Skip to navigationSkip to content

Ideas

Our home for bold arguments and big thinkers.

A Santa Claus in front of a Christmas sale sign
Reuters/Phil McCarten
The true meaning of Christmas?
UNHOLIER THAN THOU

We’ve been complaining about Christmas’s consumerist decay since the 1840s

Linguistic researchers at the Cambridge University Press have been doing some digging on the language that surrounds Christmas. A lot of the most common words we use were obvious—Christmas Day, Christmas Eve, and Merry Christmas were some of the most common phrases—but something surprised the researchers: the uptick in consumerist language.

To gauge changes in language use, the team compared current data to information collected in the 1990s as part of a similar project (this one lead by Oxford University) that included 100 million words. Just 20 years ago, some of the most common words associated with Christmas were “wonderful,” “glow,” “entertaining,” “colorful,” “games,” and “holly.” In 2015, those words fell off the list and were replaced by words like “sales,” “trading,” “spend,” “special,” and “retailers.” (Oh, and also “bash,” “party,” “knees-up,” and, yes, ”hangover.”)

“With wall-to-wall advertising from retailers and increasing mentions in the media, we would expect to see a rise in the frequency of materialistic words in the recent data,” one researcher, Laura Grimes, offered in a blog post. “What is surprising is how prominent the influx of these words has been and how they now account for such a significant proportion of the words used in association with Christmas.”

Overall, the findings appear to be a gloomy indication that our priorities are questionable, we are greedy, and we have forgotten the true spirit of Christmas. (We’re basically the first half of It’s a Wonderful Life.)

But before we throw the baby Jesus out with the bathwater, it’s worth noting that fretting about the state of Christmas is as much a Christmas tradition as picking out a tree or singing carols.

“For the English, Christmas had always meant home,” writes scholar Mark Connelly in his book Christmas: A History, which examines the holiday in England from 1780 to 1952. “Home, sweet home was therefore a celebrated institution: Christmas was its perfect expression.” But by 1870, 30 years after Charles Dickens published A Christmas Carol, the concept of “Christmas shopping” had taken root. By 1909, shop windows decorated for the holidays had become such a draw that police had to be called to remove gawking crowds from blocking London streets.

Meanwhile, in the United States, Christmas at the beginning of the 19th century meant “festive semi-public dinners in which children might participate”, according to Stephen Nissenbaum, author of The Battle for Christmas: A Social and Cultural History of Our Most Cherished Holiday. By 1830, “a new concern emerged, an anxiety about private selfishness and greedy consumerism, especially as those issues affected children.” By the end of the decade, showering kids with gifts was firmly part of the holiday tradition.

And thus the Great Christmas Hand Wringing began.

  • In the 1840s, Horace Greeley, founder of the New-York Tribune, used the newspaper pages to rail against Christmas consumerism. He also lamented holiday partying, observing that by 10 am on Christmas day, “about a dozen parties of boys, each numbering from four to ten persons, nearly every one grossly drunk” staggered down Broadway.
  • In 1890, an article in Ladies Home Journal worried that “the Christmas of our youth is degenerating into a festival of the store-keepers.”
  • In E.M. Forster’s 1910 novel Howards End, the author describes a character on a Christmas shopping trip to London who “saw issuing from a forgotten manger at Bethlehem this torrent of coins and toys. Vulgarity reigned.”
  • A year later, in 1911, The Times opined of Santa Claus that “Today this alien saint has a thousand chapels in London; there seems to be a toy fair in every street where he or one of his subordinates from Fairyland receives child-clients all day long.”
  • A 1929 opinion piece reproduced in British newspapers wondered if the use of the “Xmas” shorthand removed Christ from Christmas “substituting the negative of materialism.”
  • In 1931, the New York Times observed that many holiday sermons “centered on the suggestion that Christmas could not survive if Christ were thrust into the background by materialism.”
  • In 1971, the Los Angeles Times reported that a reverend and professor of theology had called for the date of Christmas to be changed; irreligious materialists could keep December 25th.
  • In 1982, the pope opined that “We cannot transform and degrade Christmas into a feast of useless waste, into a demonstration of easy consumerism.”
  • And so on, and so on.

The increase in media of all kinds promoting Christmas sales and deals could account for the shift in today’s language; so could concerns about spending habits and saving. As for the spike in words about partying and getting hungover, this might not indicate newly unchecked revelry but simply increased comfort discussing something that has long accompanied the holidays. After all, Greeley was complaining about Christmas carousing 170 years ago.

It’s also worth noting that the researchers at the Cambridge University Press preached perspective when they released their findings. In the same blog post where she reported that consumer language had shot up, researcher Grimes also noted that “if that appears a depressing finding, we can take heart from the fact that ‘Father Christmas,’ ‘tree,’ ‘cards,’ and ‘decorations’ remain amongst the most common language associations with the holiday season.”

The way we celebrate—and talk about—Christmas will always be a lightning rod for general anxiety about our society’s worth. But just as criticizing the holiday seems a perennial inevitability, there have also been those who pushed back.

For example, in 1971, a theologist called for the date of Christmas to be changed so that the truly observant could celebrate a more spiritual holiday. His suggestion elicited this still salient response from a fellow scholar:

“Many things are wrong with Christmas,” wrote Dr. Timothy F. Lull, professor of pastoral theology at Yale Divinity School, in an article for The Lutheran magazine in 1971. “But the greatest of all may be that so many people thrive on pointing out what is wrong with Christmas.”

Subscribe to the Daily Brief, our morning email with news and insights you need to understand our changing world.

By providing your email, you agree to the Quartz Privacy Policy.