The ill-bred offspring of marketing geniuses
The Christmas Creep smiles seductively as he welcomes bedraggled Christmas shoppers to the Mall, where decorations hang limp and sales clerks with jacked-up smiles totter around on weary feet. The Christmas Creep, whose breath reeks from months of eggnog, is neither Grinch nor Scrooge. He is, in fact, the antithesis of those humbuggers and makes them look positively righteous.
He is the ill-bred offspring of marketing geniuses who count on shoppers taking the bait and responding like Pavlov’s dog. Their motto: If you sell it sooner and longer, they will come and buy more, more, more.
Once upon a time, Christmas occupied a small-but-joyful frosty winter window. Christmastide, or Yuletide, lasted twelve days (as in “The Twelve Days of Christmas” with its partridge, geese, rings, and things) beginning on Christmas Eve and ending on Twelfth Night, when the Christmas Season was respectfully laid to rest until the following Christmas Eve. It was a temporally restricted, festive time—a rare and highly anticipated series of special days that sparkled like winter jewels alongside the remaining three hundred and fifty-three. To accommodate the anticipation and prepare for the birth of Christ with fasting and prayer, Advent, which lasts from the fourth Sunday before Christmas until midnight Christmas Eve, officially became the forerunner of the liturgical Christmas Season and increased the season’s official number of days accordingly.
Christmas morphed from the religious celebration into the commercialized secular spending spree it has become thanks to a number of factors. They included Victorian holiday excess, the press, the industrial revolution and mass production, F. W. Woolworth’s marketing in America, the deprivation of World Wars, television, market competition, that old American drive to keep up with the Joneses, and, yes indeed, greed. Lay the blame where you will. It became evident that, with a bit (or a lot) of clever marketing, modern consumers could be spurred to the retail equivalent of a school of piranhas in a feeding frenzy. It was just a matter of dropping the right morsels into the water at the right time. How long before Christmas is the right time, you might ask? How long can the feeding frenzy be maintained? Enter the Christmas Creep, creeping stage left.
Christmas creep is the marketing phenomenon begun by big box stores like Sam’s Club, Walmart, Best Buy, and their ilk, that has relentlessly moved up the onset of holiday mentality and the Christmas shopping season. Thanksgiving has long been the equivalent of the Fort Reno cannon booming at high noon to signal the start of the Oklahoma Land Rush in 1889. In the nineteenth century, Christmas sales always began after Thanksgiving Day holiday parades. In 1939, when President Franklin Roosevelt juggled Thanksgiving from the last Thursday of November to the next to last Thursday, he granted an extra week to Christmas shoppers and moved it closer to Advent, the start of the season. Congress settled the date in stone in 1941 by making the fourth Thursday in November the official turkey day, assuring there was no confusion about when holiday sales would start. Hence Thanksgiving, once a major holiday unto itself, became a feast to fuel shoppers with harvest meal calories. Pretty soon shoppers were arming themselves with wallets and shopping lists before the sedative effect of the turkey’s Tryptophan had even worn off. They were singing a few fa la las and marching off to the rumpa pum pums of “The Little Drummer Boy,” converging on shopping meccas en masse, ready to fight for their right to go bankrupt on Black Friday.
According to some sources, the term Black Friday was originally coined by environmentalists who claimed the day’s bloated traffic was a source of air pollution; but the term later came into the vernacular meaning the day retailers went from financially being “in the red” and operating at a loss to being “in the black” and operating at a profit.
Originally, the big brouhaha began at 7 am, well before normal shopping hours. But when the Christmas Creep whispered that shoppers might be willing to forego sleep to be the first through mall doors, openings went from 7 am to 4 am and then to midnight madness, which can get mean, pushy, and dangerous.
It’s the competitive urge that drives retailers to beat competitors by getting a jump on the start of holiday shopping. The Creep hisses, “Make the shoppersss ssstampede early, and economic victory is yoursss!” This year, K-Mart started running advertisements recommending shoppers put items on layaway in September, fueling fears of losing out on the year’s hot items. When Halloween items went on the shelves, so did Christmas wrap, toys, and gift items. Ghoulish masks, vampire fangs, and fake blood shared space with baby dolls, cuddly stuffed animals, and sundry gift items. Recognizing that all this screamed for seasonal aesthetics, merchants added tinsel and twinkly lights blinking to the beat of Christmas music. Meanwhile, those seduced into an early holiday mindset decorated their houses and artificial trees. And lo! Christmas was upon us in October.
Finally, December and the Christmas Season is actually here. If you listened to the Creep, you’re all done; so sit back and enjoy your dusty tree and tarnished decorations, which lost their luster when they became as mundane as the living room sofa. For sluggards like me who turned a deaf ear to the Creep, it’s time to scurry out into crisp weather to choose a cut Christmas tree still laced with the lingering scent of the woods. It’s time to shop, wrap, and mail. We’ve got decorating and baking to do while Christmas music plays. For us, Christmas is condensed from four months into one that’s tightly packed with frenetic excitement, the same excitement we felt as children when the glorious celebration we’d waited so long for finally arrived, and the world became magic. Besides, we knew then, and still know, that the miracle of Christmas is more than a good sale price.
Lucile enjoys her holiday break from teaching Comp. II at Hinds Community College and celebrates Christmas in Vicksburg, Mississippi, embracing the kinder, gentler small town downtown version of holiday shopping, particularly at The Attic Gallery, where she works and makes merry.