A Brief History of Holiday Shopping

The last few months of each year, people and families take some time to reflect on the year in its entirety, think of the events they’re thankful for, and get ready for the next year by counting down, moving on, and looking forward. In the midst of the holiday season, during the last few months of a passing year, businesses conduct research about what their customers will most likely be interested in, create holiday deals and promotions, as they prepare to maximize their profits by selling as many products as possible. Given how extreme the shopping atmosphere can get around Christmas time, citizens are worried that the amount of goods sold is becoming more important to people than the values traditionally associated with the holiday season.

The current concept of the American holiday season came into existence about a century ago, and started with Christmas. This winter holiday had Puritan roots, and grew to become important to the entire nation because of the extent to which America developed at the dawn of the 20th century. During that time, the country was characterized by the growth of new industries and numerous technological advancements, even before the First World War. Christmas soon became a holiday that protected and celebrated human connections and local businesses as well as charities, despite rapid developments and changes in day-to-day lifestyles. The holiday became increasingly popular in large northern cities, where small community life was giving way to urban sprawl and the dominance of growing industries.

When it comes to holiday symbols, the Christmas tree is usually thought of as a classic example, and one that dates back to the origins of the holiday. Even as far back as in 1832, the sociologist Harriet Martin was writing on how Christmas tree sales were growing in New England, as a result of Americans seeing them while vacationing in Europe, or through interactions within their own communities. Shortly after, Christmas trees were becoming available for purchase almost everywhere in the United States, and could be even seen in the homes of non-Christian families as well. Other symbols for Christmas and the holidays emerged later. In 1875, German immigrant Louis Prang popularized the practice of sending holiday cards, which subsequently evolved into the practice of giving gifts to one’s family and friends. Vestiges from the small community life that existed before the growth of large cities was replaced by the Christmas holiday, but Christmas in itself became more centered around traditions of purchasing gifts during the last few months of the year. And after both World Wars, consumerism accelerated as American cities grew to record sizes; and economies in other countries developed similarly. Statistics show that in 2013 businesses generated $3 trillion in revenue during the holiday season, making up one-fifth of their yearly sales. According to a recent survey, a little less than a third of holiday shoppers were planning to spend more than $500 on their holiday gifts.

Daniel Greenman
staff writer

Graphics: Jessica Chang

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