Shop ’till you drop: a brief history of Christmas shopping

When it comes to exploiting Christmas for all its commercial possibilities, the Victorians take some beating. Mark Connelly looks at how our forbears turned the season of goodwill into an orgy of consumption and shopping

Turkeys, bred in Norfolk, cover the facade of a London butcher's shop, 1929. (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)

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.

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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. With the growth of a department store culture in Britain from the 1870s, the scene was set for a fusion of sentiment and shopping to arrive every year in late November, and it wasn’t long before some began to complain.

Dickensian delights

Buying for Christmas was not entirely a development of the late 19th century, however. Before the late 1870s to early 1880s there was additional purchasing for Christmas, but much of this shopping was centred on exotic and special foods. Gift giving was important, but its general profile was relatively low. In A Christmas Carol (1843) Dickens mentions toys bought as children’s gifts, but they come a poor second to the heart of early 19th-century Christmas shopping – culinary delights:

“The poulterers’ shops were still half open, and the fruiterers’ were radiant in their glory. There were great, round, pot-bellied baskets of chestnuts… There were ruddy, brown-faced, broad-girthed Spanish onions… There were pears and apples… there were bunches of grapes… piles of filberts… there were Norfolk pippins… The Grocers’! oh the Grocers’!… the blended scents of tea and coffee… the raisins were so plentiful and rare, the almonds so extremely white, the sticks of cinnamon… the other spices so delicious, the candied fruits so caked and spotted with molten sugar… the figs were moist and pulpy,… the French plums blushed in modest tartness… everything was good to eat and in its Christmas dress: [and]… the customers were all so hurried and so eager in the hopeful promise of the day.”

Provisions were obviously very important, far more so than the idea of browsing for presents, or the as yet unknown glory of picking Christmas card designs.

But as the number of department stores grew, symbols of an ever greater consumerism, fuelled by the increasing resources of a growing middle class, so did the Christmas shopping obsession. By the turn of the century, festivities commenced when the shopping season began – no sooner, no later. 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.

A tale in the Christmas Story-Teller of 1878 shows how far popular culture took the shop as its calendar: “Christmas was coming. There were indications everywhere. The grocers, the butchers, and fancy emporiums, all proclaimed Christmas was coming”.

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 good-will and kindly thoughts been peering-out and seeking the attention of the passer-by.”

In EM Forster’s Howards End (1910), Mrs Wilcox prevails upon Margaret Schlegel to help her with her Christmas shopping: “I thought we would go to Harrod’s or the Haymarket Stores… Everything is sure to be there”. One ex-employee of the Bon Marché in Brixton wrote of her memories of the shop in the 1930s: “To many the Bon Marché was always the starting point for Christmas shopping, and this was so for me. The Post Office was in Bon Marché, and so after drawing out some savings, I would start out complete with a list in one hand and a shopping bag in the other”.

Gordon Selfridge coined the phrase “only X shopping days to Christmas”

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.

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 November 1924, the Drapers’ Record paid a visit to F Parsons and Son of Stoke Newington, designers and builders of ship fittings. They were busy working on their latest creation for a Christmas bazaar. A huge mock-up of medieval London was to be built telling the story of Dick Whittington.

The commissioning store was not only getting a pantomime tale, but was also buttressing one of the romances of English history. The children were to enter via a perfect, scale model of the original Aldersgate as it appeared in the 15th century. Just the other side of the gate was the Lord Mayor’s Coach which would then take a dozen or so children for a ride up a hill for about one hundred feet.

At this point Father Christmas was to greet them, then they passed by a series of “realistic tableaux depicting in turn a panoramic view of the City, showing St Paul’s and Bow Church, with the bells pealing in the distance; the Docks of London, with their old-time ships; the King and Queen at the Palace; the Lord Mayor’s Show; and, finally the Banquet in the Guildhall”.

There’s little doubt that such displays had the desired effect. Massive crowds touring the opulent windows became as much a part of the British Christmas as crackers and plum pudding. As The Outlook of December 1898 pointed out, to go Christmas shopping at the end of the 19th century was to throw yourself into “a vortex of would-be buyers”. The vortex was described thus:

“In Swan and Edgar’s this morning, for example, the hubbub on the staircase was simply deafening. A continual stream of ‘sightseers’ wended their way up and down… I leave Evan’s and retrace my steps as far as Oxford Circus. The windows in Peter Robinson’s are so enthralling it seems a pity to go in… I stand for a moment at Marshall and Snelgrove’s window, and my feminine heart begins to pine for the beauties behind the glass.”

Such was the magnetic pull of the shop windows at Christmas that the crowds sometimes reached dangerous levels. During Christmas 1909 the police had to be called to Swan and Edgar because the weight of people at the windows on the corner of Great Marlborough Street and Regent Street had entirely blocked the road bringing the traffic to a standstill.

