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Over the past century Americans have turned Christmas into a very expensive holiday. Richard Feinberg, professor of consumer sciences and retailing at Purdue University, estimated that Christmas-related expenses would cost Americans $800 billion in the year 2002. In fact, these Christmas purchases account for just under twenty percent of all retail goods sold in the United States each year and up to fifty percent of retailers'yearly profits.

Americans spend time as well as money on maintaining their Christmas shopping habits. According to one survey, 97 percent of Americans buy Christmas presents. Nevertheless, only 28 percent of those who bought presents said that they enjoyed Christmas shopping very much. In spite of widespread ambivalence about the task, the average American household buys and wraps thirty Christmas gifts each year. About 62 percent of all American women begin this timeconsuming enterprise before Thanksgiving. Men outnumber women in the ranks of those who dislike Christmas shopping, so it is not surprising that they are much more likely to dawdle over this task.

Although retailers may relish this yearly orgy of consumption, other groups denounce it. Some women complain that the pressure of shopping for and wrapping a heap of Christmas gifts exhausts them, especially when added to the extra cooking, entertaining, and decorating that takes place around Christmas time (see also Depression). Others protest that the yearly tidal wave of spending has all but drowned the religious or spiritual meaning of the holiday. Still others worry about the waste of environmental resources. They point out that our current Christmas consumption habits produce five million extra tons of garbage between Thanksgiving, the kick-off of the Christmas shopping season, and Christmas Day. Indeed, in 1994 the American Greetings Company sold 1.7 billion linear feet of Christmas wrapping paper, enough to circle the globe 12 times. Finally, many Americans may simply be spending more they can afford to on maintaining their material Christmas celebrations. For example, one survey has shown that it takes the average American four months to pay off all their holiday purchases. How did Americans come to celebrate Christmas with such a greedy grab for worldly goods?

Christmas in Nineteenth-Century America

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, Christmas was not a very important holiday in this country. In fact, in many states it was not even a legal holiday (see also Colonial America, Christmas in). In the early part of the nineteenth century Americans who celebrated Christmas sometimes gave gifts to the poor and to servants, following old European Christmas customs (see Boxing Day; Twelve Days of Christmas). Christmas gifts were not all that common, and most Christmas expenditures went instead towards food and drink. Presents to friends and family, often distributed on New Year's Day instead of Christmas, usually consisted of inexpensive, homemade items, such as wooden toys, handmade articles of clothing, or homemade foods. The well-to-do might buy fancier New Year gifts for friends and family members, such as jewelry, watches, pens, pin cushions, gloves, and snuff boxes. American Christmas celebrations changed significantly during the second half of the nineteenth century, however. The holiday became more popular as Puritan objections to Christmas faded, and the customs of Christmas-celebrating emigrant groups, such as the Germans and Irish, blended with those of more liberal Anglo-Americans. Americans adopted the Christmas tree, and Santa Claus emerged as a uniquely American Christmas gift bringer. Christmas gifts became increasingly common, although many still preferred to give homemade rather than store-bought items (see also Ornaments).

Commercial Influence on Christmas

In the decade following the Civil War, American retailers began to cash in on the increasing popularity of Christmas. After 1870, newspaper advertisements promoting products as potential Christmas gifts appeared in New York and Philadelphia papers with increasing frequency. In 1874 Macy's department store in New York promoted the purchase of Christmas gifts to passersby with a magnificent store window display featuring $10,000 worth of imported dolls. Other department stores soon followed suit with lavish Christmas displays.

Some Americans still felt that store-bought goods seemed too impersonal and too commercial to give as Christmas gifts. Retailers, manufacturers, and advertisers employed several devices to break down this resistance to manufactured goods. Retailers began to package Christmas purchases in special Christmas wrapping paper as a way of increasing the festivity of store-bought items. The special wrapping paper lifted the item out the realm of ordinary purchases and identified it specifically as a Christmas gift. Manufacturers chimed in by shipping all sorts of ordinary goods in special Christmas packaging. Advertisers ran campaigns suggesting that mass-produced items, such as handkerchiefs, umbrellas, and socks made "ideal" Christmas presents.

In the early twentieth century retailers and advertisers sent Santa Claus to work for them. He appeared in many an advertisement, endorsing all manner of ordinary household items as perfect Christmas gifts. Moreover, around 1900 he began to appear at department stores and on street corners in business districts throughout the country. These hired Santas attracted customers to stores and collected donations for charitable causes.

