Although Christmas is known as the season of giving, it would be more appropriate to rename Christmas the season of spending. Americans are buying, buying, and buying all in the name of Christmas. If Christmas is supposed to represent happiness, love, charity, selflessness, and community, then why does it cost so much to celebrate the season? It doesn’t cost anything to celebrate family, friends, customs, and traditions. Yet, named Christmas America’s favorite holiday. Christmas has been transformed, ritualized, valued, and is filled with expectations, all of which is influenced by America consumer culture. Three points specifically define America’s Christmas season: advertisements and commercialization, shopping and spending, increased revenue and the American economy. Through commercialization- music, movies, and advertisements- America’s consumer culture has transformed Christmas. Fundamentally, Christmas is defined as the busiest shopping, commercial, and economic time of the year.


Christmas and Commercialization

            During the month of December, American streets are taken over by Christmas. From large cities to small towns, Christmas decorations are seen on every corner. Even city hall participates in the spirit of Christmas with Christmas parades and placing Christmas trees in government buildings and landmarks. Stores and various industries participate as well, the local bank has a Christmas tree with mock Christmas presents underneath, department stores and super markets play Christmas music over the loud speaker, and corporations partake in Christmas parties and secrete Santa events. Consequently, all of America takes part in the spirit of the season. Be it as it may, where does this come from and why does America participate in the religious holiday in such a grand fashion? Almost everyone partake in the spirit of Christmas and tradition. They participate by making purchases associated with the season. They decorate their home with lights, plants, and ornaments. Thanksgiving and 4th of July are other American holidays. Despite this there aren’t songs and month long celebrations to mark the special occasion nowhere in the same fashion as Christmas. What makes this religious holiday so special for Americans? To understand this, the history of the American Christmas must be explored.

            After colonization and American independence, Christmas was not celebrated in the same manner as today. According to Moore, “In 1810, Christmas had been of no account, it was neither a season of religious regard nor yet of festivity”, (Moore, 2009). From her depictions, Christmas was not celebrated at all; however it was celebrated quietly in the home amongst family and friends. Although gifts were often given and distributed amongst one another, during this time most gifts were hand-made, tailored, and customized. “Few gifts were given in the early century Christmas, but for those who did exchange presents, books featured as a traditional choice”, (Moore, 2009). However, the industrial revolution and commercialization soon changed Christmas and how Americans chose to celebrate the season.

            The spirit of the season emerged in America and traditions began to form during the first part of the 1800’s. This began with the classic children’s poem published by Clemet Clarke Moore in 1823. “The poem, ‘Twas the night before Christmas’ has redefined our image of Christmas and Santa”, (“”). In this poem, Moore gave a unique description of our modern day Santa Clause, an image that is still used today. Not only did this poem provide an image of Old Saint Nick, it also created the tradition of leaving out milk and cookies, as well as solved the age old question of how one special mad was able to deliver gifts to all the children of the world in just one night. Thus, “by the 1870’s men dressed as Santa Claus started to appear in the United States department stores in person”, (Watson, 2010). It was at this time that, children were encouraged to sit on Santa’s lap and tell him what they want for Christmas. Consequently, “Santa Clause had been an advertising tool since the late 19th century”, (Watson, 2010).

            Commercialization and advertisements has set the standards and traditions of what is known as the American Christmas. “…in the past 100 years (Christmas) has become both the biggest religious and the biggest commercial celebration in America”, (Belk, 2001). However, Christmas did not become this way on merit alone. Through commercialism, movies, and music, the Christmas holiday has become a marker of American culture. Christmas began its transformation into consumerism in 1874 when Macy’s Department Store began to show case Christmas gifts in storefront windows, (Belk, 2001). With Macy’s benefiting in profit from advertisements and window displays, other department stores followed suit. They began to create elaborate window displays as well as market items in the paper and catalogues. Suddenly, “manufactured goods became part of the promotion of Christmas buying and gift giving”, (Belk, 2001).

