How Christmas Grew

How Christmas Grew

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In view of centuries of criticism of the commercialization of Christmas, it is interesting to note that the holiday's secular, not its religious, aspect, has been most responsible for its popularity. In the United States "retailers have come to count on yuletide sales for up to 50 percent of their annual profits. The shopping season now pumps an estimated $37 billion into the nation's economy—making the American Christmas larger than the gross national product of Ireland" (Jeffery Sheler, "In Search of Christmas," U.S. News and World Report, Dec. 23, 1996, p. 64).

The lure of profit has proven so strong that, since the 1870s, merchants have vigorously promoted Christmas. Initially they even laid out their stores with more religious trappings, such as pipe organs, choirs and statues, than some churches could muster. Convinced of the economic impact of Christmas, President Franklin Roosevelt moved Thanksgiving from Nov. 30 to Nov. 23 to add another week of shopping before Christmas (p. 62).

"What many historians find most fascinating about the reinvention of Christmas is that its commercialization, now so frequently denounced, is what spawned the transformation in the first place. The 'commercial forms' associated with Christmas and other holidays, says Schmidt of Princeton [Lee Eric Schmidt, Consumer Rites, 1995], 'have become integral to their survival.' The consumer culture 'shapes our holidays,' Schmidt says, 'by taking in diverse, local traditions and creating relatively common ones.' To turn Christmas into a purely religious celebration now might cheer those who want to 'take back Christmas,' he says. But such an observance 'would lack the cultural resonance and impact of a holiday deeply rooted in the marketplace.' If Christmas came to that, adds Restad [Penne Restad, Christmas in America, 1995], 'we probably wouldn't keep it as a society'" (p. 64).