Christmas Comes But 35 Times a Year
By A.D. Freudenheim  

11 December 2005

If the biggest shopping day of the year is the day before Christmas, why do we all have to suffer through more than 30 days of consumer-directed holiday celebration, and all the shopping-related angst that goes with it?

Readers of business sections will surely be familiar with the articles proclaiming how miserable the holiday shopping season was or was not, how sales on the traditional day-after-Thanksgiving fell short of retailers’ expectations (or at least, of their hopes) – or if their expectations were exceeded, how they might have done better still. The New York Times, in a short piece on Sunday, explained that retailers even refer to the post-Thanksgiving day as “Black Friday” – not because of failed aspirations but because it is usually a day when they can expect to be in the black, making a profit from the profligate American consumer; the article then goes on to show how quickly the buying spree trails off in subsequent days.[1]

And it mentions casually that the biggest shopping day of the year is still the day before Christmas.

Maybe post-Thanksgiving shopping is not what it used to be – but that may be precisely because Christmas itself is not what it once was. As a kid, it always seemed that the publicly-driven Christmas tradition had strict boundaries. Retailers had a reasonable schedule in front of them, carrying them through the fall holidays: Labor Day sales were followed by Halloween promotions, which gave way to Thanksgiving brown-and-orange or turkey-themed merchandising, leading up to a three-week period of intensive Christmas planning, and then concluding with the post-Christmas sales-and-returns free-for-all. (Then, we all got a break in January, until Valentine’s Day promotions kicked in.) Likewise municipal officials followed a similar schedule in changing the decorations around whatever town one happened to live in. Such civic celebrations may be of debatable value, but at least one knew what month it was by the holiday being promoted. Snowflakes and reindeer, anyone? Christmas must be on the rise.

Recently, though, the Christmas season seems to begin earlier with each advancing year. This year, in New York, Christmas decorations were out in office buildings and shops more than a week before Thanksgiving. Hanukkah decorations were out earlier, too, but at least Hanukkah falls earlier in December this time around; Christmas is still on the 25th. Personally, as someone who does not do a lot of Christmas (or Hanukkah) shopping, I am sick of both holidays already, and we still have weeks to go. But it makes me wonder whether part of the problem – if, indeed, there is a problem – is very much the fault of American retailers, and the fools who fall for the copious advertising.

The holidays – and the fury that accompanies them – seems completely inescapable. A perusal of newspapers reveals op-ed pieces by Scrooges complaining about the desperate nature of everyone’s holiday spirit, and why they have just had enough. I am not a Scrooge about the holiday; I’m just turned off by the rampantly business-driven nature of American celebrations. Christians who want to celebrate Christmas should do so, and happily. I much prefer saying “Merry Christmas” to Christian friends than “Happy Holidays” – so anemic and dry and meaningless. Which holiday is it that they expect me to have as happy? The one I don’t believe in, or the one I celebrate but which is nationalistic and not deeply meaningful in a religious sense?

Let’s not re-hash all the arguments about how Christmas in America has lost touch with its religious roots, and is primarily a (faux-)secular, consumer-driven holiday. Whether it is or isn’t true, it is entirely possible that Christmas exhaustion is driven by the energetic and aggressive efforts of our retailers to get us in the holiday mood as quickly as possible. Carols become inescapable in stores, so the decorations are not only visual but auditory – nay, environmental.

I do not really know what retailers want, beyond the crazy spending they already get. Do they want gratitude for somehow making Christmas happen? There is no getting around the fact that Americans are spending like mad. One can’t open a newspaper or magazine these days without encountering an article about the tremendous scope of American consumer debt – and how it is either our likely downfall or the single thing keeping our economy going, or both.

All the clever tricks used to help entice people to buy, buy, buy may also be turning people off, off, off. And I still can’t get away from the extremely pertinent fact that the largest shopping day is the day before Christmas. So why do we torture ourselves – and allow ourselves to be tortured – for 35 dark, dark days?

[1] “The Count: Ah, Black Friday, And All the Jingling Cash Registers,” by Hubert B. Herring, The New York Times, Sunday Business Section, 5 December 2004   Copyright 2004, by A.D. Freudenheim. May not be used in whole or part without written permission. However, you may link to this page as desired! Contact A. D. Freudenheim for further information.
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