Is Christmas too Commercial? Well, That’s the Reason it Became Popular.
Tuesday, December 18th, 2018
It’s that time of the year again when some people will argue about the meaning of Christmas, others will be guilted into gift-giving and some will claim commercialization has ruined the holiday altogether.
But then there’s Dr. Ruth McClelland-Nugent, a pop culture scholar, who says the root of these external and internal conflicts actually lies in the creation of our modern celebration of Christmas.
“It’s ironic that today we talk about Christmas being too commercial,” said McClelland-Nugent, associate professor of history at the Katherine Reese Pamplin College of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences at Augusta University. “In the U.S., it really became popular through this commercial process. The popularization of Christmas in the United States begins with advertising.”
McClelland-Nugent points out two periods in American history that were turning points in creating the Christmas celebration we know today.
The first period was the 1840s, when Christmas enters the Northeast, and its big cultural centers like New York and Boston, as a commercially-tied holiday aimed at children. German immigrants and imports introduced the idea of Christmas as a child-centered holiday and a time to give gifts to others.
“Making it this children-centered Christmas with presents is of course a great marketing opportunity,” McClelland-Nugent said.
This new idea of a child-centered, gift-giving holiday was most prevalent in the Northeast and was not largely adopted in the South until the early 1900s, when mass advertising and mass production changed Christmas forever.
“We get the first mass advertising in the 1920s and 30s with professionals who are using some of the new psychological theories about advertising to drive these very sophisticated campaigns,” McClelland-Nugent said. “They were marketing a Christmas experience in which your children will love you and your family will be happy together. All you need to do is buy their stuff.”
In this second period, marketers worked to standardize Christmas and make the celebration popular. They accomplished that through mass advertisings on the radio, brand-related jingles, Christmas songs, massive store displays and, of course, a standardized image of Santa Claus.
“Coca-Cola gives us the modernized Santa, still jolly and fat, but with this sort of red suit and the standardized boots,” McClelland-Nugent said. “From there we get the 20th-century image.”
This cross-marketing strategy to reach a mass audience always carried the same message: Santa Claus is going to bring gifts to the children.
“The pressure is on parents to buy gifts for their children,” McClelland-Nugent said. “The feeling of guilt is absolutely intentional. If you don’t buy it, your children won’t have that. And who would want that? You want to be a good parent.”
The commercialization of Christmas, thus, is nothing new, she said.
“We have this history in our heads that the holidays were always one way until maybe 20 or 30 years ago, and everyone ruined it then,” she said. “But in fact Christmas has bits and pieces that come at different times and from different places. And so it keeps changing, and it’s still changing. I don't know what Christmas is going to look like in 20 or 30 years.”
For that reason, she says people shouldn’t be concerned when others fight over the meaning of Christmas.
“Those are continuing discussions,” she said. “We shouldn’t panic too much when people are arguing about what Christmas means or what it is or isn’t.”