Reason for the Season

Posted on December 11, 2009. Filed under: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Columns |

The commercial aspect of Christmas is nothing new. Recall this conversation from the 1934 classic “Miracle on 34th Street”:

“That’s what I’ve been fighting against for years,” says Kris Kringle (Edmund Gwenn), dismayed that Macy’s has given him instructions to steer indecisive children to overstocked toys, “the way they commercialize Christmas.”

Alfred, a young Santa Claus in training, chimes in with his Brooklyn accent: “A lot of bad-isms floating around in this world, but one of the worst is commercialism. Don’t care what Christmas stands for. Just make a buck.”

And here you thought it was mere coincidence that Santa’s reindeer are all rack-packing bucks. The reason for the season, in retailers’ eyes, is buck making, and the more the merrier.

As evidenced by Black Friday’s implication, many retailers see red in their bottom lines all year long until the holidays come along to add the green and make it Christmas. For a nervous few, such as jewelers, the 24 shopping days of December can account for as much as 25 percent of their annual sales.

Stretching back so many years, even long before the heydays of Macy’s and Gimble’s, America’s Christmas commercial traditions invoke some interesting trivia.

Household budgets have long been laid alongside toy lists and letters to Santa and found wanting. If you’re curious what the average household spends on Christmas gifts, the Conference Board has been surveying Americans since 1967 on the matter.

This year the average gift tab will be $390, which is slightly down from last year’s $418. One out of four households will spend in excess of $500, and some way more than that. The total value of the collective piles under our Christmas trees? A cool $65 billion.

Factoring in other holiday purchases, such as trees and decorations, and the National Retail Federation estimates that the average household will spend $683 this year. (The National Christmas Tree Association calculates that Americans buy more than 37 million real trees each year.) Can you guess the first president to adorn the White House with a Christmas tree? (Hint: It was in 1856.) Now you have something to remember Franklin Pierce for.

Consumer credit plays a big role in financing Christmas for most people. On busy shopping days like Black Friday, Visa cards alone are swiped at rates averaging more than 5,000 times per minute.

But before there was plastic, there were Christmas clubs—a much better idea. The first such savings accounts, in which monthly payments are made before buying gifts, appeared around 1905. At that time, Christmas hadn’t even been christened a legal holiday in every U.S. state yet. Oklahoma was the last state to issue such a declaration in 1907, a full 71 years after the first state to do so (Alabama).

Even before that, as early as 1822, the postmaster in the nation’s capital was concerned by the extra mail around Christmas. His instinctive response, in true Washington fashion,was to limit by law the number of holiday cards a person could send.

It would be nearly 100 years later, in 1915, before the brand associated now with sending the very best introduced its first Christmas cards. Today, Hallmark’s research division estimates, more than 1.9 billion cards are sent, 10 times the number of the second-highest holiday, Valentine’s Day.

In 1914, a toymaker named Charles Pajeau, frustrated over the sagging sales of his latest invention, hired midgets dressed in elf costumes to play with his new construction toy in a Chicago department store window. The publicity stunt was a smashing success, and Tinker Toy sales skyrocketed the next year to more than a million sets sold.

Christmas’ lasting effect on some products has been lost over the years. Everybody knows what animal crackers are, but few may realize the purpose for the string on the Barnum’s circus-like boxes. It was to hang them on Christmas trees.

Haddon Sundblom is hardly a holiday household name, but he’s behind one of the most iconic symbols of the season. The Swedish artist was hired by Coca-Cola in 1931 to redesign Harper’s Weekly illustrator Thomas Nast’s traditional Santa Claus-and put a Coke in his hand.

Sundblom’s choice of colors for the new Santa’s suit were obvious: his employer’s red and white.

For years, economist Joel Waldfogel has characterized holiday gift buying as economically stupid because the value of the gift is typically less to the recipient than the buyer paid retail. His suggestion: Give cash for Christmas-with one exception. His new book, “Scroogenomics,” is a perfect stocking stuffer.

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