Although it was Clemet Clarke Moore who created the image, Santa Clause was later popularized by Coca Cola’s advertisement campaign first generated in 1931, (“”). Coca Cola recognized a loss in sales during the Christmas holiday. To encourage sales, Coca Cola began to encourage consumers to purchase coke by creating a Christmas advertisement. In the ad, Moore’s image of Santa was used. However, Coca Cola replaced Santa’s pipe with a bottle of Coke, (Belk, 2001). This ad was then marketed heavily to consumers. Watson explains that these advertisements provided Santa with his customary red and white snow suit. “The color choices for Santa Claus’ clothes (red and white) were Coca Cola logo colors”, (Watson, 2010). Before the Coca Cola advertisement, “[Santa] could be seen in colorful robes and costumes and dress of each artist era”, (Watson, 2010). This image of Santa is now his only attire. The red and white Coco Cola logo colors remains regardless of the advertisement, mall appearance, or movie. “The presence of Santa in shopping centres, retail outlets, and homes clearly provide a strong visual presence for the Santa brand”, (Hall, 2008).  

Watson confirms that, “the impact of the Coca Cola Santa Claus image was witnessed in motion pictures as well”. This is observed when comparing the Coca Cola Santa with the Santa used in the 1947 motion picture, “Miracle on 34th Street”. Although it was Coca Cola who popularized the modern day Santa, it was the movie industry that continued to emphasize gift giving and materialism. Each motion picture begins to define what the American Christmas should look like and how it should be celebrated. It presents Santa Clause, Macy’s shopping center, and commercialism. Although the underlying message is supposed to be miracles and the true meaning of Christmas, it also underscores gifts, shopping, and our favorite fictitious character Santa Clause. However, the “important point to the film is the message of gift giving”, (Watson, 2010). Watson admits that Christmas has been transformed through advertisements, movies, and music that has turned the holiday into a season of materialism, purchases, and commercialism.

As the holiday gained in popularity, the movie industry began to use Christmas for profit as well. With the theatrical recreation of, “T’Was the Night Before Christmas”, in 1914, followed by “Babes in Toyland”, in 1934, and the American classic, “Scrooge”, in 1935, the Christmas theme of gifts and celebration remained. The movie “Scrooge”, in particular, romanticized and promoted the season of giving. This is observed as the antagonist, Ebenezer Scrooge is visited by a Christmas angel to show him the true meaning of Christmas- giving. Not only did this movie encourage Americans to spend and buy gifts for the Christmas season, it looked down upon those who do not give during this special time of year. Today, those who do not purchase gifts or do not believe in Christmas are damned as “Scrooge”, considered to be stingy, mean, and also cheap. Christmas music further demonstrated the need for Americans to purchase gifts. Seasonal music soon emerged with songs like, “The Twelve Days of Christmas”, which list the gifts that, “…my true love gave to me”, continued to transfix American consumerism to the Christmas holiday.

The movie, “Scrooge”, and its message of gift giving have given some Americans pause. Some, who criticize the American Christmas tradition, look down upon this movie and see it as a form of propaganda. Not only is gifting and giving encouraged throughout the movie, not celebrating Christmas through spending and purchases is frowned on. These individuals relate to the antagonist and call themselves the modern day Scrooge. Christmas antagonist argue that Americans “have merely lost the real meaning of Christmas, real meaning being described either in terms of the Christian tradition, or in terms of family and communality”, (Mikkonen, Moisander, & Firat, 2011). Once commercialism and materialism is taken out of the American Christmas all that is left is family, friends, community, and celebration. Consequently, Scrooges promote this form of Christmas. These individuals recognize the effect that commercialism, marketing, and advertisement has made on Christmas traditions. To combat America’s consumer culture, Scrooges have decided to focus on what Christmas means to them, whether it is from a religious stand point or to recognize the importance of family and community. Opponents of the commercial Christmas feel that American’s have purposely fallen into the Christmas frenzy. They argue that American’s are, “ignorant of social problems associated with materialization of Christmas and instead welcomed the commercialization, as it better serves their purposes of self‐indulgence and materialism”, (Mikkonen, Moisander, & Firat, 2011). Despite antagonist of the commercial Christmas, the holiday season continues to have a large impact and influence over American traditions and spending habits.

