Manchester Historian

Student newspaper for the University of Manchester's History Department

Wednesday 23rd August 2017 | Manchester, UK

Trading on tradition

It is estimated that this year Britons will spend around £80 billion over the festive period. This is a far cry from the origins of Christmas. The custom of observing Christmas on the 25th December began around the 4th century AD, and remains an important date in the Christian calendar.

However, from around the mid-19th century the glad tidings and good nature of Yuletide began to be exploited by those with a profit-seeking motive. Christmas trees, dating back to early-modern Germany, were first seen in Britain from the early 1800s, a trend in fact led by the British royal family, with their strong Germanic links. Indeed, in her Christmas Eve journal of 1832 Princess (later Queen) Victoria mentions the placing of presents below the tree.

Meanwhile, the first commercial Christmas cards were commissioned by civil servant Sir Henry Cole in 1843, featuring a family drinking wine. At first the price tag was too much for ordinary Victorians, but as times progressed they became increasingly popular, and in 1880 11.5 million Christmas cards were being made. Presents had traditionally been given in Britain to mark the New Year, but the ever-increasing popularity of the Christmas period meant that this practise was brought forward to match up to the holiday.

At the same time, the characters of St. Nicholas and Father Christmas were merged and developed, becoming a very prominent figure. St. Nicholas was a 4th century Greek saint who had a reputation for secret gift giving, such as putting gold in the shoes people left out for him. Similarly, the Low Country ‘Sinterklaas’, a key progenitor of the modern image and notion of Santa Claus, put presents in shoes.

Meanwhile, Father Christmas had been a traditional figure representing Christmas in Britain, portrayed as a venerable, kindly old gentleman given to good cheer, but not to excess. This was a personification of the period’s festive celebrations.

The giving of gifts grew and grew, and had soon begun to draw criticism. In 1890, the American Ladies’ Home Journal denounced it as a ‘festival for shopkeepers’. More recently, in the 1950s a group of French priests decided to burn an effigy of the ‘heretic’ Santa Claus, the commercial, secular figurehead of a once Christian celebration. Christian lobbyists and groups continue to oppose the secularisation and commercialisation of Christmas, branding it an irreligious festival of capitalism.

However, despite such efforts, Christmas has become an irrepressible force. As commerce has developed and prosperity increased, it has become clear that the Christmas period was a godsend to capitalists. The Christian underpinnings of the festival provide a perfect marketing message: the family values, spirit of giving and the general positivity of the holiday can be repackaged and presented as a subconscious reason to spend. This was recognised by President Roosevelt as early as 1939, when the date of Thanksgiving was moved forward to allow for a longer Christmas shopping season, crucial to the revival of the still flagging US economy.

To this day, Christmas spending provides a massive boon to the economy, and its commercialisation continues to grow. Christmas advertising is also now big business. A generation of children associate Christmas television with ‘that’ Coca-Cola advert, and this year John Lewis are spending £7m on their Christmas advertising campaign, which got its first showing during an X Factor commercial break. In addition, Sky and M&S have invested heavily in Christmas TV advertising this year.

Now that many large UK-based companies are wading into the battle for TV airtime and the hearts and minds of the British general public, we have decided to draw up a 5-point plan for making a successful Christmas advert:

  1. A dramatic song. Preferably a low-key cover version of a well known hit. See Lily Allen’s cover of Keane’s ‘Somewhere Only We Know’.
  2. Tug at the heartstrings. Take a leaf out of John Lewis, Sky and Coca Cola’s book and get some soppiness in there.
  3. Winter wonderland-type setting. Goes without saying.
  4. A recurring theme. Many of this year’s big Christmas advert players are sticking broadly to last year’s themes.
  5. A happy ending. Whether it be a community, a family, or a relationship all of 2013’s most prominent Christmas adverts feature an ending in good, festive spirits.

Comments are closed.