Christmas and commerce have long gone together like two turtle doves

Lights, shopping, presents … it must be Christmas. Magnus D, CC BY

The “spirit of Christmas” is all about universal goodwill, caring about others and the importance of family and friends, right? Or is it about shopping? The festive buying frenzy is the clearest indication of how commerce appears to have hijacked the season.

Yet while I am very sympathetic to this view, the idea that underpins it – namely that Christmas has been polluted or somehow led astray by the priorities of commerce – is a tenuous one.

The ‘golden quarter’

The season has obviously become more and more commercialised. Yet this, in itself, is not that surprising. Christmas is an increasingly global celebration that is of vast economic importance. For retailers in particular, this “golden quarter”, when sales can increase on the rest of the year by an average of 40% or more, is often a make or break affair.

So getting us into shops, or indeed clicking for online bargains, is something that has often been planned for since the previous winter, with no trick or technique ignored or overlooked. Indeed as the marketing manager of one major London retail store admitted to me: “in this office, it’s Christmas all year round”.

And the figures for this time of the year are indeed newsworthy. The average UK family, for instance, is expected to spend more than £822 on Christmas gifts and food, while the average national festive spend over the course of the season is more than £22 billion. Such economic activity in the retail sector also requires, of course, a similar level of activity in the labour market as thousands of seasonal staff are drafted in and trained to meet the often difficult demands of tired and frustrated shoppers.

A Christmas economy

The past decade or two has also witnessed the growth in a relatively new sector of the economy that’s sole activity is to make money out of Christmas. Lapland UK, for example, is a Christmas theme park in the south-east of England. The brainchild of a retired City trader, it offers a more convenient destination for UK and Western European visitors than the real Lapland. Now in its eighth year, Lapland UK employs around 250 staff, can host 8,000 - 10,000 families per season and has an annual turnover of around 2.5m.

Christmas comes to China. dcmaster, CC BY-NC-SA

And now shops and malls from Beijing to Santiago are filled with Christmas decorations and goods year-round. Equally, the worldwide manufacturing of Christmas decorations and gifts also ensures that a vast global network of supply chains and labour markets increasingly defines a seasonal circuit of production and consumption.

Long history

So, however we look at it, Christmas and commerce are seemingly inexorably intertwined. But is it fair to say that Christmas has “become” commercial? Well, if we consider the history of particularly the Anglo-American celebration of Christmas, then perhaps the answer is no.

First and foremost, Christmas festivities have always involved consumption and the mobilisation of scarce economic resources. Looking back to its pre-Christian origins in the mid-winter festivals of the Saturnalia and Kalends in ancient Rome, and Jul (or Yule) in northern Europe, feasts were arranged, gifts were given and, in the words of the Greek sophist Libanius, it was a time when:

the impulse to spend seizes everyone. He who the whole year through has taken pleasure in saving and piling up his pence, becomes suddenly extravagant.

More importantly, perhaps, the Christmas we know today is as much a product of the commercial aspirations of the Victorian bourgeoisie as it is of the celebration of the Christian nativity. In a new industrial age where weak consumption and social fragmentation were a threat to their new-found prosperity, the emergent middle classes embraced a newly invigorated idea of Christmas as a means of stimulating commerce, alongside promoting other social goods such as altruism and family values, in order to ensure a stable market.

Did Coca-Cola invent Santa Claus as we know him? José Roitberg, CC BY-NC-ND

And in this it certainly succeeded. Everything from Christmas cards to crackers, to wrapping paper and the newly manufactured gifts were either invented or sold by Victorian entrepreneurs. From here it was then only a small to step to a Christmas that was not only characterised by commerce, but also defined by it. Haddon Sundblom’s iconic image of Santa Claus for Coca Cola, or Robert L May’s promotional character Rudolf the Red Nose Reindeer, among many others, all became staples of the Christmas mythology, their commercial origins increasingly obscured.

So maybe it should come as no surprise to us that “the most wonderful time of the year” is now seemingly defined by expensive advertisements, theatrical price slashing and the sight of people fighting over access to the kinds of commodities that we are told are “must-haves” for the season. After all, if Christmas didn’t exist it might well be that commerce would have had to invent it, but then again, perhaps it did.