Growth in Spending

“The connection with Christmas clearly encourages consumption, gift giving, and expenditure as part of what has formed the ‘Christmas spirit’”, (Hall, 2008).With the commercialization of Christmas Americans are encouraged to spend not only on Christmas gifts but Christmas decorations. The amount of items and purchases made by Americans during this time of year is phenomenal. It is noted that, “92% of Americans give gifts on Christmas”, (Miller & Washington 2011). 57% of these people buy gifts for co-workers, 33% purchase gifts for their pets, and 40% give presents to servicemen including housekeepers, mailmen, gardeners, hairstylist, etcetera, (Miller & Washington, 2011). However, even when excluding gifting from the equation, other items are required for the celebration of Christmas. In addition to Christmas concerts, festivals, and good cheer, Americans purchase decorations that coincide with the holiday season. This includes Christmas trees, stockings, and candy-canes, wrapping paper, bags and boxes. People purchase Christmas cards, figures and figurines, Christmas tree toppings, lights, costumes, and attire. Other purchases include taking Christmas pictures(with or without Santa Claus), mistletoe, cutlery, and home furnishings. When considering that more than 90% of over 311 million people (the American population) make purchases in celebration of Christmas, it becomes evident that Christmas makes a significant mark on the American economy.

However, despite the growth in spending generated during the holiday season, there are few areas in which spending have declined. “The biggest reduction in Christmas Spending is Christmas Cards”, (Reid, 2011). There was a time when many Americans participated in exchanging Christmas cards. During the Christmas season, individuals would receive a multitude of holiday cards, sending Christmas greetings and holiday cheer. These cards are then distributed across the country, many receiving cards from distant friends and family members not seen or heard from throughout the rest of the year. With new technologies, including social media and SMS messages through cell phones, the Christmas card industry has witnessed a significant decline. The industry has slowly weakened since the credit crunch. “In 2006, 84% of us sent Christmas cards, this dropped to 73% in 2009”, (Reid, 2011).

Along with purchases made to celebrate the Christmas season, American’s spend on other items not accounted for in the statistics. This includes other things associated with the season. For instance, Christmas decorations, such as Christmas lights require additional American spending. To maintain light displays and decorations, Americans spend additional money on electricity and power. Furthermore, the travel industry generates additional profits from the season as well. As it is American tradition to spend Christmas with family and friends, many travel during this time of year to be with loved ones. The food industry also profit from the holiday season. Like Thanksgiving, the Christmas holiday is consumed with traditional foods customary during this time of year including fruit cake, sweets, and treats. The packing and shipping industry generate additional profits. This is seen as individuals ship gifts and care packages to friends and family as well as Christmas cards and season’s greets, all in the name of Christmas. These additional revenues during the month of December not only boost the American economy, but state and federal government receive a gain in profits from the taxes generated from additional spending.

“The vast majority … give gifts of less than $50 regardless of the occasion”, (Miller &Washington, 2011). Yet, when $50 is multiplied by 311 million people, merchants gain a profit that equals to billions of dollars that stimulate the American economy. There are two days specifically, which bring in an additional 5% in American spending. “Super Saturday (Saturday before Christmas) is the second largest spending day of the holiday season, following Black Friday”, (Miller & Washington 2011).  The “2010 total retail sale was $137.4 billion”, for the Christmas season alone. Such profit outcomes for the month of December is phenomenal. When retail sales for December are compared to other months such as June, December gained an added $52.7 billion. This is just in retail sales. These numbers don’t account for holiday travel, food markets, packing and shipping industries, oil and gas companies, hospitality and lodging. Thus, “Christmas holiday retail sales significantly impact the overall U.S economy”, (Miller & Washington, 2011).

“Christmas provides the occasion for a large amount of spending…in the United States for example, retail sales during the month of December tower visibly over the volume in adjacent months”, (Waldfogel, 2009). Waldfogel’s statement rings truth, especially when comparing and contrasting the billions of dollars generated throughout the rest of the year. Miller and Washington’s annual Consumer Behavior Report suggests this. In 2010, the month that produced the least amount of retail revenue was January with $84.7 billion. However, November came in second place for the most retail sales bring in $104 billion into the United States economy. The November retail sales, however, is arguable. As iterated earlier, Black Friday is the second busiest shopping day of the season. Furthermore, the day after Thanksgiving, Black Friday, officially marks the beginning of the holiday season. Retail and department stores market heavily during Thanksgiving with sales promotions and marketing strategies to encourage consumer spending. “December sales account for a huge share of the year’s sales, over a fifth at jewelry stores, about a sixth at department and discount stores, and about a seventh at clothing, electronic, sporting goods, hobby, and book stores”, (Waldfogel, 2009). Be it as it may, December still continues to generate the most profits of the year bringing in an astounding $137.4 billion.

