How Christmas became Xmas: A history of commercialisation

Written by lee johnson | 13/05/2017
How Christmas became Xmas: A history of commercialisation
Father Christmas arrives at Selfridges by parcel post, with Mickey Mouse, 1935. (Getty Premium images)

One of the most common critiques of Christmas is that it’s become a celebration of consumerism, with buyers flocking to shopping centres and trawling the depths of the online marketplace to make their day a joyous one. Most people focus on spending time with family members, feasting on lavish dinners and celebrating the warmth of the holiday season, but there is no denying that commercialism has become an integral part of the proceedings. Although online banner-ads, a swarm of endlessly repeating TV advertisements and countless special seasonal offers make it seem like a modern phenomenon, Christmas has a long-standing relationship with commercialisation.

"Four of the deadly sins against which Christianity once railed are now seen by some to be venerated in Christmas celebrations: avarice, gluttony, lust and envy"

Russell Belk - Marketing Professor at York University

1843: The invention of the Christmas card

The Victorians are responsible for our current conception of Christmas. Ultimately, the practice stems from the Pagan celebrations of the sun-god Mithras and the festival of Saturnalia, but these were later encompassed by the Christian version of the holiday.

Gifts were a part of the original ceremonies, but Saturnalia, for example, typically consisted of candles, pretend fruit and dolls. These all have symbolic meaning, yet somehow this practice has transformed into iPad frenzies, sold-out games consoles and superfluous gadgets.

At the beginning of the 19th century, Christmas wasn’t widely celebrated, but society soon revived the practice. Although our modern Christmas celebrations in Britain have been linked to Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s German husband, the commercial aspects can be thought to sprout from 1843, when Henry Cole commissioned the first ever Christmas card. At first, their price tag was too much for ordinary Victorians, but as times progressed they became increasingly popular, and in 1880 11.5 million Christmas cards were made.

Presents used to be given to mark the new year, but the increasing popularity of Christmas meant that they were brought forwards to match up to the holiday. The first gifts were small enough to hang from the tree, but they were soon scaled-up.

Communications lecturer at the University of Houston, Jib Fowles, links the resurgence of Christmas to the arrival of the consumer economy, “As the holiday re-emerged, it used as gifts the goods that were at hand — in this case, manufactured ones.”

How Christmas became Xmas: A history of commercialisation
The take-over (Comstock Images/Comstock/Getty Images)

Building on traditions

Religious opposition

How Christmas became Xmas: A history of commercialisation
(Pool/Getty Images News/Getty Images)

Pope Benedict XVI criticised the commercial nature of Christmas in his Christmas Eve Mass in 2011, saying “Let us ask the Lord to help us see through the superficial glitter of this season, and to discover behind it the child in the stable in Bethlehem, so as to find true joy and true light.”

This sort of opposition is common from some Christians, who resent the plastic and superficial nature of the holiday which essentially celebrates the birth of their saviour. Some even argue that the use of the term “Xmas” is specifically designed to remove “Christ” from the equation.

The Puritans are amongst the most famous Christmas-haters. Their problem was largely that the holiday is based on a heathen, sun-worshipping pagan date not found in the Bible. The various arguments have been revived ever since, by everyone from Charlie Brown in his 1965 Christmas special through to Fox anchor Bill O’ Reilly in 2005, and they show little sign of dying out. However, in wider society Christmas is increasingly becoming viewed as a secular holiday.

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