How advertising through the ages has shaped Christmas

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At Christmas, all commerce is revolutionized, and sales and advertising campaigns are in full swing. Credit: Greek journalist

A conspicuous consumer religion has replaced Christianity at the center of Christmas – and big business will be the happiest of all.

By Carl W. Jones

December 25, as we all know, is the birthday of Jesus Christ, a Christian celebration in which the story of three kings who traveled everywhere to give gifts to the “newborn king” inspires tradition. modern Christian gifts. The first gifts were fruits or nuts, but as this act grew in importance, the gifts became larger and less modest and were placed under a tree.

Christmas and its origins

Grecian Delight supports Greece

Midwinter has been a time of festivities for millennia, but Christmas as we know it today has its origins in Victorian Britain. It was during the Victorian era that the idea of ​​Christmas as a family celebration, with gifts, a tree and an intimate dinner became central to this celebration. The British traditionally celebrate the birth of Christ with a religious mass. Hence the words “Christ” and “mass” united to form the word Christmas.

Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
From a Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens, 1843. Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Public domain.

Charles Dickens defined British Christmas with his story “A Christmas Carol”, which linked Christian values ​​to the idea of ​​sharing and to “festive generosity of spirit”. His book helped popularize what was already happening in Britain and is credited with spreading the traditions of the festival. His book sold when it was first printed in 1843 and set the tone for the mid-Victorian renaissance of the Christmas holidays by reflecting and reinforcing the Dickensian vision of Christmas.

One of the earliest English folk traditions associated with this holiday celebration is ‘Old Santa Claus’, first found in the mid-17th century as a symbol of good humor. At the start of the 19th century, he was portrayed as a thin man who enjoyed drinking and partying during the holiday season. But by 1874, Santa Claus had grown into a round, cheerful man wearing robes lined with red and green fur and holly on his head.

This early version of Santa Claus was mostly associated with celebrating adults, but during the Victorian era, with their new focus on family, Santa began to be linked with the idea of ​​giving gifts. Images of Christmas have been reproduced in popular culture through the mass media of newspapers, magazines and the theater. These images visually define Christmas and how it is to be celebrated.

Santa Claus
Father Christmas in 1879, with holly wreath and wassail bowl used for the delivery of children’s gifts. ‘Fun’ (London, England), issue 763, p 256. Credit: Wikipedia / Public domain.

In the 20th century, mass advertising became commonplace. Consumer messages were now disseminated to the public through billboards, magazines, radio and, later, motion picture television. Mass publicity has allowed the slowly developing idea of ​​Christmas as a time for giving gifts to become mainstream, and ultimately, to define Christmas itself.

Businesses have realized that Christmas can be a great source of money. Seasonal advertisements began to emphasize the act of ‘giving gifts’ as an important part of the Christmas season by having Santa Claus physically showcase branded goods to a bustling consumer market. growth. The connection between this Christmas icon and consumer goods was made very evident in the advertisement, as illustrated in this ad above from Newball & Mason to sell an assortment of alcoholic spirits. The ad took the story of Santa Claus and tied it to physical markings, making the legend a reality, something that could be touched, smelled and experienced.

Santa Claus and Coca-Cola

In 1937, Coca Cola presented the world with a simplified and more accessible version of Santa Claus – dressed in Coca-Cola red, this time without the traditional cape. In their advertisements, he was named Santa Claus, in accordance with American tradition. Santa Claus became a personification of the brand and gave the sparkling liquid personality and face, making the drink one of the happiest celebrations of the year. Coke kept repeating the same message every year in December, and the name “Santa” slowly replaced “Santa” in popular parlance in the UK as well. This led to the man in the red suit becoming the icon most associated with Christmas.

In Britain, brands continued to express the idea reflected by Dickens that Christmas was a time to celebrate and unite family. Queen Victoria and Albert celebrated with a Christmas tree, and slowly the concept of putting gifts under a decorated tree took hold. In the 20th century, the idea of ​​Santa Claus bringing gifts and leaving them under the tree became popular, thus linking the concept of Santa Claus delivering gifts to the joy of sharing.

A 1965 advertisement selling tape recorders, for example, shows a British family opening presents on Christmas morning, recording a child playing on their new drum. This image tries to convince consumers that they can show love through the act of giving gifts, an idea that still has real appeal today.

Modern Christmas advertising has evolved further to reflect our multicultural and increasingly secular societies. In Selfridges’ latest TV commercial, “A Christmas for Modern Times”, a multiracial group of friends are shown celebrating the “future fantasy” of Christmas. This “chosen family” shares gifts, food and drink, then goes dancing in a nightclub. The addition of going to a nightclub to continue the celebration of Christmas reflects increasingly new forms of joy and underscores how far the idea of ​​Christmas is now from religion.

John Lewis’ 2019 commercial “Excitable Edgar” and Ikea’s #WonderfulEveryday both feature multiracial casts celebrating Christmas together. These visual representations of Christmas signal the evolution of the party from a white party to an inclusive party. Christmas is no longer a Christian holiday, say these ads, but a time to be celebrated by everyone.

This is of course something we should be grateful for – but now that it has been replaced by a conspicuous consumer religion, big business will be the most satisfied of all.

Carl W. Jones is Senior Lecturer, School of Media and Communication, University of Westminster. This article was originally published in The Conversation and is republished under a Creative Commons license.

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