We can often hear people saying how commercialisation of Christmas destroyed the spirit of this popular holiday. The true spirit of Christmas, as they say, are not holiday sales or Black Friday craze, the scent of advent suassages, the flickering lights of Christmas lamps or crazy hunt for presents. But are they right in saying so?

If we look back upon the history of Christmas holidays, marketing and business we'll discover that they had long-term relationship and that marketing participated in active creation of holidays as we know them today. Some of us might not like it, but it is so.

It all started with the Christian tradition and the pagan and folkloric stories sourrounding it (the legend of the Saint Nicolas for example). And after that came the enterpreneurs and marketing people who were the first storytellers of content marketing. All they had to do is reach for the rich folkloric stories about good old grandpa and his reindeers from the North and make them a source of content stories for department stores and sales actions.

Two trends shaped the modern concept of commercial Christmas

Two parallel trends shaped the Christmas holidays that we know of today: popularity of Christmas customs that dates back from the middle of 19th century and the gradual commercialisation of society. These two currents went hand in hand until they fused and expanded into a full seasonal consumerist celebration of today.

The marketing people did not play just a banal role in persuading people to buy Cristmas presents. Content marketing reached further than that. The talented American copywriters, enterpreneurs and marketing wizards appropraited some of the most iconic symbols of Christmas and created the new stories and habits around them. The Santa Claus saga could suddenly become a wide spread story.

Another important passeage had to take place in the development of American society – turn to the industrial way of production (along with the alienation and automation that come with it) and increased urbanization of modern life. American people as Nicole D'Angelo points out felt nostalgic for the traditional family values and gatherings so they revitalised their interest in European traditions of Christmas tree decorations and stories about Santa.

Women's magazines and department stores as modern storytellers

The American women's magazine Godey’s Lady’s Book played an important role in popularization of Christmas tree while portraits of Queen Victoria and her family gathered around the decorated tree warmed readers' hearts of many Americans.

It's good to note that the rise of commerial Christmas has coincided with the flourishing of American department stores. And their managers saw in Christmas the great opportunity to sell presents. Department stores began to apply creative strategies to attract buyers, for instance with attractive holiday decorations.

Department stores were not alone in that. Some enterpreneurs like German printer Louis Prang came up with the idea of Chirstmas greeting cards which he printed on new colour printing technology. The department owner F.W. Woolsworth added the decorative spheres to the whole story and put a stamp on today's holiday iconography. 

And what about Santa? When did he join the consumerist fantasy of Christmas? He was first mentioned in America in a song called „A Visit from St. Nicholas“. It was a translation of Dutch Christmas song from the eearly 1800s. The attractive mystique of Santa came from the fact that nobody at that time knew how Santa looked like, so department stores and lifestyle magazines started to depict him. One department store in Philadelphia displayed Santa's model in front of the building to attract children. Encouraged by this example, other department stores did the same thing until the famous Macy's put Santa Claus inside of their building and thereby became the first department store to house the beloved Santa.  

From dwarf to today's jolly old man

It's interesting to note that the vision of Santa of that time was not identical to our depiction of charming old guy in red costume we have today. Victorian version imagined Santa as a dwarf with serious and little bit grumpy face.

We'll have to wait for te ingenius invention of Coca Cola's marketing team to get  jolly old Santa dressed in red robe which made him the omnipresent symbol of today's commercial Christmas. Santa Claus started to appear in Coca Cola's ads as of 1920 but only in 1931 he became the regular feature of seasonal marketing of this famous company. An illustrator named Haddon Sundblom depicted Santa as jolly old fella whose image became fixed until today.

And after Santa another character came into our collective imagination. It's Rudolf of course! He was created by the content marketing department of Montgomery Ward department store. A copywriter named Robert May was tasked to write an original Christmas book for kids. May included the story of rebellious reindeer Rudolf into his rhymed book. The success was enormous. Montgomery Ward has delivered 2,4 millions of Christmas books to its buyers. The new edition of the book was published again three years later when May's brother in law made another rhymed story which put Rudolf into the spotlight and turned him into a permanent fixture of Christmas mythology.

Hollywood Christmas dreams

After department stores and Coca Cola there were other brands who appropriated Christmas mythology as well as the ultimate dream factory of thze 20th century - Hollywood. Over the course of many decades movie fans could enjoy intriguind and diverse stories related to Christmas spirit... We had everything from fallen angels and allegories about good deeds of decent individuals in classic Hollywood era to modern day kids who defend their homes from burglars or action heroes like Bruce Willis who „die hard“ on Christmas eve to save their family and loved ones from dangerous criminals. It all went into the satire and parody as well. Take for example the mischevious Grinch who at one point stole the holiday fame even from Santa Claus. The movie theatre goers even enjoyed the gothic version of Christmas created by Tim Burton's „The Nightmare Before Christmas“. Advertising or shockvertising... to each his own version of commercial Christmas!

Anyhow, the short overview of history of Christmas in America reveals the role of the marketing in the development of our holiday season culture and gives us the proof of the power of good storytelling and marketing.

And if somebody tells you that he or she cannot bear today's  hypercommercialisation of Christams, just remind them of the several centries long interconnectedness of marketing industry and Christam holidays, Christmas carrols and grandpas in red robes.


Selected works