How Christmas became Xmas: A history of commercialisation

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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.”

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Building on traditions

Many of our familiar Christmas traditions were laid down by the Victorians, but pushed further and further throughout the 20th century. For example, decorations became less haphazard and more stylized and important. The gifts became more extravagant as manufacturing continued to advance, and they started to take centre stage in the celebrations. St. Nicholas characters became prominent figures, and soon developed into one of the core images of Christmas commercialisation: the Coca-Cola Santa Claus.

Although the British Father Christmas stemmed from medieval times, the idea was popularised again in the 1860s thanks to an engraving of a poem written by Clement C. Moore about St. Nicholas. Eventually, the traditionally jolly Father Christmas was merged with the European “Sinterklaas” style gift-giver. His focus on rewarding good behaviour and punishing bad behaviour seems positive, but York University Marketing Professor Russell Belk sees it in bleaker terms. To him, the St. Nicholas figure represents the idea that “if one simply deserves it, material wishes will come true.”

This focus on gifts and consumerism started to attract criticism pretty early on. In 1890, the Ladies’ Home Journal denounced it as a “festival for shopkeepers,” and in the 1950s a group of French priests treated hundreds of children to a burning effigy of Santa Claus. He was being burned as a “heretic,” though obviously this was the punishment for his position as the commercial, secular figurehead of the celebration. By that point, the capitalist nature of Christmas was firmly established. In the US in 1939, President Roosevelt had moved the date of Thanksgiving forwards to allow for a longer Christmas shopping season.

Christmas – for Belk and fellow researcher Wendy Brice – has become “the distilled essence of contemporary consumption.” The Christian underpinnings have become fused with the marketing message that plays out of every television. The family values, the generous spirit of giving and the overall positivity of the holiday are repackaged and presented as a subconscious reason to buy a particular product. According to Belk, this actually serves to protect the Christian core of the ceremony, although many religious leaders disagree. As Tom Lehrer quips in his 1959 song “A Christmas Carol”: “Angels we have heard on high tell us to go out and buy.”

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Religious opposition

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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.