On Thanksgiving, many of us will gather with family and friends around the dinner table. We’ll converse about politics (unfortunately). We’ll watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. We’ll sleep through the football games. We’ll eat more than our fair share of turkey and stuffing.
At the same time, we’ll talk about how this day is about having a sense of gratitude for the things that we have in our lives. Thanksgiving, which historically dates back to the Pilgrims in the 17th Century, was created in order for us to reflect upon the things we have in our lives and to give thanks to God for those blessings, no matter how big or small they may be.
So, perhaps it is striking, and maybe even ironic, that Thanksgiving is also a day many will begin their Christmas shopping. Even before the dawn of Thanksgiving Day sales, families would camp outside of stores waiting for them to open for the best deals on a new television or some other item. We’ve all seen the images on television from Black Friday when an unsuspecting store clerk opens the doors only to be overwhelmed by a mass of shoppers looking for a deal.
Within a 24-hour period, we traverse a crazy journey of faith where we move from a posture of gratitude to that of greed. How do we get there so easily?
First, some context on the marketing history around Christmas.
Context is always important, but especially in the case of looking at how we allow ourselves to be consumed with a desire for more (the essence of greed) each year around Christmas. The day after Thanksgiving is called Black Friday because, for years, it was the busiest shopping day of the year. That is no longer the case as Cyber Monday, a day set aside for online deals, has taken over as the most important day for retailers.
Even before that, though, there is a long history of retailers using the celebration of Jesus’ birth to produce fourth quarter earnings and to entice shoppers to buy more than they would typically spend.
To understand this, we need to look at the history of Santa Claus. The jolly gift giver of Christmas has long been associated with Christmas, however the legend surrounding Santa Claus is taken from a real bishop of the early church.
St. Nicholas was a Third Century leader of the church in Myra (Turkey). He was known, primarily, for two things. For one, during the Council of Nicea, which gave the church the Nicene Creed, St. Nicholas is believed to have slapped Arius, a heretic, in the face. He would later regret the action, but it added to the legend and mystique of one who was willing to, literally, defend the faith.
As well, St. Nicholas was known as a generous person. He inherited an enormous amount of money and gave it all away to the poor. In response, a tradition developed that on his feast day, December 6, gifts would be given to children. This eventually became associated with Christmas Day, especially with the creation of the Santa Claus narrative.
The legend of Santa Claus started as a story built upon the historical nature of St. Nicholas and grew in proportion. The legend grew from the 18th Century onward and saw St. Nicholas move away from his historical nature to a jolly man who loves cookies and can climb down chimneys. Clement Clarke Moore’s 1822 poem “’Twas the Night Before Christmas” helped to develop our image of Santa Claus, as did an 1863 drawing for “Harper’s Weekly” by Thomas Nest.
Christmas as a Marketing Event
Stores have made the idea of Christmas, and Santa Claus, an important part of their marketing campaigns since the 19th Century. Recognizing that families would want to provide gifts for their children, stores would advertise Christmas sales and utilize the images of Santa Claus to spur gift giving.
None more so than Coca-Cola, which in 1931 took the image of Santa Claus and made it mainstream. What we associate today with Santa Claus – a giant belly, red jacket, and a big grin of a smile – mostly comes from the iconic Coca-Cola advertising.
Every year, stores have grown dependent upon sales around the Christmas and holiday seasons to produce profits in the fourth quarter. Often times, sales tied to Christmas shopping would offset losses earlier in the year and can keep stories afloat.
This meant that stores had to find ways to get people into their stores, often earlier and earlier, in order to spend their money on gifts. At first, this meant the inclusion of a store Santa Claus, which was a scheme made famous by Macy’s in New York. Catalogs, such as the Sears Wish Book, would come out with its enticing array of new items for the Christmas year.
All the marketing was tied to this premise: in order to have a great and happy Christmas, you had to buy this item for your family. Children were often on the receiving end of the marketing endeavors. Hills, a former department store that populated West Virginia until the early 1990s, once had a slogan “Hills is where the toys are” and a campaign that featured an elf marketing the new toys for the season. It worked. I can remember, as a child, going to my family and saying that without an electronic vibrating football field I would not be satisfied at Christmas. (For the record, I never received that gift and I lived to tell about it, reluctantly.)
Following the Great Recession of 2007-2008, stores, especially traditional department stores, have had to be creative in order to make a profit at Christmas. This has included opening their stores up earlier and earlier on Black Friday. Since 2012, in response to increasing online sales on Thanksgiving Day, some stores have opened on Thanksgiving night.
Over time what has happened is that Christmas, as a celebration of Jesus’ birth, has been replaced as a consumer-driven event tied to buying things for our families and friends.
What does this mean?
As such, we have grown more likely to hear the real intent behind every piece of advertising. It’s not just about making you and your family happy this Christmas. It is that what you have is not good enough, and you must have this newer and best thing.
It has created within us a sense of discontentment with what we have. Whether at Christmas or any other time in our lives, we have to have the newest thing – the newest phone, newest car, newest home, newest clothes, newest of anything – in order to be happy and blessed. What it does is it creates a culture of greed and excess.
Greed is not just about wanting more than what someone else has. It is also about not being satisfied with what one has. Greed will force families to spend more than they have in order to make everyone happy at Christmas. Spending has increased on Christmas gifts, since the Great Recession, at a time when many families are struggling with higher amounts of debt and student loans. This year alone, it is estimated that individuals will spendalmost $1,000 on gifts.
What may be good for stores and the economy, may not necessarily be good for families and our lives.
When we are consumed with greed, we are unable to live truly with a sense of thanksgiving and gratitude for what we have in our lives. At the same time, especially at Christmas, greed strips the day away from its meaning and purpose. We are unable to share in the joy of a child’s birth who came to save us all, if we are too consumed with opening gifts and purchasing last-minute items.
Christmas is a time of celebrating the peace, hope, joy, and love of Jesus. It is not about buying more than what we need just to make everyone happy. Perhaps this Christmas we need to do something different. Perhaps instead of thinking about all the things we need to buy, maybe we need to focus on what the day and season is really about. Perhaps this is a time to focus on how we need to move away from greed and towards a posture of gratitude in response to Christ.