Christmas marketing Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Christmas is the most celebrated holiday in the United States and accounts for a large percentage of retailers’ annual sales. As retailers have focused their efforts on capitalizing on the holiday season, some conservative Christian organizations have voiced objections that Christmas is losing its spiritual meaning and becoming secularized.

The Christmas season has become inextricably linked to the mass marketing and consumerism that helped forge a distinct American national identity throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Christmas has become a holiday in which spirituality, customs, and commerce collide. The figures for sales during the holiday season are staggering. In 1991, an average family spent $750 on gifts. A decade later, $6.1 billion was spent on home decorations, lights, and trees for the holidays, whereas sales for the entire season were approximately $200 billion. For individuals who are considered “dedicated collectors” and purchase Christmas-themed merchandise year-round, Christmas décor is now sold throughout the year at fifteen hundred stores nationwide, such as the G&L Christmas Barn in Windham, Connecticut.Retail trade;ChristmasChristmas, retailing

Mass Marketing and Consumerism

The consumerism associated with the Christmas season emerged during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. For the first time, technological and infrastructure advancements enabled goods produced by local retailers to be transported, distributed, and advertised on a national scale. The proliferation of advertising for Christmas began after 1820, when stores began to run advertisements for presents to give to loved ones and family.

The first Christmas tree with electric lights was displayed in New York in 1882 at the home of Edward Johnson, a colleague of Thomas Alva Edison. The General Electric Company saw this innovation as an opportunity and began to mass market bulbs during the 1880’s. By 1903, the Ever-Ready Company manufactured the first Christmas lights, called festoons, which came with twenty-eight sockets. However, the bulbs were not affordable to the general public until the 1920’s, and outdoor lighting did not begin to be promoted by General Electric until 1925.

In 1897, Marshall Field’s became the first Department storesdepartment store to design a special holiday window display. The early decorated windows were geared toward religious themes, but over the years, the windows began to display more secular images. They often took their themes not from spiritual sources but rather from such Christmas books as Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (1957) or poems such as Clement Clarke Moore’s “A Visit from Saint Nicholas” (1823; also known as “The Night Before Christmas”).

The Great Depression was the impetus for President Franklin D. Roosevelt to move Thanksgiving festivities one week earlier in November, so stores could have an extra week to count toward raising Christmas revenue. In 1939, Montgomery WardMontgomery Ward distributed to children copies of the song “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” which was written by employee Robert L. May; in 1949, Gene Autry recorded Johnny Marks’s popular song adaptation. The Rudolph story represented the company’s decision to market Christmas to children and, through children, to their parents.

Christmas displays became popular with the middle class after World War II, as postwar economic prosperity shaped middle-class aesthetic values and favored the development of competitions among neighbors in creating such displays. Lights became cheaper, and popular magazines and stores heavily promoted decorating as part of the joy of the season. Before World War II, homemade decorations cut from paper were common. However, during the 1950’s, mass-produced decorations became available because of the development of styrene, a plastic that could withstand the heat produced by illuminated figurines.

This talking Christmas tree, on sale at a Connecticut mall in 1997, is typical of the Christmas-themed merchandise offered in the holiday season.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

Santa Claus emerged as the embodiment of an American Christmas, beginning during the mid-nineteenth century after the publication of Moore’s poem. Cartoonist Thomas Nast popularized the jolly and rotund image of Santa Claus during the early 1860’s. Coca-Cola began to use Santa Claus as a pitchman in 1931, when the company commissioned illustrator Haddon Sundblom to develop an advertising campaign. Santa’s image could be widely distributed, since no company or individual could lay claim to its copyright. Santa Claus also became part of a growing industry known as “event photography.” By the mid-twentieth century, Santa Claus was present in malls and department stores throughout the United States as part the burgeoning event photography business. Having youngsters sit on Santa’s lap did not correlate to increased sales at the stores, but it was profitable for companies that contracted out for photographers. The malls or stores received a share of profits from photos sold to customers.

Twentieth Century Developments

One-quarter of all annual retail business is conducted during the Christmas season. Toward the middle of the twentieth century, the consumerism and materialism surrounding Christmas began to draw sharp criticism from conservative Christian groups. These groups argued that modern, secular marketing and advertising obscured the true intent, customs, and religious traditions behind the holiday. Beginning in 1949, the Milwaukee Arch Confraternity of Christian Mothers developed the slogan “Keep Christ in Christmas” to remind Americans of what they saw as the true spirit of the season. During the early twenty-first century, retail chains such as Target; Sears, Roebuck; and Wal-Mart underwent attacks by conservative groups for using the more inclusive “Happy Holidays” rather than “Merry Christmas” in store advertisements. Because the holiday is such as significant part of the retail industry, Christmas sales are often analyzed closely for clues as to the state of the economy, especially during periods of slow growth or recession.

Further Reading
  • Lavin, Mau, ed. The Business of Holidays. New York: Monacelli Press, 2004. Explores the American obsession with holidays and retail revenue in thirty-three essays on topics ranging from Groundhog Day to Christmas.
  • Nissenbaum, Stephen. The Battle for Christmas. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997. Traces the political, economic, and social history of Christmas celebrations in America from the seventeenth through the twentieth centuries.
  • Restad, Penne. Christmas in America: A History. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. Charts the evolution of the Christmas season from the colonial period to the late twentieth century. Also examines the emergence of Santa Claus as a quasi-religious figure representing hope, charity, and goodwill from 1820 to 1880.
  • Schmidt, Leigh E. Consumer Rites: The Buying and Selling of American Holidays. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1995. Examines the connection between American religious and commercial culture, focusing on St. Valentine’s Day, Easter, Mother’s Day, and Christmas.
  • Thompson, Sue Ellen. Holiday Symbols and Customs. Detroit, Mich.: Omnigraphics, 2003. Provides a general overview of the traditions, customs, and symbols associated with holidays celebrated throughout the world.

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Categories: History