Christmas Creep: The Selling of the Holiday Season

Organized Christmas

Are you suffering from "Christmas creep"? If you've been shopping lately, you know the symptoms!

Do you cower under trailing tinsel at the supermarket check-stand, trapped between two glossy ranks of Christmas magazines--in September? Do your teeth clench when you must push aside boxes of holiday gift wrap and Christmas ornaments to find school supplies and Halloween treats at your local drugstore? Does your mailbox groan under a daily dose of mail order catalogs, each admonishing you to "order early for Christmas delivery"?

Something is rotten in Denmark--and Alaska, Hawaii and the Lower 48. It's time to take a good, hard, jaundiced look at a major source of holiday stress: the distortion of the holiday season at the hands of the retail industry.

Fashionable as it is to decry the "commercialization" of Christmas, our society doesn't really mean it. The holiday season is big, big business.

From August to January, investment magazines and the Wall Street Journal anxiously finger the pulse of the Christmas shopper. Holiday sales predictions flood the headlines of the newspaper's financial section. Store managers appear on the local news, while accountant-types in gray suits sit in TV studios and pontificate about Christmas "trends"--will this be the year that hapless shoppers can be coerced into paying full retail price right up to December 24?

Christmas is big business, all right, but it wasn't always this way. Before the first World War, commercial aspects of gift-giving were nearly nonexistent. While children received a few toys, some candy or fruit, adults exchanged only token gifts, usually homemade in the week or two before Christmas. The blow-the-budget, new-car-with -the-red-bow mentality had yet to appear.

In the economic doldrums following the war, however, retailers seized the opportunity to stimulate business by promoting gift-buying for Christmas. Women's magazines, highly influential in pre-radio and TV times, ran bold-faced, guilt-inducing ads urging readers to "show their love" for their husbands and families by giving expensive, purchased Christmas gifts. And we bought it--and bought it and bought it and bought it!

Ninety-some years later, this strategy is ingrained in our economy, so much so that many retail stores' entire annual profits are earned during the six-week "Christmas shopping season". It's business, pure and simple. But is "business as usual" quite so pure and simple when applied to America's families? What effect does the pig-down-the-python holiday retail binge have on us and our children?

September's tinsel garlands, craft and cookie magazines are evidence of one malign effect: distortion of the rhythm, timing and length of the "holiday season". (Don't believe me? Just try to find those magazines when you really need them--in November!)

For Christians, the liturgical Christmas season is the 12 days between Christmas Eve and Epiphany, a time of celebration, feasting and joy. By contrast, Advent, the four weeks before Christmas, is a traditional time of reflection, discipline, and preparation. In the Christian tradition, one "keeps a good Advent"--austere, disciplined, and contemplative--in order to more fully celebrate the 12-day season of joy to follow.

Retailers have it all backward--and way, way too long!

Starting in September (August, for television vendors of "Christmas music" collections), merchants create an ever-expanding blizzard of advertising and promotion: a snowball that explodes the morning of December 25, leaving only the dirty slush of let-down and anti-climax behind.

The traditional two-week "Christmas season" has been replaced by an agonizingly-long "Christmas shopping season"--with NOTHING to follow but a few "Everything You Wanted, But Didn't Get For Christmas, Is On Sale Now!" events. By stretching the "holiday season" to four months (five, if you count the "after Christmas" peddling of leftover gift wrap and shop-worn ornaments), retailers' sales may increase--but real, live people face burst bubbles of expectation on the morning of December 25th. "Is this all there is?" we think, surveying the piles of shredded gift wrap.

Any parent knows the effect of this holiday distortion on children: my youngest son was so overwhelmed by the excitements and experiences of his two-year-old Christmas morning that all he could do was cling to me and cry.

The second effect of the retailing avalanche: the "whadjagit?" syndrome. Children (of all ages--adults are not immune!) simmer for months in a broth of greed, fired by misleading, repetitive toy commercials that cling to TV cartoons like bubble gum to the bottom of a chair. Gifts, the getting (and buying) of them, become the heart and soul of the holidays--and that's the way the merchants want it!

If we blindly follow the retailers' equation (Christmas=Presents =$$$), we're faced with a conundrum: by nature, the "whadjagit?" syndrome is impossible to satisfy. Gift getters never experience quite the joy they've anticipated, while gift givers can never purchase the peak experience they hope to provide.

Translation: four-year-old Bobby learns his "Monster V-Bot" doesn't really fly through the air, unaided, just like on TV; when he tosses it aside in disgust (usually to play with the box), Mom buries her head in her hands and tries to remember exactly why she spent hours shopping and searching and scrimping to purchase this dear desire of her offspring's heart!

Who gets what they want through the "whadjagit?" syndrome? Not the getters. Not the givers. The only winners are the ones left with the $$$ in the till--the retailers. It's a marketing triumph, all right--but it's also a recipe for personal and familial disappointment.

Get armed! Start the season by focusing on your family's holiday values. Make a holiday budget, and stick to it. Track spending with a set of gift lists. Investigate new ways to bring joy and celebration to the holiday, without spending money.

You have nothing to lose but February's unpaid bills!