Is Christmas too commercial?

What is the ‘spirit of Christmas,’ anyway? Professor Phillip Hancock argues that the modern festive season has always had roots in the world of commerce.

Picture credit: Unnur Eva Arnarsdóttir

Once again Christmas has been in the news, but for all the wrong reasons. Sainsbury’s, the UK supermarket chain, recently entered the fray for the best seasonal television advert of the year and, in doing so, raised some eyebrows. Featuring a dramatization of the now legendary 1914 Christmas Day truce between British and German soldiers, it shows a young ‘Tommy’ deliberately leaving his bar of Sainsbury’s chocolate in the overcoat pocket of an equally young German soldier at the end of the match. Christmas, we are then told, is the time for sharing.

Made with the support of the Royal British Legion, which receives a donation for every bar of the chocolate subsequently sold in a Sainsbury store, the advert is not only a televisual masterpiece but also an act of Christmas charity in its own right. Yet many have asked the question, is this taking the relationship between the ‘spirit of Christmas’ and commerce too far? After all, despite its historical timing and charitable connections, the ultimate ambition is simply to encourage people to spend more at Christmas, and in one particular store.

In a recent public lecture given as part of the ESRC ‘Festival of Social Science’ I argued that while we are right to remain sceptical of such expressions of corporate altruism at Christmas, the relationship between the festive season and commerce is a deep seated one. Looking back to its pre-Christian origins, the Roman Saturnalia, for example, featured the sigillariorum celebratis, a fair for the selling and buying of clay or paste images that were the given as presents. Perhaps even more telling is the description of the end of year festival of the Kalends by the 4th century Greek philosopher Libanius suggesting that, in many respects, little has changed:

“The impulse to spend seizes everyone. He who through the whole year through has taken pleasure in saving and piling up his pence, become suddenly extravagant. He who erstwhile was accustomed and preferred to love poorly, now at this feat enjoys himself as much as his means will allow.”

In this sense, I argued, the template was therefore set from early on in the festival’s history.

As the season evolved the importance of its commercial dimension waxed and waned somewhat, but reasserted itself with a vengeance during the 19th century when Christmas was reimagined as a popular urban festival focusing on family, children and, of course, shopping. Certainly by the end of the century the run up to Christmas was considered to be the most important shopping season of the year in both the US and UK; the two economic powerhouses of the world. In the US, for example, the great New York department store Macy’s first opened until midnight on Christmas Eve 1876. Three years later in the UK the world’s first Christmas grotto, replete with Santa Claus, opened at Lewis’s Bon Marché store in Liverpool.

Throughout the 20th century a host of new ways of selling, advertising and capturing the commercial promise of Christmas emerged, all contributing to the perceived heath of the economy. From electric Christmas tree lights to the latest Christmas party fashions, people of all ages were encouraged to spend their way to a merry Christmas. Women, in particular, were the specific targets of a new wave of lifestyle magazines encouraging them to prepare each year for the ‘best Christmas ever.’ From special editions of established reads such as Women’s Weekly which, in 1985, asked the question ‘Are you ready – presents bought, cards sent, shopping done?’ to specialist annual publications such as Signature Publishing’s The Christmas Magazine, which boasts of its ability to increase the average individual seasonal spend to £1300 amongst its readers.

Today, Christmas remains as significant as ever, especially for the retail sector. As I was informed by one shopping centre manger I spoke to, the expectation was that they would do around 60 per cent of their annual business over the three months leading up to the big day. Not that this is surprising when one looks at the associated spending figures. In the UK, for instance, the average consumer spends around £800 on Christmas each year, the with overall Christmas sales in 2013- that being sales between mid-November to end of December – equalling a total spend of around £72 billion pounds.

Such expectations are not without risks, however. Dependency on a three-month window for trading survival is dangerous for any business, as recent failure stories in the UK such as camera store Jessops, and video chain Blockbusters, have shown us, with each folding directly after the festive season having failed to achieve the requisite uplift in trading.

So, while it is important that as a society we be concerned about the ways in which commerce appropriates important and shared cultural events and memories, the idea that Christmas can somehow stand aloof from the commercial sphere is to misunderstand both its origins and the vital importance it plays – both for retailers and the economy as a whole.