Crowds touring the Christmas shop windows could often reach dangerous levels

By the 1930s the great retailers had managed to inculcate an atmosphere of expectation. Everybody was keen to know what the designers had dreamt up – and so a self-perpetuating phenomenon had been created. Indeed, the mania was so intense that customers were urged to consider the strain on shop-workers. At Christmas 1898 the Drapers’ Record urged all shoppers to buy early in order to make life easier for shop assistants. Writing to The Times in December 1913, the chairman of the Early Closing Association stated that: “within a few weeks Christmas will be upon us, and those bent on Christmas shopping can in great degree relieve this strain by making their purchases – so far as possible – early in the day and early in the month”.

Royal examples

The great and the good added their weight to this campaign. In 1923 The Times noted that: “The Queen and Princess Mary, Viscount Lascelles, have done a considerable portion of their shopping already. They began the buying of toys (of which both make large purchases each year) some weeks ago, and last week the Queen did a good deal of general buying, and thus set a good example to the rest of London.”

But this creeping commercialism, which seemed to dominate Christmas more with every passing year, was not without its critics, and was satirised brilliantly by George and Weedon Grossmith in Mr Pooter and his Diary of a Nobody (1892).

Christmas finds Mr Pooter having to buy a good many cards as a result of his “going out in Society and increasing the number of our friends”. He went to shop in Smirkson’s in the Strand, nominally a drapers, but “this year have turned out everything in the shop and devoted the whole place to the sale of Christmas cards”. But the industry of Christmas cards had already taken on a coarse attitude, as the fastidious Pooter was about to find out:

“I had to buy more and pay more than intended. Unfortunately I did not examine them all, and when I got home I discovered a vulgar card with a picture of a fat nurse with two babies, one black and the other white, and the words: ‘We wish Pa a Merry Christmas.’ I tore up the card and threw it away”.

He is equally disgusted by his son’s habit of scribbling a higher price on the corner of each card, so people will think he has paid much more.

Forster explored the link between this new commercial Britain and Christmas in Howards End. For him it was almost as if it was impossible to come close to the true heart of Christmas, and the English Christmas especially, in the commercial excesses of London’s department stores. He noted that Margaret “felt the grotesque impact of the unseen upon the seen, and saw issuing from a forgotten manger at Bethlehem this torrent of coins and toys. Vulgarity reigned”.

The spending spree was given greater impetus by the advent of commercial TV

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.


Inside the Victorian department store at Christmas

The Christmas season in one of the great Victorian department stores such as Whiteley’s of Bayswater or the Glasgow Polytechnic would have been a truly wondrous sight.

Store managers took enormous pride in the vivacity of their Christmas displays. Huge Christmas trees often dominated the main entrance hall, strung with bells, candles and flags. The prevalence of the flags of the United Kingdom and the wider British Empire reveal the way Christmas was intimately associated with patriotism – something that was further reflected in the products stocked for Christmas. The toy departments were laden with lead soldiers, toy warships and military uniforms. In 1888, the London store Shoolbred’s displayed “an Egyptian camel corps similar to that which Wolseley used in the Soudan”, while across town Barker & Co were specialising in boys’ military suits with “arms and armour complete”. Girls were offered a huge range of dolls’ houses, and accessories including prams.

The expansion of the empire also meant that exotic luxuries such as dates and figs were stocked alongside large selections of port wines and Madeira, all of which pandered to the British sweet tooth. Being a people obsessed with innovation, the Victorians loved to shop for the latest gadgets including cork-screws, pen-knives and portable grooming sets. With shop-workers’ costs relatively low, stores employed large numbers of assistants, ensuring that a Christmas shopper was indulged and flattered into parting with every penny.


The Dickensian dream of Christmas

Charles Dickens has had an enormous impact on British culture, but it is his association with Christmas that is most pronounced. Published in 1843, A Christmas Carol was an immediate smash with the public, and quickly spawned a range of ‘pirated’ copies forcing Dickens into a number of legal actions to protect his creation. Even as dour a figure as Thomas Carlyle, the Calvinist historian and philosopher, was moved to throw Christmas dinner parties thanks to the inspiration of Dickens’s tale. The early cinema quickly latched on and no fewer than nine different film versions had been made by 1914.

The association of Christmas with Dickens started during his lifetime and gathered pace after his death. “Dickens, it may truly be said, is Christmas,” said the literature scholar, VH Allemandy, in 1921. However, important though he undoubtedly was, Dickens did not create Christmas. Rather, he reflected a general early 19th-century interest in the season and was part of a widespread, particularly middle-class, desire to reinvigorate its ancient customs.

At the time Dickens was writing his now world famous story he could have consulted an ever-burgeoning number of popular histories of Christmas such as TK Hervey’s Book of Christmas (1836), and his A History of the Christmas Festival, the New Year and their Peculiar Customs (1843) and Thomas Wright’s Specimens of Old Carols (1841). Dickens, being perfectly in-tune with Britain, therefore published his story at precisely the right moment. He was a massive player in a revival that was already under way, but he was not the sole instigator of it.

Mark Connelly is professor of modern British history at the University of Kent and author of Christmas: A Social History (IB Tauris, 1999). His other works include Steady the Buffs! A Regiment, a Region and the Great War (OUP, 2006)

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This article was first published in the December 2008 edition of BBC History Magazine