Christian or not, Christmas is an internationally celebrated holiday. Even parents of no faith give their kids at least some gifts on the holiday. You can’t let your kids go to their friends with nothing to show for the holiday season.
After all, it’s impossible to avoid Christmas. Every single giant corporation in the world is looking to profit from this tradition. How exactly did that become the case, though?
While Christmas has a long-founded history of gift-giving, namely from the Three Wise Men giving gifts to the newly-born Jesus, today’s standard for purchasing began in 19th-century New York.
In “The Battle for Christmas,” historian Stephen Nissenbaum details how Christmas in early America was not a family-centric holiday, but a moment for the country’s lower-class to drunkenly roam the streets, beg for food and drink from elites, and potentially riot if employers failed to give them time off.
This started to change thanks to the Knickerbockers.
While the term “Knickerbocker” may best be known now to represent a rolled-up pair of pants or a basketball team, it was originally coined to represent Dutch settlers that migrated to America before it was actually America in the 1600s.
Washington Irving introduced the term into popular culture in the early 1800s through a satirical book entitled “A History of New York.” From then on, any New Yorker with a Dutch ancestry was referred to as a Knickerbocker.
These Knickerbockers, including Irving, began implementing traditions during the holiday season that would take the power of the poor and their street-roaming by moving celebrations into the home.
Early seasonal celebrations were on Saint Nicholas Day, a day in honor of the third-century saint that inspired the modern-day Santa Claus, on December 6 and New Year’s Day.
Clement Clarke Moore, another Knickerbocker, wrote the poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas” in 1823 that shifted the celebration to Christmas Day — a day where good ole St. Nick brings presents to the sleeping children. St. Nicholas was known for dedicating his life to gifting the poor.
Well-off parents around this time were not interested in giving gifts to their children, however. The holiday served them well as it kept their children home with family and away from the consumer market, where they believed kids’ characters and morals could be negatively influenced.
These consumer markets eventually found a way to get into the home, however, through books and magazines.
Clement Clarke Moore’s original depiction of St. Nicholas was somewhat scary and would have been tough to sell as a fun, friendly giver of gifts on Christmas day. Cartoonist Thomas Nast introduced the modern depiction of Santa Claus in Harper’s Weekly during Civil War times. His first illustration was of Santa visiting Union troops.
At this point of consumerism in America, parents knew they had no choice but to give gifts to their kids, but in limited amounts. Marketing efforts ramped up in the early 1900s. Coca-Cola began advertising Santa Claus drinking their soda in the 1920s. Kodak purchased Christmas advertisements even earlier than that.
As decades passed, Christmas advertisements became more popular. By the late 1980s, “Black Friday” became a common celebration of the start of the Christmas season nationwide. Now, with most people using technology for hours a day, the marketing efforts have gotten as personal as possible, and Christmas is at its modern-era peak of commercialization.
Today, Christmas is a $1 trillion industry in America, and it will only rise from there.