’Tis the season to spend lots of money on extravagant, largely useless gifts. At least that’s what the latest figures from the National Retail Federation would suggest. This November and December, US shoppers will likely spend upward of a trillion dollars, with the bulk of the money going toward Christmas gifts.
It wasn’t always so. Before the 19th century, Christmas remained a relatively minor holiday rooted in pagan rituals. But as the US industrialized and became the world’s largest economy, Christmas became a celebration of commerce and consumption, with Santa Claus its greatest salesman.
In its original incarnation in antiquity and the medieval era, Christmas was nominally a celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ. Beginning in the fourth century, the Roman Church began to celebrate a Feast of the Nativity that fell, not coincidentally, on the winter solstice, a day with deep roots in pagan ritual. In the Julian calendar, the solstice fell on Dec. 25. The date stuck.
As the centuries passed, the holiday remained faithful to these disparate origins, combining distinctly un-Christian frolicking, drinking and merry-making with obligatory nods to the birth of Christ. In England, the no-nonsense Puritans considered this gauche, and many of their more radical adherents banned the holiday outright when they moved to what is now New England.
The religious diversity of the colonies, and later, new nation, meant that there wasn’t a single way of celebrating Christmas, though drinking too much seems to have been a near-universal practice. Otherwise, though, it remained a minor holiday.
Credit for the rise of Christmas as a national holiday goes to the novelist Washington Irving and his circle. These writers venerated New York City’s Dutch heritage, and they adopted Saint Nicholas — a popular figure back in the Netherlands — as the city’s patron saint.
One of Irving’s crowd, Clement Clarke Moore, penned his famous poem, “A Visit from Saint Nicholas,” in 1822. Drawing on some pretty disparate folk traditions – and making up a few of his own — Moore repurposed New York City’s mascot into a chubby gift-giver who traversed the holiday skies in a sleigh drawn by flying reindeer.
As the popularity of Moore’s poem grew, and parents felt increasingly compelled to perform the role of Santa, gift-giving became increasingly central to Christmas itself. This was already evident in the 1850s, when New York City diarist George Templeton Strong wrote of “expectant children with big eyes fixed on a gorgeous succession of shop windows” at Christmastime.
Initially, this sort of giving wasn’t particularly materialistic or extravagant. As the historian Penne Restad has argued in her revealing history of Christmas, Americans initially viewed the holiday as an opportunity to reaffirm family ties and dote on children with modest gifts of candies and trinkets — not some kind of consumer extravaganza.
Shrewd retailers, though, saw a golden opportunity. Typical of the new class of merchants was Frank Woolworth, who got his start selling Christmas ornaments. He soon made his chain of variety stores a showcase for Christmas merchandise. He counseled store managers to put up a Christmas tree, hang ornaments and sell the holiday. “This is our harvest time,” he wrote. “Make it pay.”
By the 1880s, retailers began preparing for Christmas as if it were a military campaign. And no wonder: Stores that sold toys and books, as well as larger department stores, became increasingly dependent on the holidays for much of their profit. This led to eye-popping Christmas window displays and other enticements designed to draw in shoppers.The transformation of the holiday went hand in hand with a dramatic rebranding of Santa himself. For the first half of the 19th century, visual representations of the big man were inconsistent, eclectic and, at times, downright frightening. Worse, he often carried switches to punish poorly behaved children, making him look like a closet sadist.
Enter famous caricaturist and artist Thomas Nast, whose drawings graced Harper’s Weekly. From 1866 onward, Nast effectively created the modern Santa Claus. He built on Moore’s vision to fashion an elaborate backstory for Santa, from where he lived (the North Pole) to his love life (happily married) to the workforce who made all those presents (elves).
At a time when labor unrest erupted into violence, Santa offered an appealing fantasy, running the biggest factory with nary a strike or walkout. Nast’s famous sketch of Santa from 1870, which shows him with a gold pocket watch, curiously reassembles the portraits of industrial magnates from the Gilded Age.
The entanglement of Christmas and capitalism unsettled many Americans, leading critics to offer now-familiar laments about the crass commercialization of the holiday. As Restad notes, this sparked a countermovement that emphasized the importance of charity. But here, too, Santa was a model: He may have been the world’s most successful factory owner, but he gave away his wealth.
As the historian Stephen Nissenbaum has observed, the Santa of the Gilded Age reconciled all manner of paradoxes. Despite being the world’s largest manufacturer and distributor — eat your heart out, Jeff Bezos! — he relied on old-fashioned tools and artisanal labor and a rather antiquated, unreliable delivery system.
That Santa could be both commercial and anticommercial, modern and antimodern, was understandable. “The two roles were quite compatible with one another,” concludes Nissenbaum. “[T]hey were two sides of the same coin.” Santa Claus helped justify the new consumer economy while simultaneously existing outside of it. He was the incarnation of opposites, a right jolly old elf who smuggled modern consumer society down our collective chimney.
By the 20th century, though, the commercial Santa was clearly ascendant. Thanks to the ministrations of Madison Avenue, Saint Nick became increasingly ubiquitous in print advertisements. In these years, Santa hawked a remarkable range of products: train tickets, bar soap, toothpaste, whiskey and life insurance, to name a few.
He also became the centerpiece of a famous Coca-Cola campaign featuring a rotund Santa. Contrary to conventional wisdom, this campaign did not invent our image of a rotund Santa. But it did unwittingly anticipate the link between consumption of sugary drinks and obesity.
Other businesses elaborated on the Santa myth to create entirely new pop-culture phenomena. The most famous of these was Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Written by an in-house ad man at Montgomery Ward named Robert May, the story of the outcast ungulate sold millions of copies in its first year and many more in succeeding years.
By the postwar era, the central place of Christmas and Santa in our nation’s consumer-driven economy was here to stay. Laments about the commercialization of the holidays generally fell on deaf ears, though some original works — “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas” — offered a more compelling argument that charity, not consumption, reflected the true spirit of Christmas.
It’s a message worth contemplating as the final days of December come and go. To quote that unappreciated theologian, the Grinch: “Maybe Christmas … doesn’t come from a store … Maybe Christmas means a little bit more?”
Stephen Mihm, a professor of history at the University of Georgia, is coauthor of “Crisis Economics: A Crash Course in the Future of Finance.”