The commercialism of Christmas: gift-giving, John Lewis ads, and eating turkey

Not to be a scrooge, but I’m starting to feel really cynical about Christmas…

Christmas, as the celebration we know it as, is still fairly new. Before the 1800s Christmas was very different, celebrated mainly by the rich with a lavish dinner and money donated to the poor.

But in the Christmas period of 2016–17 the total spend in the UK added up to £77.5 billion. Each household spent an average of £810 over the season, including £473 on gifts — this is also much higher than our European neighbours: German households spent an average of £616, Belgian £517 and French £484. When did the Christmas period stop being about festivity and family, and become all about the dolla’?

There has been worry about Christmas becoming a commercial holiday for decades, so I’m definitely not the only one feeling this way, which is somewhat reassuring.

In Miracle on 34th Street, released in 1947, Kris Kringle tells his friend Alfred:

“I’ve been fighting against [it] for years, the way they commercialise Christmas.”

“A lot of bad -isms floating around this world, but one of the worst is commercialism.”

Giving gifts

The custom of giving presents at Christmas time has its origin in the story of the Wise Men, who travelled to see Jesus after his birth, and brought gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Today shopping and presents is synonymous with the Christmas season, starting with the Black Friday sales and extending through the weekends running up to December 25. The annual trip to the Christmas markets, buying pointless £5 tat for your office secret santa, desperately scrambling around for something to buy your ‘I have everything I need’-dad. It’s all part of the commercialisation of Christmas.

The part of the Wise Men story that we seem to have forgotten is that each of the Wise Men brought just one gift, and each gift was meaningful. Frankincense was a perfume used in Jewish worship, and indicated that people would worship Jesus. Gold was associated with Kings, and represented the Christian belief that Jesus was King of Kings. Myrrh was a perfume which was put on dead bodies to make them smell nice, and this represented Jesus’ future: his suffering, death, and resurrection. So should we be taking a leaf out of the Wise Men’s book: buy less presents, but make them meaningful?

There’s also a compelling economics argument against buying lots of gifts at Christmas as an inefficient use of resources. At Christmas we spend our money on other people. That means that we are making assumptions about what other people need and want to buy, without having the knowledge or incentive to spend that money as carefully as the individual would if they were spending it on themselves. Spending money on other people’s behalf is simply an inefficient way to spend your hard-earned cash.*

Christmas adverts

How much of the commercial, money-spending side of Christmas was pushed upon us by advertising campaigns?

Perhaps the most surprising element of Christmas advertising is that the image of Santa Claus as a jolly, old, fat man in a bright-red suit that we now see as synonymous with Christmas was invented by Coca Cola in 1931, as the star of a magazine advert. Obviously Santa existed before this, but his image was less fixed, and although he was sometimes pictured in red, he wasn’t usually a jolly, plump old man. Through Coca Cola’s advertising campaigns, this image became commonly circulated and became set in stone.

The Christmas advert is now something of a phenomenon, signalling the start of the Christmas period. Arguably it was also Coca Cola who sparked this, with their Christmas truck. But you probably can’t think about Christmas ads without thinking of John Lewis: from Moz the Monster to the Bear and the Hare to this year’s less-well-received Elton John tribute.

Christmas ads are almost a microscopic version of Christmas itself, giving the appearance of being all warm and fuzzy and festive, but having a commercial drivers of brand awareness and profit at the heart. In 2012, for instance, John Lewis reported a 44.3% rise in sales over the 5 week Christmas period, compared to the previous year.

And then there’s all the other stuff

Of course, Christmas isn’t all about gifts. It’s also about putting up a real tree that could otherwise be contributing to carbon capture, or a fake tree that is contributing to our mounds of plastic pollution. It’s about buying expensive advent calendars to get 24 ‘presents’ that you didn’t really need anyway. And it’s about decorating your house with cheap and flimsy fairy lights, baubles, window stickers, tinsel and so on — most of which is also made from plastic, and will probably make its way to landfill after one Christmas (because who wants the same decorations two years in a row?)

And let’s not forget the food. Each Christmas in the UK alone around 10 million turkeys are slaughtered and eaten. Most people don’t even like the taste of turkey. Turkey farms have largely the same welfare issues as chicken: lots of birds crammed into tiny spaces with no room to move and no natural light, beaks cut off to prevent nipping, broken legs due to genetic modification to make the turkey grow faster, killed age 5–6 months (can live to 10 years in the wild). And then there’s the environmental issues that we must all be aware of by now: the heightened emissions from animal agriculture, the waste products leaching into our land and water systems, the amount of land and water used in production etc.

Not an accurate representation of a turkey farm.

Ultimately when I think of Christmas, I still think of family, of being together, and of festivity and good cheer. And that’s what Christmas should be about — especially if you don’t believe in the Christian origins of the holiday. Brands and marketing professionals have cottoned on to this, and use the season as a way to up their sales, making Christmas a status symbol: who spent the most on presents, who has the biggest tree, and so on. So this year I refuse to engage with all this extra ‘stuff’ around Christmas. I don’t have an advent calendar. My present to my family is going to be the cost of spending a day out together. I definitely didn’t go anywhere near a shop on Black Friday.

To me, Christmas would still be Christmas without all the stuff.

*If you’re interested, you can read more about this here:



Ramblings on communication and our climate crisis 🌱

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