Promotional holidays Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The selling of American holidays, the extension of age-old fairs and markets, has become a multibillion-dollar industry. The rites that surround holidays have been adopted, or even invented, by the pervasive marketing that surrounds them to such an extent that the celebration of holidays and the business of holidays have become inseparable.

In February, 1900, one of the nation’s leading trade papers, the Dry Goods Chronicle, set out the modern vision of the commercial possibilities of holidays.Holidays, retailingRetail trade;holidays

Easter has already been recognized as a basis of trade attraction, and, while it commemorates an event which is sacred to many, yet there is no legitimate reason why it should not also be made an occasion for legitimate merchandizing.

Two months later, the Dry Goods Chronicle further generalized the commercial interest in such festivals. The modern businessperson realized the economic potential in holidays, exploited them through sales and advertising, and took the lead in promoting them. Whether the occasion was Easter, the Fourth of July, Thanksgiving, or Memorial Day, “wide-awake” retailers were to conjure up “the spirit of hearty celebration” for the purposes of merchandising and consumption.

In Puritan New England, civic and religious solemnities gradually emerged in election days, militia musters, public executions, and the Harvard commencement, but the dominant rhythm of Puritan daily life was the weekly cycle of the Sabbath. The festivities of Christmas, Easter, and Whitsuntide were all rejected, as were other popular occasions such as midsummer bonfires on the eve of the feast of Saint John the Baptist.

A report from Virginia in 1719 noted that the unsettled conditions made holiday observance burdensome and impractical. Hard-pressed to subsist, colonists reportedly kept “no Holydays, except those of Christmas day and good Friday, being unwilling to loose their dayly labour.” When merchants began to promote holidays, modern work discipline still remained paramount. In the United States, efforts at holiday reform were apparent in pressures to make the Fourth of July safe, sane, and sober and in attempts to make Halloween a home-centered party rather than a night of pranks and property damage.

Holiday Sales

Certain products are targeted for specific holidays and have become associated with them, such as fireworks on the Fourth of July, pumpkins at Halloween, turkeys at Thanksgiving, and Santa Claus-themed decorations at Christmas. Flowers and candy are considered an essential part of Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day. According to Jupiter Research, in 2001, online retailers’ sales during November and December accounted for 36 percent of their annual revenues. In fact, the holiday rush at the end of the year is when merchants expect their biggest rise in sales.

The day after Thanksgiving is known as Black Friday, because it is the day on which retail businesses expect to cease being “in the red” and instead go “into the black.” That is, it is the day on which retail businesses begin making a profit for the year. To ensure this transition, businesses attempt to maximize sales on that day with significant discounts and promotions, and the day has become strongly associated with the beginning of the Christmas, retailing Christmas shopping season. However, the promotion of Black Friday has been too successful for some businesses: the heavy crowds that flock to shopping malls on that day have convinced many other shoppers to stay at home and shop online rather than patronize crowded brick-and-mortar stores.

In December, 2006, according to the U.S. Bureau of the Census, electronic shopping and mail-order houses accounted for $21 billion in holiday retail sales. The year before, there were 15,924 electronic shopping and mail-order houses in business in the United States, employing 253,677 workers. These stores were a popular source of holiday gifts, selling $162 billion worth of merchandise, of which 40.5 percent was attributable to online commerce. California led the nation in the number of these establishments and their employees, with 2,383 and 30,800, respectively.

Holiday Products

In 2005, there were 3,412 confectionery and nut stores in the United States. These stores thrive on holiday business, especially that associated with Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. Another such business is the floral industry. The combined wholesale value of domestically produced cut flowers in 2006 for all flower-producing operations with $100,000 or more in sales was $411 million. Some 21,135 florist establishments prepared, sold, and delivered Mother’s Day floral arrangements in 2005. Mother’s Day also accounts for a significant percentage of sales in the perfume industry.

Corned beef and cabbage is a traditional St. Patrick’s Day dish. In 2006, the United States produced 42.1 billion pounds of beef and 2.6 billion pounds of cabbage. St. Patrick’s Day is also strongly associated with beer sales, both in retail outlets and in bars. Many bars make as much money on St. Patrick’s Day as they normally would in a month.

Independence Day celebrations drive sales of hot dogs, sausages, and beef nationwide, as millions of Americans have barbeques on that day. In addition, July 4 is the single most important day of the year for the fireworks industry, which accounted for $206.3 million in imported Chinese fireworks in 2006. Imports from China;U.S. trade withTrade;U.S. with ChinaChina are also the source of the majority of American flags. Of the total $5.3 million worth of U.S. flags sold in 2006, $5 million worth were imported from China.

An 1883 advertisement for Prang’s Valentine’s Day cards.

(Library of Congress)

Halloween accounts for the majority of American pumpkin sales. The major pumpkin-producing states grew 1 billion pounds of pumpkins in 2006. The value of all these pumpkins was $101 million. The holiday is also crucial for costume and formal wear rental establishments and retailers throughout the country.

On Thanksgiving Day, millions of turkeys are eaten. The six major turkey-producing states (Minnesota, North Carolina, Arkansas, Virginia, Missouri, and California) raised about 175.3 million turkeys in 2007. This output accounts for about two-thirds of U.S. turkeys produced in 2007. The average American eats 13.1 pounds of turkey meat each year.

