Christmas, Capitalism and Retail
How Socialists are (Partially) Responsible for the Christmas Retail Shopping Season
In 2015, the Washington Post published an article titled, “Has Capitalism Devoured Christmas?”. The piece raises many interesting questions about spirituality and materialism, but the article’s author ultimately disputes the title himself. Despite that, the title’s question is definitely a legitimate one based on quantifiable fact about retail purchasing patterns.
Throughout this article we will explore the historical relationship between Christmas and retail. We will try to answer the questions of what created the juggernaut that is Christmas retail shopping? When did it start and why? And did capitalism really devour Christmas?
Background: What impact does Christmas have on retail today?
The Christmas season, between October and December, represents a disproportionate amount of US retail sales. Across all industries the season made up 27% of total 2021 retail sales; peaking at 35.5% in the category of total department store sales.
2021 was also the peak of Corona and E-commerce. People were buying online more frequently because of Corona. Additionally, online purchasing is skewed towards product categories that are perfect for Christmas gifts such as Electronics, Fashion, and Toys and Hobbies, which means that the 27% might actually be skewed by the Coronavirus. Now that the pressure surrounding Corona is abating and people are returning to stores, don’t be surprised to see the 2022 Christmas season represent even larger percentages of retail shopping. Additionally, in 2021 around $890 Billion was spent on Christmas purchasing. This year that is expected to balloon to around $950 Billion.
There is therefore no question that retailers’ pockets celebrate the Christmas season, yet the question still stands: is the relationship between Christmas and retail a new phenomenon? To answer this, let’s take a look back at the origins of Christmas.
History of Christmas
Christmas originated thousands of years ago primarily in Europe. It originally celebrated an important part of the agricultural season cycle. The holiday represented the passing of the winter solstice. For example, the Norse (Scandinavians) celebrated Yule on December 21st, which focused on this seasonal change. Similarly in Rome, around December the Romans would have the agricultural holidays of Saturnalia, Juvenilia, and the birthday of Mithra.
In the month-long holiday of Saturnalia “was a hedonistic time when the food and drink were plentiful and the normal Roman social order was turned upside down. For a month, enslaved people were given temporary freedom and treated as equals. Business and schools were closed so that everyone could participate in the holiday's festivities.”
It wasn’t until 400 years after the death of Jesus that the Church instituted the Feast of the Nativity, which later became Christmas. One theory is that Pope Julius I established this holiday to help ease the transition process for many newly converted pagans, who were used to their solstice based holidays.
Until the 1600s Christmas was a rowdy and hedonistic holiday which would feature the poor people gathering to rich homes and demanding food at threat of mischief. Afterwards, in England the Puritans briefly canceled the holiday and it was only reinstated with Charles II retaking the throne.
Meanwhile in the American colonies, because of the connection to English - Protestant Christianity, Christmas was actually quite controversial - in Boston it was even outlawed entirely. It took until June 26th 1870 to declare Christmas a US federal holiday.
Christmas only became the holiday we know today, as a result of riots in the early 1800s. Members of the lower class in the US were disenchanted with the elites and took to the streets frequently around Christmas time. In fact, one such riot in 1828 was the impetus for the New York City Council to make the NYPD.
To combat this the wealthier classes put together a propaganda effort to ease tensions. Leading the charge were famous authors, Washington Irving and Charles Dickens, who wrote books idealizing Christmas as a time of family and universal love. Americans then quickly adopted the holiday en masse and picked up customs from the immigrants who worshiped in Catholic and Episcopalean churches. One such custom was gift giving, and this set the stage for the commercial USA Christmas we are all familiar with.
Christmas was a shopping event from the late 1800s. Department stores, which more or less started in the 1850s, pushed many of the Christmas related traditions we are familiar with today. For example, Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer was invented in 1939 by Robert May, a catalog writer at the Montgomery Ward department stores. However, the seemingly over-long Christmas shopping season of October through December was ironically created by a very well known socialist named Florence Kelly.
Kelly’s parents were Caroline Batram Bonsall and William D Kelly, one of the founders of the Republican party. Florence was an advocate for many causes that today are broadly viewed as consensus but at the time were quite progressive. She helped establish minimum wage, children’s rights, eight hour workdays and founded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). She was also an early follower of Karl Marx and a member of the Intercollegiate Socialist Society.
Considering Kelly was a prominent socialist, it is surprising to learn she actually was in large part responsible for the extensive Christmas shopping season we experience. In addition to her many aforementioned accolades, in 1903 Kelly also wrote the essay “The Travesty of Christmas”. The piece examined how the December rush of Christmas shopping was bad for store workers. Thereafter Kelly led the National Consumers League (NCL) in efforts to expand the Christmas shopping season. The NCL would post flyers encouraging people to shop early.
Ultimately World War One cemented this movement into permanence. The US government developed a “Shop Early” campaign on behalf of the military supply chain to ensure that there would be enough transportation and labor for the war.
Retailers understood quickly that “Shop Early” was actually a very positive thing for them and thereafter would keep encouraging shoppers with deals and discounts, a tradition that continues to this day.
Returning to our original question of “has capitalism devoured Christmas?”. Over the scope of thousands of years, in a sense the answer is yes that capitalism did transform Christmas - however that is not the full story. Considering that Christmas originally was practiced as a way for poor people to be on equal footing as the wealthy of society - then yes, today that aspect is lost and with it are also gone the violent riots and destruction that were associated.
However, Christmas from the beginning was associated with gift giving and hedonism, so the conception that purchasing from retailers is something that only recently entered into today's consciousness is simply incorrect. Furthermore, the current Christmas season is actually the hard earned result of an ideologically socialist campaign. “Shop Early” actually makes everyone involved in the supply chain to the workers manning retail stores have an easier and more pleasant season.
All being said, retail and Christmas have deep roots together. The extended Christmas season today is probably the best it has ever been for everyone involved. Especially because of the massive amounts of charity given in the season. On the most basic level Christmas has always been associated with buying and selling goods, so don’t feel bad for buying that new great toy for your kids in October and have a merry Christmas with a full heart.