As Christmas sales increased, retailers began to rely upon them for a high percentage of their yearly revenues. In order to lengthen this very profitable time of year, some stores began to promote the idea that the Christmas shopping season began on the day after Thanksgiving. In 1920 Gimbel's department store of Philadelphia sponsored the first Thanksgiving parade. The parade alerted Philadelphians to the start of the Christmas shopping season and quite naturally featured the American Christmas gift bringer, Santa Claus. Hudson's department store in Detroit and Macy's in New York soon adopted this festive advertising gimmick, planning their first Thanksgiving parades in 1924. So profitable was the Christmas shopping season that retailers lobbied President Franklin Roosevelt to prolong it from three weeks to four weeks. In 1939, after a decade of slow sales caused by the Depression, the head of Ohio's Federated Department Stores caught Roosevelt's ear with the argument that a longer Christmas shopping season would boost Christmas sales. Roosevelt acted on this advice, shifting the date of Thanksgiving from November 30 to November 23. In 1941 Congress changed the date of Thanksgiving again, decreeing that it fall on the fourth Thursday in November. A four-week Christmas shopping season was thus firmly established.

Changing Consumer Preferences

Shifts in the American economy also aided retailers in the quest for Christmas customers. As America shifted from an agricultural to an industrial economy in the late nineteenth century, many people lost both the leisure and the necessary raw materials to make homemade gifts. They turned instead to the marketplace for their Christmas presents. Furthermore, most Americans seemed to find the new industrially manufactured items highly desirable, and many now had the cash to buy them. The great shift from homemade to manufactured Christmas gifts took place between 1880 and 1920. After 1920 Americans relied almost exclusively on store-bought Christmas gifts. Before 1910 people who purchased Christmas gifts often gave cheap, decorative items, such as ceramic knickknacks, to friends and family. These frivolous novelty gifts fell out of favor in the early twentieth century. People began to send Christmas cards to their friends, distant relatives, and business associates in lieu of these gimmick gifts. Family members and close friends received gifts that were more useful, though more expensive, than the old gimcracks had been. These included such items as tools and household appliances.

By the late 1920s buyers' preferences began to shift again, this time towards luxury items such as jewelry and fine clothing. The homemade Christmas gifts of the mid-nineteenth century had satisfied people's basic needs. Now, consumers were expected to familiarize themselves with the tastes, and discover the secret desires, of each person for whom they bought gifts. In order to aid shoppers in this stressful mental exercise, retailers came up with a new idea: gift certificates.

Financing Christmas

The increasing commercialization of Christmas affected American saving and spending habits. By the early twentieth century many employers offered their workers a special Christmas bonus. This token addition to their regular wages helped workers to participate in the new, materialist Christmas. As this participation still strained the budgets of many working people, Christmas clubs sprang up to help them save money throughout the year in order to finance a December spending spree.


America's Christmas spending habits were established during the early twentieth century. As the United States became an affluent nation, Americans began to celebrate Christmas by spending large sums of money. Some point out, however, that America's Christmas consumption habits merely reflect her year-round consumption habits, which are extravagant by world standards. The average citizen of Vietnam earned $360 in 2000. Compare that with the $1,161 the average American family planned to spend on Christmas gifts alone in the same year. Other affluent nations also celebrate materially extravagant Christmases. For most Japanese, Christmas is neither a traditional folk holiday nor a religious holiday, yet they spent $7.5 billion for Christmas presents in 1993.

Many people have grown dissatisfied with the materialistic customs that characterize contemporary Christmas celebrations. In a 2002 survey, over seventy percent of Americans questioned said that they would like to reduce their Christmas spending and gift giving. Religious organizations, consumer advocates, and groups within the voluntary simplicity movement are supporting their followers in this endeavor.

Further Reading

Barnett, James H. The American Christmas. New York: Macmillan, 1954. Belk, Russell. "Materialism and the Making of the Modern American Christmas." In Daniel Miller, ed. Unwrapping Christmas. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1993. Comfort, David. Just Say Noel! New York: Fireside Books, 1995. Evergreen Alliance. The First Green Christmas. San Francisco, Calif.: Halo Books, 1990. McKibben, Bill. Hundred Dollar Holiday. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1998. Robinson, Jo, and Jean Coppock Staeheli. Unplug the Christmas Machine. New York: William Morrow and Company, 1982. St. James, Elaine. Simplify Your Christmas. Kansas City, Mo.: Andrews McMeel Publishing, 1998. Schmidt, Leigh Eric. Consumer Rites: The Buying and Selling of AmericanHolidays. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1995. Tyson, Ann Scott. "Christmas Without Shopping." Christian Science Monitor (Thursday, December 11, 1997): 1. Waits, William. The Modern Christmas in America. New York: New York University Press, 1993.

Web Sites

A site sponsored by Alternatives, a Christian non-profit group advocating simpler living and less wasteful holiday celebrations: A site sponsored by the Center for a New American Dream, a non-profit organization in Takoma Park, Md., dedicated to reducing consumption, enhancing quality of life, and protecting the environment, contains the pamphlet "Simplify the Holidays":
Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2003
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