A brief history of commercialising Christmas

Saturday, December 26th, 2020

Tim Harford provides a brief history of commercialising Christmas:

Stephen Nissenbaum, author of The Battle for Christmas, points out that a crucial shift happened when the festival became a domestic occasion, rather than the anarchic street revels the puritans were so desperate to suppress.

When Clement Clarke Moore penned the line, “’Twas the night before Christmas”, nearly 200 years ago, Christmas Eve in his home town of New York was pandemonium — the streets patrolled by noisy gangs of yobs. Moore wanted to evoke a quiet stay-at-home family Christmas with not a creature stirring, not even a mouse. And of course, once Christmas became a family affair, traditional wassailing gifts of food and drink made less sense: people began exchanging shop-bought presents instead.

The commercialism of the Coca-Cola Santa and the Montgomery Ward Rudolph, then, built on a retail revolution of the early to mid-19th century. Advertisements for Christmas presents appeared in the US in the 1820s, and Santa Claus himself was wholeheartedly endorsing products by the 1840s.

In 1867, Macy’s store in Manhattan accommodated last-minute shopping by opening until midnight on Christmas Eve. That was the same year Charles Dickens read A Christmas Carol to thousands of people in Boston, the keeping of Christmas no longer being punishable in Massachusetts by a five shilling fine. (Dickens’s fabulous tale is expansive on the theme of generosity and, when you think about it, rather light on mentions of the baby Jesus.)

The backlash to the retail Christmas was quick to emerge. “The days are close at hand when everybody gives away something to somebody,” complained one letter published in a Boston magazine in 1834, adding, “I…am amazed at the cunning skill with which the most worthless as well as most valuable articles are set forth to tempt and decoy the bewildered purchaser.”

It is a familiar sentiment, as is the author Harriet Beecher Stowe’s complaint, in 1850, that “there are worlds of money wasted, at this time of year, in getting things that nobody wants and nobody cares for after they are got.”


  1. Lucklucky says:

    Social competition in context of more free time and prosperity?

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