In Search of Christmas
Imagine a purer, less commercial, more spiritual Christmas. But don't call it history
The poem quickly caught on, and newspapers soon began to editorialize about the "domestic enjoyments" of Christmas. Giving gifts to children and loved ones eventually supplanted the wassail as the mainstay of holiday celebration. And by the mid-19th century, what began in New York had spread throughout the country. Even some New England Presbyterians and Congregationalists, heirs to the Puritan legacy, became open celebrants of the Nativity. Christmas, says Nissenbaum, had been taken from the streets and domesticated.
Not surprisingly, the nation's merchants were favorably disposed to this turn of events. The new tradition of Christmas gift giving created an instant retail bonanza, and merchants and advertisers soon began to promote the season nearly as much as they promoted their wares. By the 1870s, one historian observes, "department stores often outdid the churches in religious adornment and symbolism, with pipe organs, choirs, ... statues of saints and angels" in a manner that bathed "consumption in the reflected glory of Christianity." Indeed, the holiday was on its way to becoming what Princeton University professor of religion Leigh Eric Schmidt called in his 1995 book, Consumer Rites, a "grand festival of consumption."
By the early 20th century, stores had largely abandoned overtly religious motifs, says Restad. But they "continued to undergo marvelous alteration at holiday time, becoming strikingly 'other' places." As competition for the attention of holiday shoppers escalated, so did the Christmas displays. During the 1940s, Chicago's Marshall Field & Co. began to turn its huge department store into "a glittering fairyland" at Christmastime and each year came up with a secret new theme for its decorations.
Santa on parade. To expand holiday profits, many stores made Thanksgiving the official springboard for Christmas sales; others started as early as Halloween. In 1920, Gimbels in Philadelphia organized the first Thanksgiving Day parade and featured Santa Claus as the main attraction. And in 1924, both Hudson's in Detroit and Macy's in New York followed suit.
So vital was Thanksgiving in launching the Christmas season, says Restad, that commercial interests "conspired in resetting its date." In 1939, after years of Depression-deflated sales, the head of Ohio's Federated Department Stores argued that by advancing the date of Thanksgiving one week, six days of shopping would be added. Convinced by his logic, says Restad, President Franklin Roosevelt moved the feast from November 30 to November 23. And in 1941, Congress set the annual date of Thanksgiving as the fourth Thursday in November--ensuring a four-week shopping season each year. The nation's recognition of Christmas as a powerful economic force had reached its highest levels.
In the years since, the reinvented traditions of this modern American Christmas have permeated the culture through a potent combination of commerce and new communications media. Annual reruns of holiday television specials and films like Miracle on 34th Street have become rituals in themselves, homogenizing the Christmas experience for many Americans. And 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.