The commercial Christmas

When it comes to exploiting Christmas for all its commercial possibilities, the Victorians take some beating. Mark Connelly looks at how our forebearers turned the season of goodwill into the modern money spinner of today

© Alamy / Getty Images The Victorian Department store

Nowadays it is often said by both clergy and members of the general public alike that Christmas is no more than an orgy of consumerism, and that the message of Christmas has been drowned in a frenzy of competitive present-buying and consumption on an almost obscene level. However, this complaint is by no means new. In fact, it stretches back to the last quarter of the 19th century, a time when many of us believe Christmas, infused by the spirit of Dickens, was more homely, wholesome and spiritual.

 

The Victorians as festive pioneers

Another much repeated ‘fact’ about Christmas is that it was invented by the Victorians, and Charles Dickens in particular. While there is no doubting the fact that the Victorians, partly inspired by Dickens, were fascinated by the celebration of Christmas, they didn’t invent it. Rather they reinvigorated it and brought together the many Christmas customs of Britain and threw themselves into the season in a way not seen before. Being a nation of manufacturers, industrialists and shopkeepers, it was not long before Victorians realised that Christmas, with its emphasis on generosity and hospitality, could be exploited for commercial possibilities.

By the turn of the century, festivities commenced when the shopping season began. Advent Sunday, Christmas Eve, the First Night of Christmas, Twelfth Night, the dates by which the church signalled and measured the season, were pushed aside by the new development of mass consumerism. The clarion call of Christmas was being heard earlier and earlier thanks to the desire of retailers to maximise their profits.

 

Tokens of goodwill

According to the Lady’s Pictorial of December 1881, Christmas announced itself through the transformation of shops: “Christmas cards in almost every window, in the companionship of the attractions of the toy-seller, the wares of the draper, the irresistible temptations of the milliner, and of their more legitimate comrades in the show-cases of the stationer – from everywhere have these pretty little tokens of goodwill and kindly thoughts been peering out and seeking the attention of the passer-by.”

Department stores had created a new Christmas custom, that of obsessive shopping – and sought new attractions to lure consumers in. In 1888 JP Robert of Stratford, West Ham, unveiled the first Santa’s Grotto in his store, and with it he inaugurated a vital Christmas tradition. By the turn of the century all children wanted to sit on Santa’s knee, and all store owners wanted to induce their mammas to bring them in.

 

Brighter and bigger is better

The desire to entice custom instigated another new tradition – in the increasingly sophisticated art of window-dressing. By the 1880s the great department stores were putting enormous efforts into outshining their rivals’ Christmas displays. Peter Jones in Sloane Square made sure that its Christmas window displays gave “one the impression of having been well thought out and carefully planned well in advance”.

Gordon Selfridge was one of the great impresarios of Christmas windows. His apprenticeship in Marshall Field of Chicago had given him the keenest eye for glamour and presentation. Indeed it was Selfridge who coined the phrase “only X shopping days to Christmas”.

According to The Times, 1923 was a vintage year in the art of Christmas window dressing: “The shop windows everywhere this Christmas show a great advance over former years in the matter of setting and display. Last week long after closing time there were crowds of people who seemed to be ‘touring’ the great shopping centres, where windows were lighted up to about 10pm”.

In Wynyard Browne’s 1950 play, The Holly and the Ivy, the Reverend Martin Gregory bemoans the fact that the true meaning of Christmas had utterly disappeared over the years. “The brewers and the retail-traders have got hold of it. It’s all eating and drinking and givin’ each other knick-knacks.” It was a condemnation of the season that many could identify with.

The Second World War and the austerity years of the late forties and early fifties put the brakes on the commercialisation of Christmas, but certainly did not bring it to a halt altogether. Then, as rationing was relaxed in the Fifties and Britons entered a period in which they “had never had it so good”, as Prime Minister Harold Macmillan so famously put it, the spending spree recommenced.

This was given an even greater impetus by the advent of commercial television and the speed with which advertising firms created special Christmas TV adverts for their clients. By the 1970s most Britons knew that ITV broadcasting at Christmas would be dominated by gift product advertisements rarely seen during the rest of the year.

Nowadays, of course, it seems that no sooner has the sun set on another summer than the seasonal spending spree gets under way – confirmation that the spirits of Gordon Selfridge, JP Robert and all those other pioneers of the shopping orgies of Christmases past are alive and well today.

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