Christmas isn’t even here yet, but stores have had decorations, trees and giant Santas up since before Halloween. Christmas shopping has become a phenomenon, and Americans are running around frantically to find the perfect gifts for the people they love.
With new technology and new marketing skills, the holidays have changed socially in some drastic ways.
Sociology Professor Lisa Pay said that there are many ways to look at how that process began.
“From a historical perspective, the industrialization of the United States is probably one of the first things that started the holiday being an opportunity for retailers to produce things that could stimulate the economy,” Pay said. “That’s where we would say the commercialization took hold, and that’s probably true in every society once you have the ability to produce mass objects that stimulate the economy.”
When asked why it’s so easy for companies to manipulate consumers when it comes to Christmas shopping, Pay said, “Social psychology would say that sometimes marketing is going to prey on fear, so if people are struggling to maintain connections or community because society is so fast-paced and we don’t take time for relationships as much as we used to, then obviously giving things is a way to demonstrate that we care about someone, but it doesn’t take a lot of time.
“Marketing is going to really make gifts look like the way that we stay connected,” Pay said. “They can be a beautiful way of showing care for somebody, but ultimately they aren’t sustaining in the way things that take time and investment are. Marketing can play on the sentiment of holidays, and that’s not a bad thing, but it pulls in fear, and makes us think we have to have approval from other people based on what we give them.”
Pay said that, socially, it is still a holiday for families and the community to come together.
“Community a lot of times looks its best in reaching out and helping others in need during the holiday season,” Pay said. “Of course, the downside can be that people may wait to do that community service only during that season.”
When asked if there is a relationship between the tradition and consumer behavior, Pay said that the less traditional we become, the more consumerism we may see.
“We’re depending on connection happening through what we buy and give, versus connection happening based on a tradition, faith or a community,” Pay said. “But again, there is a strong thread that still remains clear in the spiritual grounding of it.”
The commercialization of Christmas has affected the faith aspect of the holiday as well.
Dr. Jason Varner, assistant professor of the history of Christianity, said that the Christian church has long celebrated the season of Advent, and that it marks how people prepare for the season and the birth of Jesus Christ. Advent formed the foundation for celebrating Christmas.
“With commercialization, you notice the market really driving the calendar lately when it comes to the practice of the Christian faith,” Varner said. “We see this mostly around Christmas, but I’ve been shocked personally to watch the Christmas season annexing Thanksgiving.
“Now Thanksgiving serves as the appetizer for the meal that is the Christmas season,” he said. “Usually people would wait until the end of Thanksgiving, but now it seems like Christmas has moved as early as companies think they can sell things. I was shocked to see things on the shelves as early as just after Halloween.”
He said that “the market is telling us that advent begins on November 1, but the church doesn’t begin celebrating until after Thanksgiving.”
On the topic of Thanksgiving, Varner said that, although Thanksgiving is not a religious holiday, the art of it is a spiritual one.
“I’ve been more shocked by the commercialization of Thanksgiving,” Varner said. “With Black Friday, stores don’t even wait until then, and Thanksgiving is almost like a shopping holiday now. Christmas hasn’t become that quite yet. At least by the time Christmas day rolls around people have bought their stuff.”
Varner said the commercialization of Christmas has impacted him, too.
“I’ve thought more about what I’m getting for whom than I have thought about how I’m preparing myself for the arrival of Jesus into the world,” Varner said. “Advent used to help us tune that in, but the earlier commerce has gotten out, the less emphasis it places on preparing ourselves spiritually.”
It’s important, he said, that churches maintain Advent tradition.
“If our churches aren’t emphasizing the season of Advent, the spiritual side sneaks up. Then you find yourself on the 22nd or 23rd, or even the 24th, remembering that Christmas is a religious holding, and all the while you’ve been participating in the holiday as a social holiday that’s bolstered by commercialism.”