A Christmas Carol

By Chelle Cordero

September 4, 2009 5 min read

Charles Dickens depicted a Christmas of family togetherness, generosity and "good will among men," yet the observance of Christmas always has been controversial. Puritans arriving in North America as far back as the 1600s disagreed with the religious observance of Christmas as promoted by the Church of England; they felt there was no absolute biblical reference to a festival celebrating the Nativity, and the observance was even outlawed in Boston for a number of years. But it became an American tradition to celebrate this holiday, and it was declared a federal holiday in 1870.

In 1923, President Calvin Coolidge lit the first National Christmas Tree on the White House lawn. The household Christmas tree is the center of holiday activities and is laden with ornaments, candy canes, lights and sparkling tinsel. Real trees are used by many, but artificial trees have gained in popularity. Christmas trees also are displayed prominently in many shopping plazas, as well as town squares and business buildings (although public displays often are maintained with a distinct secular focus). Every year, a huge tree is erected in New York's Rockefeller Center, and it's lit with fanfare.

The concept of gift giving began with simple and small reminders of the gifts of the three wise men, and personal stockings hung by fireplaces were often filled with minor trinkets. In more recent years, the holiday has become a huge economic resource and frequently is viewed as an attempt by major retailers to boost that year's profits. Author Jim Taylor shares this sentiment: "I believe that popular culture has taken the heart and soul out of Christmas and made it just another shopping season because popular culture cares only about making money. People, especially kids, see Christmas as a time to buy, give and receive stuff. Regardless of how religious you are, it should be about family and friends being together and being thankful for what we have." Taylor is the author of "Your Children Are Under Attack: How Popular Culture Is Destroying Your Kids' Values, and How You Can Protect Them" and lives with his family north of San Francisco.

Public relations strategist Mario Almonte of New York City-based Herman & Almonte Public Relations says, "The truth is that Santa Claus and Christmas as we know it has been a commercial holiday, with lights, music, singing, gifts and merriment, for hundreds of years." Movies, literature and TV have promoted the Christmas and Santa Claus myth. Almonte says Coca-Cola's ads in The Saturday Evening Post "set the prototype for the image of Claus." Almonte believes that people's complaining about missing the true meaning of Christmas has become a modern Christmas tradition in itself.

The retail holiday season begins on the Friday after Thanksgiving, which unofficially has been nicknamed Black Friday. Retailers decorate their store displays and encourage shoppers with tempting sales and "loss leaders" (items offered below cost to entice customers inside). Financially, in normal economic times, this is the time when retailers turn the corner and "go into the black." Huge crowds often line up to wait for stores to open on that day, and the day is among the busiest shopping days of the year. Historically, the busiest shopping day is the Saturday before Christmas.

Robbie Blinkoff is a cultural anthropologist in Baltimore. His firm, Context-Based Research Group, specializes in pinpointing consumer trends. Blinkoff sees some positive effects coming from today's pop culture-influenced Christmas traditions. "Commercialism and Christmas are so intertwined that it's difficult to figure out where one begins and the other ends. This year, however, given the cultural transformation that our economy has brought, people will be revisiting mass media-produced Christmas observances with a fresh look. In many ways, we are 'under a threat of joy.' That is, all the pain we have felt over the past year has us all primed to feel some real joy. Some people will lean into those old traditions with gusto. But what we should really look for are people creating new traditions -- ones that emerge from a noncommercial source, a deeper, more personal source. Perhaps in the future, these traditions, too, will get commercialized, but for now, they will be had with pure joy."

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