“From a commercial point of view, if Christmas did not exist it would be necessary to invent it” – Katherine Whitehorn
For some, Christmas is a spiritual festival and the season of goodwill, for others it’s about spending time with family, whereas some people don’t celebrate at all but, for the retail industry, Christmas is the most valuable time of the year. With Christmas spending in the UK set to hit a record £77 billion plus this year, did we destroy the true meaning of Christmas or is Christmas commercialisation and consumerism the real tradition?
Before the 19th century, Christmas was hardly celebrated and was not even considered a holiday by most businesses; however, fast forward to the final quarter of the century and the early 1900s and Christmas had become the biggest annual celebration in the world and started to form the commercial utopia we now know today.
It has been boldly claimed that the Victorians “invented” Christmas. Whilst this is obviously not true, and often said tongue-in-cheek, there is no doubt the Victorians did have a massive influence on Christmas as we currently know it. The British public was fascinated by the celebration of Christmas, with no little help from iconic novelist Charles Dickens and his festive tales (most notably “A Christmas Carol”); the Victorians completely refreshed the Christmas tradition in this country. Due to the fact the United Kingdom had become a nation of manufacturers, industrialists and shopkeepers throughout this era, the Victorians saw the commercial possibilities that came with Christmas and created many of the traditions we still celebrate today, without losing the emphasis on the season of goodwill.
Many Christmas traditions still celebrated today were introduced during the Victorian period. It is believed the introduction of Christmas trees came about when Queen Victoria and her husband, Prince Albert, posed around a decorated tree with their children (a tradition carried over from Prince Albert’s childhood in Germany). After this drawing was published in 1848, households across the nation were desperate for their own Christmas tree, decorated with candles, sweets, homemade ornaments and small gifts. Gift giving, however, had usually been saved for New Year’s, where family members would usually give each other small, modest gifts. As presents became larger, more extravagant and shop bought, gift giving became more central to the Christmas festival and were placed under the Christmas tree; a tradition still iconic around the world today.
In 2015, it was estimated around 880 million single Christmas cards were sold in the UK, up 5% from the year before and accounting for about 12% of the entire greeting card industry value; however, the giving of Christmas cards stretches back to the mid-1800s. A card was designed by an artist showing a family around a dinner table with a Christmas message, but these cards were expensive meaning ordinary Victorians were unable to purchase them. However, Queen Victoria’s children, and normal children alike, were touched by the sentiment of these cards and started to make their own to give to their loved ones. By the 1880s, the Christmas card industry was booming, with roughly 11.5 million cards sent in 1880 alone.
The Christmas feast is also a much loved tradition which we owe to the Victorians. The devouring of a large roast turkey was introduced during this period. Initially, the centrepiece of the Christmas dinner would be roast beef or goose; however the wealthier families decided to add turkey to their feast to show their status. The idea of eating turkey then trickled down to larger, middle class families as it was the perfect size. Today, turkey is at the forefront of most Christmas dinners, surrounded by roast potatoes, stuffing, and everyone’s favourite, Brussels sprouts.
Department stores took it upon themselves to create new Christmas customs and developed in-store attractions to entice consumers into their stores. In 1888, JP Robert of Stratford, East London, inaugurated a now iconic Christmas tradition – Santa’s Grotto. Children across London wanted to visit his store in order to sit on Santa’s knee and tell him their Christmas wishes. This tradition has grown to be a vital part of the festive season around the globe with hundreds of millions of children desperate to see Saint Nick every year. By the 1900s, all major stores and department stores ensured they had the very best Santa Clause available to create the most festive atmosphere possible. Further to this, the introduction of Christmas window displays in America had now travelled over to the UK which dazzled passers-by. The age of the commercial Christmas was now well and truly here.
Nowadays, many sceptics claims that Christmas is no more than an orgy of consumerism, which has completely engulfed the true meaning of Christmas; it has even led to petitions to ban retailers opening on Boxing Day so people can spend time with their families. However, this consumerism is not new; it’s been part of the Christmas tradition for well over a century. Is spending money on gifts for loved ones and creating a festive atmosphere really a bad thing? Does this not count as goodwill? After all, even the baby Jesus was given a plethora of presents.
Truth of the matter is, as a nation, we are obsessed with Christmas and whilst the true meaning of Christmas may have been left behind, and has now become a commercial celebration, that doesn’t mean the season of goodwill is dead. Whether it’s spiritual, a time for family, a time for giving or simply a time for partying and over-indulging… we can all find something we enjoy about Christmas.