The Secret Financial History of Commercialized Christmas
Christmas started getting commercialized well before the 20th century, but it took Coca-Cola to launch a certain jolly old elf into the commercial stratosphere.
Tis the season to be… spending?! Yes, it’s true. That’s because the Christmas is far more than just a religious holiday. It also means shopping season, both in the United States and in many other countries around the world.
So why is it this way? Here’s how David Barbour, co-founder of Vivio Life Sciences answered that: “The nature of commerce and consumerism. The people want times designated for shopping and sales, and retailers want customer influx.
“Commerce will continue to expand, and holidays are a tribute to such realities. People love to buy things and receive presents and rejoice in spending money. And companies love making money on big holidays. It is almost mandatory for retailers, both online and with physical locations, to offer holiday sales and promotions.”
But how did it get this way? Let’s hitch a ride with the Ghost of Holiday Shopping Seasons Past and find out.
It all begins with a saint named Nick.
The first time Christmas was officially celebrated on December 25th was in 336 AD in Rome. The Emperor at the time was Constantine, the first Christian Roman Emperor. It is unclear if he hoped the celebration would boost the economy through an increase in shopping at the Roman forum.
The “real” Santa Claus, Saint Nicholas of Myra, was still alive at the time of that first “official” Christmas. He probably didn’t have any reindeer given that he lived in modern-day Turkey, but he was known for his generosity and gift-giving, which inspired the Dutch icon of Sinterklaas.
But while neither Christmas nor Saint Nick were initially capitalistic entities, they actually started becoming intertwined with commerce earlier than you might think.
Santa baby, you know I’ve been an awfully good shopper.
While our current idea of shopping seasons and GDP-boosting holiday spending may be uniquely recent, there were older precedents. Tim Connaghan, National Santa, gave us a crash course on the commercial history of Christmas and Santa:
“Surprisingly, in medieval times, St. Nicholas was part of the festivities during market times following All Saints’ Day, when the farmers and craftsmen would barter and trade at market to prepare for the coming winter months. In those times, the feast of St. Nicholas was on December 6th, and in the weeks preceding his feast, there might be plays or parades honoring the Saint, and children knew they might be rewarded on his feast if they had been good.
“This early element of marketing, beginning November 1st, has carried over to our modern day Holiday Season. And the only big change came when the Protestant Reformation, espoused by Martin Luther, eliminated the adoration of saints, including Nicholas, thus eliminating the gift giving from the saint. In its place, Luther promoted the gift giving to come from the Christ Child and be on his birthday, December 25th. And the Christ Mass eventually became Christmas. Along the way, the Winter Solstice also disappeared, with Christmas taking its place.”
But how exactly did the Santa Claus you see in the mall come to be?
“There is lots more to go with the evolution of the American Santa: Beginning in the early 19th Century, starting with the writings of Washington Irving, to Clement Moore’s poem ‘A Visit From St. Nicholas’ giving us detailed descriptions, all leading to the illustrations from Thomas Nast which gave us a visual image of Santa. Then in 1931, Haddon Sundblom was commissioned to create a wholesome looking Santa for a Coca-Cola advertising campaign. With Coke’s very well developed advertising, the image of Santa reached millions and firmly established today’s most popular look. He would annually create new images of the Coca-Cola Santa for over thirty years.”
So while it’s common to hear pundits mourn the commercialization of Christmas, much of what we know of Christmas has either been tied to or even originated from commercialization.
The reason for the season.
But even if Christmas as we know it is inherently commercial, that doesn’t mean the holiday season can’t still be meaningful. After all, people have used the cold winter months as a time to reflect and spend time with loved ones for millennia.
“Yes there is a strong commercialism to Christmas,” acknowledged Connaghan. “One reason Valentine Davies wrote Miracle on 34th Street was because he was worried about the commercialization and hoped that this story would give many a chance to look at Christmas in a different light.
“It is unique that this element of giving at the Christmas season has continued for over seventeen centuries. But it is not just because of advertising and marketing. It’s also about parents and family wanting to do something for their children or each of us wanting to do something for a friend, or loved one, or possibly someone in need. There is a special ‘warm’ feeling that we enjoy when giving.
“St. Nicholas gave away all of his wealth in caring for others and, in doing so was trying to teach us to care about our fellow man, and when possible or necessary, to give and assist. It does not always have to be gifts or money, but can also be in giving our time and service to assist others. And in doing so, we get to enjoy some wonderful feelings.”
So whether you’re shopping, spending time with loved ones, or getting Chinese food and watching a movie, we hope you have a great holiday season.
National Santa Tim Connaghan (@SantaHollywood) has served in the Red Suit since 1969. That’s fifty years! He has gone from his first volunteer task in Vietnam to working for National Department Stores, to joining with other celebrities at events, to appearing in National and International Commercials, and presiding over major National media events. As the National Santa for the Marine Toys for Tots, he volunteers and coordinates Santa visit all across the U.S. He is also the Official Santa for the Hollywood Christmas Parade.
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