“Missing out [on the true meaning of Christmas] should feel familiar. Most of us habitually miss it every year at Christmas. Our story is consumption and consumerism, and we’re obsessed with the climax”, (McKinley, Seay & Holder, 2009). Argued earlier in the research, most agree that the true meaning of Christmas is filled with religious believes, family, friends, and community. Although there is nothing wrong with giving on Christmas, participating in the commercial Christmas takes away from the spirit of the season. A lot of Americans spend more time and energy purchasing, shopping, and preparing for the holidays then celebrating the religious beliefs or appreciating family and friends. The beginnings of America’s Christmas traditions were developed, presented, and used for one basic purpose- to increase spending, increase industry profitability, and stimulate the American economy. Consequently, instead of buying a mother-in-law a sweater she’ll never wear, or buying your son a new bike (there was nothing wrong with the old one), why not consider giving time and financing to those who are truly in need. This can be done by giving to the local homeless shelter or donating to the local hospital. Falling into the propaganda of Christmas, is giving in to America’s consumer culture and giving power back to the industry that created the American tradition of Christmas. Jones argues that, “every time a person makes decisions about how and where to spend money they are exercising their power as a consumer”. Thus, Americans have the power and the capability to ignore commercialization and Santa advertisements that encourage Americans to spend. Although it is hard to ignore, “there are several ways that [others] can speak out against consumerism, raise awareness about consumerist media messages and make a difference in the ways companies operate”, this includes, “boycott power”, “Complaint power”, and “ethical consumerism”, (Jones, 2012).

From the late 1800’s to the early 1900’s the Christmas season has been traditionalized and manipulated by commercialism and America’s consumer culture. Some might call this propaganda. The tradition of Christmas is a religious celebration and a season to appreciate family and loved ones. Due to this, companies and industries have encouraged Christmas spending with commercialization and advertisements. They have idealized what the American Christmas should look like through music, movies, and advertisements. This image has encouraged Americans to spend. Not only to purchase gifts, but other merchandise that propagate the image of Christmas. Consequently, “this ‘true meaning’ [of Christmas] is the complicated part, yes gift giving had been part of the holiday, but the craving for nostalgia is distorted”; Watson goes on to state that, “it had been long since established as a commercial, not a private, holiday”, (Watson, 2010). People purchase and put up lights, Christmas trees, buy Christmas music, and attend Christmas parties and festivities.  People are encouraged to purchase, spend, and buy all in the name of Christmas and Christmas tradition. Spending stimulates business and encourages the American economy. As such, what is Christmas without these things? This year, when the Christmas season arrive, notice all the things around you and ask yourself, what is the true meaning of Christmas and what does it mean to you? All Americans should ask themselves this important question and create new Christmas traditions that define the meaning of Christmas and the spirit of the season.



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About Russia Robinson

I use my writing talents, and skills I’ve learned through academics and experience, to benefit the greater good of society. Conducting research, writing articles, essays, and blogging, I give informative information on a variety of topics and issues that affect society. I also write creative works like children’s books, short stories, poems, and a novel in progress. I earned a BA in English creative writing and American literature from San Francisco State and graduate studies in Technical Writing at Kennesaw State University. Through my career in education and mental health I have spent more than 10 years’ helping young people succeed. I am a certifiable Language Arts teacher, working in education, social services, and mental health. Interested in my writing services? Feel free to contact me via email.
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2 Responses to Christmas: The Holiday of Cultural Consumerism

  1. Pingback: What if Black Friday Sales are Overblown Hype? | Homestead Guru

  2. glimmerhope says:

    I loved this article. You are a very gifted writer! Thank you for not writing in text lingo and for using full and complete sentences. It was definitely a breath of fresh air.

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