There will always be confident party-goers donning unforgivable sweaters pasted against the white shadows of winter. There will be carols that no amount of eggnog could auto-tune. There will be awkward mistletoe mix-ups, unsatisfactory secret Santas and discourteous family dinners. But the majority will celebrate Christmas the way it has always been celebrated in the United States—by buying a lot of stuff.
Consumerism and Christmas both start with a “C.” Coincidence? I think not. The truth is that in our country, the words are synonymous. It is how we celebrate. And it is not a bad thing.
History.com outlines the history of Christmas not as a time of baby gods, adventurous gift-bearing camel riders, or virgin births. “The middle of winter has long been a time of celebration around the world. Centuries before the arrival of the man called Jesus, early Europeans celebrated light and birth in the darkest days of winter.”
The Norse would set large logs of wood on fire and feast until they burned out. The Germans honored Oden, the pagan god. Roman slaves and their masters would switch social statuses to celebrate Saturnalia. Whether it’s called the winter solstice, the death of long dark days, or Christmas, it has always been about celebration.
Christmas in the U.S. consists of buying. We buy and we give and we exchange. According to the National Retail Federation, Black Friday weekend last year yielded sales upward of $59 billion. In 2011, sales totaled around $52 billion.
If the “spirit” of Christmas is giving, this is how we do it. Many people believe the reason that major retailers like Walmart begin holiday advertising before Thanksgiving is to take advantage of us–the consumers. I like to think of it the other way around. Consumers take advantage of the low prices of retailers, which act as the mediator of the giving spirit. Yes, Walmart makes a pretty penny in the process, but if Americans give through buying, and buying is cheaper, than giving is easier and more plentiful.
Besides making giving easier, the consumerism of Christmas also provides employment. The National Retail Federation shows that since 2008, holiday employment has increased each year to a high of about 720,000 in 2012. Putting more people to work has been a consistent demand of the U.S. public of late, and that’s exactly what the holidays do. Though the financial status of such employments is unclear, a job is a job, and low holiday prices broaden the horizon and the possibility of gift giving.
Major holidays in our country have their own identity when it comes to celebration. Cinco de Mayo and St. Patrick’s Day involve drinking. But the U.S. identity is not alcohol. On Independence Day we blow up the sky and on Halloween we scare children. But the U.S. identity is not jingoistic or sadistic. For Christmas, we buy. But we the citizens are not simply pawns of major organizations who run on Dunkin’ Donuts, do it with Nike, have it our way with Burger King or go places with Toyota.
The “Christmas Creep” may seem like it’s getting closer and closer every year, but it does not mean people are buying things earlier. Placed.com, an analytics company, reported that Christmas Eve was the busiest shopping day for Target stores in 2012. Other major stores yield similar results, with most shopping taking place a couple of days before Christmas Day.
Our economy works based on the concept of buying and selling. For about two months in a year, the attitudes and ideals of Christmas cross paths with the characteristics of our economy. It is celebration by giving, giving by buying and buying thanks to consumerism.