December is the central holiday season in the United States, in which Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and pagan solstice rituals take place. The U.S. Postal Service expected to deliver 20 billion pieces of mail between Thanksgiving and Christmas in 2008. The busiest mailing day of the year is December 17, as more than three times the average daily volume of cards and letters is mailed on that day. Businesses depending on Black Friday and the rest of the holiday shopping season include department stores, bookstores, clothing stores, jewelry stores, electronics stores, and sporting goods stores. The major Christmas tree growers reported combined sales of $249 million in 2006.

The value of U.S. toy imports including stuffed toys (excluding dolls), puzzles, and electric trains from China between January and June, 2007, was $3.3 billion. China was the leading country of origin for stuffed toys coming into the United States, as well as for a number of other popular holiday gifts. These include roller skates ($79 million), sports footwear ($193 million), golf equipment ($36 million), and basketballs ($23 million).


One of the most important sources of holiday promotion has been the media. Along with the advertisements for holiday sales in the newspapers, films and television have done their part. Films with holiday themes are especially popular at Christmas. Usually a new crop of Christmas-themed films comes out around Thanksgiving each year. One, Holiday Inn (1942), included several holiday songs, including “White Christmas,” which has since become a holiday standard. Another song from that film, “Easter Parade,” also became so strongly associated in the popular culture with the holiday to which it pays tribute that it has become part of the holiday itself.

Holiday specials have been part of television since 1947. The major programming revolves around Christmas, Easter, New Year’s, and Thanksgiving. The first special, The Story of Easter, aired on the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) in 1945 as an Easter Sunday evening program that told the religious story of the celebration through narration over religious paintings, scripture readings, and songs. Annual traditions include the Charlie Brown specials; the first one, A Charlie Brown Christmas, appeared on the Columbia Broadcasting Service (CBS) in 1965. There were also holiday specials about Charlie Brown and his friends for Thanksgiving, Easter, Halloween, and Valentine’s Day. Some made-for-television films focus on special themes of forgiveness and family. Many cooking and home shows, most notably by Martha Stewart, help viewers prepare for the holidays. Many of these shows are available on digital versatile disc (DVD).

Greeting Cards

The thread that binds all holidays together is the Greeting card industrygreeting card. The earliest known cards appeared around 1450 in Germany. Cards from woodcuts were the most prevalent and often involved the Christ Child bearing good wishes for an auspicious New Year. By 1770, greeting cards had evolved from woodcuts to finely printed messages, and engravers and printers supplied continental Europe with vast quantities of New Year’s cards. In modern times, the New Year has become an integral part of the holiday season, and New Year’s cards are a popular expression of hope for the future, used by businesses and individuals alike.

The first valentines in the United States were exchanged during Revolutionary days and were mostly handmade with sentimental verses written in flowing script. In 1840, Esther Howland, EstherHowland, an imaginative artist and entrepreneur, became the first regular publisher of valentines in the United States, eventually heading her own publishing firm that specialized in Valentine’s Day cards.

The rabbit and the egg are the most popular illustrations for Easter cards. The Easter bunny originates from pre-Christian legends, in which rabbits were used to symbolize new life. The custom of decorating Easter eggs dates back to the Middle Ages.

In 1863, cartoonist Thomas Nast used Clement C. Moore’s description of Santa Claus in his 1823 poem “A Visit from Saint Nicholas” (also known as “The Night Before Christmas”) as a model. He drew this version of Santa Claus for Harper’s Weekly magazine. It went on to become the model for most depictions of the spirit of the Christmas holiday. The first Christmas card was produced by London artist John C. Horsley in 1843, the same year that A Christmas Carol was written by Charles Dickens. The card, created for London businessman Henry C. Cole, added “Happy New Year” to its message of “Merry Christmas.”

Further Reading
  • Bird, William L. Holidays on Display. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2006. Comprehensive overview of the art and industry of the holiday display that traces its evolution as holiday decorations moved from shop windows to building exteriors and out into the street in the form of parade floats.
  • Dennis, Matthew. Red, White, and Blue Letter Days: An American Calendar. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2002. Explores the vast political and cultural terrain of holidays, charting how Americans have defined their identities through celebration, especially through the merchants and advertisers who sell their products by linking them, often tenuously, with holiday occasions.
  • Lavin, Maud, ed. The Business of Holidays. New York: Monacelli Press, 2004. Interprets holiday commerce and design, corporate culture, and tradition (both invented and inherited).
  • Marling, Karal A. Merry Christmas! Celebrating America’s Greatest Holiday. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2000. Describes the prominent role commercialism plays in Christmas as America’s central holiday.
  • Pleck, Elizabeth H. Celebrating the Family: Ethnicity, Consumer Culture, and Family Rituals. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2000. Examines family traditions over two centuries and finds a complicated process of change in the way Americans have celebrated holidays such as Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving, Chinese New Year, and Passover, as well as the life cycle rituals.
  • Schmidt, Leigh E. Consumer Rites: The Buying and Selling of American Holidays. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1995. Schmidt’s book is considered the first cultural studies and historical analysis of American holidays, their origins and evolution, and the rituals of America’s holiday bazaar that emerged in the nineteenth century.
  • Shank, Barry. A Token of My Affection: Greeting Cards and American Business Culture. New York: Columbia University Press, 2004. Examines the “structures of feeling” by looking at valentines, Christmas cards, and other missives that express personal feelings and sentiment on the holidays.

Advertising industry

Christmas marketing

Greeting card industry

Retail trade industry

Categories: History