- [Man] If you've ever said "Christmas has gotten too commercial," well, you're not the first.
Complaints about excessive spending during the holidays go back over a hundred years when Victorians lamented about having to buy cards and gifts for all their acquaintances and recoiled from the garishness of London's department store displays.
- Today we're so used to the marriage of Christmas and shopping that we rarely stop to wonder how it got this way.
Is there something inherent about the holiday that makes it so expensive?
- And is it really good for us, or the economy?
(bright music) Many people think the tradition of gift giving comes from the story of the magi in the New Testament who visited baby Jesus with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
But swapping handmade gifts was already a part of pagan winter festivals like the Roman Saturnalia, a raucous week-long party which took place in late December.
As Christianity spread across Europe, keeping the schedules and traditions of established holidays made it more attractive to prospective converts, so sometime around 300 A.D. the church officially moved Jesus' birthday to December 25th.
- For over a thousand years Christmas ambled along as a minor observance, nowhere near as important as the major Christian holiday, Easter.
In the 1600s, Puritans like Oliver Cromwell and the pilgrims who settled America outright banned the celebration of Christmas because they found it too decadent and pagany.
- It really wasn't until the early 1800s that Christmas as we know it today started to take shape, thanks largely to authors like Charles Dickens, Washington Irving, and Clement Clark Moore, who assembled some of their favorite holiday customs into a standardized package.
They rebranded it as a family-centric celebration with a strong emphasis on generosity.
That meant sharing meals, donating to charity, and, of course, gift giving.
- Gifts were still mostly handmade, but a lot of money was spent on food.
Whether you were a poulterer, a baker, a brewer or a fooderer, it's a word, December was a busy and profitable month.
As the Industrial Revolution kicked into high gear, urban populations increased and manufactured goods became widely available to a burgeoning middle class.
Gifts shifted from something you made to something you bought.
By the end of the 1800s, Christmas had been commandeered by an institution that would hold it hostage for 800 years, the department store.
- [Man] These all-in-one mega retailers would go all out with elaborate decorations and window displays that attracted huge crowds.
Print catalogs offered an easy way to make wish lists, and in 1890 an American businessman named James Edgar had a crazy idea of dressing up as Santa Claus at his Massachusetts department store, and boy, did that catch on.
- Everyone knows that Christmastime seems to start earlier every year.
But you might be surprised to learn that the first people to advocate early shopping were not retailers, but labor activists.
The season had become so busy that the government allowed businesses to ignore labor laws during the month of December, and employees were routinely overworked, many of them children.
In her essay, "The Travesty of Christmas," NAACP co-founder Florence Kelley advocated early shopping as a way to alleviate the pressure on workers and recounts the story of a boy who died of exposure after working an 18 hour shift delivering Christmas gifts in New York's freezing winter.
- Department stores were happy to make the holiday season as long as possible, but they had a sort of unwritten rule amongst them that they wouldn't start promoting Christmas until after Thanksgiving.
So FDR pushed the official date of Thanksgiving from the last Thursday in November to the fourth Thursday in November in order to squeeze as many days as possible into the shopping season.
- Starting in the early '50s, the day after Thanksgiving became known as Black Friday as a reference to the general chaos that resulted from workers calling in sick to get a four day weekend.
By the 1960s, police departments had adopted the usage to describe the overwhelming crowds and traffic caused by the onset of holiday shopping.
- Retailers embraced the name with Black Friday sales and promotions, though they did attempt to rebrand the origins of the term into something more positive.
Despite what you've heard, Black Friday is not a reference to the day businesses get back in the black.
- Stores have been steadily pushing back the opening time on Black Friday in the last few decades, from dawn to midnight, even to Thanksgiving evening, prompting some strikes by workers robbed of their holiday dinner with the family.
- Today Black Friday is something of a controversy, with viral videos of mobs pushing and fighting each other for the best bargains.
It's become a symbol of the greed and competitiveness that Christmas is not supposed to be about, tragically epitomized by the death of a Long Island Wal-Mart employee who was trampled by 200 frenzied shoppers who broke through the glass doors before the store opened.
Both Oliver Cromwell and Florence Kelley would be very disappointed if they were alive today.
- And they'd be very confused by the newest form of holiday consumerism, online Christmas shopping.
While e-commerce only represents around 17% of holiday shopping, that number has been steadily growing over the past decade, particularly focused on a day that the National Retail Federation dubbed Cyber Monday.
That's right, three days after Black Friday after a tiring weekend of mall walking, it seems that many people decide to finish up their holiday shopping on the web.
And more than half of these orders are placed from work computers.
Only on lunch breaks, right guys?
- Even if you find all this commercialism distasteful, you still have to admit that this annual spending spree is good for the economy, right?
While many retailers indeed depend on Christmas to remain profitable, there are concerns that have nothing to do with spirituality or tradition.
Economics professor Joel Waldfogel famously called Christmas a dead weight loss, which basically means that it's a lot of spending without an equivalent positive gain.
- For instance, if I give Philip a $10 bill, I lost 10 bucks, but he's gained 10 bucks, so the overall economy has broken even.
- But if I give Julia a $10 gift that she doesn't want and she just sticks it on a shelf in the garage or even throws it away, I'm out 10 bucks without any equivalent gain elsewhere.
- Think of all the millions of Christmas gifts people have given or received that didn't end up being used or enjoyed.
They've all contributed to a dead weight loss on the economy, estimated by Waldfogel to be around four to $13 billion a year.
But, you might say those purchases help the manufacturer and the retailer.
Doesn't that make up for the loss?
True, but in a healthy economy, businesses make money by selling products that customers actually want.
Besides, who are you trying to give a gift to?
Your nephew, or Wal-Mart?
- Fortunately, dead weight loss is pretty minimal when it comes to close friends and relatives because we know them well enough to make good guesses about what they'd want.
But if you're buying for acquaintances, co-workers or extended family, sticking to gift cards might make them and the economy happier.
- There have been some movements to take the commerce out of Christmas, like Buy Nothing Day.
Not coincidentally held on Black Friday.
And it is true that many people report high levels of stress or anxiety about holiday shopping.
But at the same time, there seems to be a fundamental connection between Christmas and spending money that will probably never go away.
- Just look at the book that people like to say invented Christmas as we know it, Charles Dickens, "A Christmas Carol."
Bedsides being filled with references to shops and markets overflowing with goods for purchase, the main character's principal flaw was that he's a penny pincher.
- More bread.
- Take me extra, sir.
- No more bread.
- One Scrooge has his big transformation and finally understands the true meaning of Christmas, the first thing he does is throw open the window, flag down a passing child and tell him to go buy something.
- Go and buy it then.
- Go and buy it.
- Yes, go and buy it.
- Go and buy it.
- If Dickens is right about Christmas being a celebration of family and generosity, well you can't throw a party or give to charity without parting with some shillings.
- That doesn't mean you should Santa yourself into the poor house, but humans have an obvious tradition of connecting through gift giving, so it's okay that for one month of the year we're willing to make an investment whose return can't be recorded in a ledger.
- And that's our two cents.