Advertising Educational Foundation

[Editor’s Note:This article is a part of ADText.]

Fig 1. The Two Icons of Christmas: Jesus and Santa Claus[]
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Fig 1.

The Two Icons of Christmas: Jesus and Santa Claus[Source]

1. Introduction

The secular imagery of Santa Claus and the religious iconography of the Nativity coexist uncomfortably in contemporary society. On Christmas Eve celebrations in churches recall the birth of Jesus while Santa is busy elsewhere. Both the religious and the secular traditions of Christmas are generally thought to have been passed down through many generations. The story of the evolution of modern Christmas celebrations is complex, but it does reveal that some “traditions” are not so very old at all. This unit focuses on the role that advertising has played in shaping the myths and rituals of Christmas. inline graphic inline graphic

2. The “Traditions” of Christmas

Read Professor Belk’s “Materialism and the Modern US Christmas” online.

The coming of Christmas evokes nostalgia for old-fashioned celebrations. Ask people what they mean by “old-fashioned,” and they will talk about age-old practices handed down through the generations, about families gathering to celebrate the holidays together, and about their dreams of a snowy Christmas that is free of commercialism. They may go on to talk about their own family’s special rituals, such as seeing the latest movie together, taking pictures or playing games, going for long walks in the woods, cooking and enjoying favorite foods, giving hand-made presents, singing carols, and so on. Whatever the specifics, Christmas is a time for families to celebrate and honor their traditions. inline graphic inline graphic

Controversy surrounds the actual authorship of A Visit from St. Nicholas.

Popular stories, songs, and films have played significant roles in developing the cultural practices and beliefs that constitute the secular Christmas. Nothing has been more important than Clement Clark Moore’s A Visit from St. Nicholas (1822), also known by its first line, “’Twas the night before Christmas.” This brief story in verse spells out the myth of Santa’s visit on Christmas Eve. Another seminal text, Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol (1843), defines the spirit of Christmas in the values of giving, sharing, and celebrating. inline graphic inline graphic

Films like Holiday Inn (1942), It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), and Miracle on 34th Street (1947) have contributed ideas to the lore of Christmas. The song “White Christmas” (sung by Bing Crosby in Holiday Inn) idealized Christmas in these words: inline graphic inline graphic

I’m dreaming of a white ChristmasJust like the ones I used to know, Where tree tops glistenand children listenTo hear sleigh bells in the snow.

The words of this song have immortalized snow, sleighs, bells, children, and singing as necessary parts of the perfect Christmas. “White Christmas” conjures up dreams and fantasies about an “old-fashioned” Christmas that is just like the ones [we] used to know. inline graphic inline graphic

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer leapt onto the Christmas scene in 1939. Elvis brought rock and roll into the Christmas tradition in the late 1950s and 60s. In the television age, A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965) and How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966) joined other Christmas tales. In the new millennium, The Polar Express (2004) is vying for a place in the lineup of holiday pageantry. Such examples demonstrate the evolving traditions of Christmas. inline graphic inline graphic

Fig. 2. A “Traditional” Image of Christmas[]
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Fig. 2.

A “Traditional” Image of Christmas[Source]

Christmas’s evolving traditions belie the cultural nostalgia for a traditional Christmas often expressed in images like that in Figure 2, where the style of the room and clothing is definitively Victorian. Christmas cards and wrapping paper portray “old-fashioned” Christmases in this way. A bit of Internet searching will turn up many similar images from Victorian times but few from earlier periods. The reason for this is simple: Christmas as we know it—a time of Christmas trees, lavish family dinners, gift giving, Santa Claus, and toys—dates from the 1800s. Both Clement Clarke Moore in America and Charles Dickens in England wrote their stories in the mid-1800s, but the more important factor was that industrial productivity had developed to the point where it needed mass consumption to accompany it. Thus, the commercialism of Christmas was born in the Victorian age and linked with the Victorian images that signify a “traditional” Christmas. inline graphic inline graphic

Before the 1800s, Christmas was different. Professor Russell Belk describes the earlier history of Christmas:

In 1647 the British Parliament abolished religious festival celebrations, including Christmas, and the ban persisted for the duration of the Puritan Oliver Cromwell’s reign. The early Puritan emigrants to America also condemned Christmas celebrations as “a wanton Bacchanalian feast.” Massachusetts Bay Colony passed an ordinance in 1659 that treated Christmas as any other working day and demanded a fine from anyone caught feasting, refusing to work, or engaging in other forms of celebration.

As more liberal Protestants began to emigrate to America from Great Britain, the Netherlands, and Germany, they brought Christmas traditions with them. By 1836, the earliest of the American states and territories began to recognize Christmas as a legal holiday and by 1890 it had become a national holiday.1 inline graphic inline graphic

3. Developing the Story of Christmas

When New Yorker Clement Clarke Moore penned ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas in 1822, his intention was to write an entertaining Christmas story for his own children. It incorporated elements from popular Christmas stories and contemporary poems (including one by his well-known contemporary, Washington Irving). The publication of his story in The Sentinel of Troy, New York and its consequent popularization set it on course to become one of the best-known children’s stories of all time. inline graphic inline graphic

Fig. 3. Inventing Christmas by Jock ElliottUses a Thomas Nast Illustration on Its Cover[]
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Fig. 3.

Inventing Christmas by Jock Elliott2Uses a Thomas Nast Illustration on Its Cover[Source]

Before Moore, the myth of Santa Claus was not well-defined. Also known as St. Nicholas, Santa Claus can be traced to the fourth-century bishop of Myra (in what is now Turkey). St. Nicholas was remembered for giving gifts of gold to children, preventing them from being sold into slavery or prostitution. Other forerunners of contemporary Santa Claus include the British Father Christmas, the French Père Noël, the Dutch Sinterklaas, the Danish Jules-Missen, and the Romanian Moș Craicun.3 inline graphic inline graphic

In ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas, Moore established the details of just what it is that Santa does on Christmas Eve. For a modern audience, some of the specific allusions and references require explanation. The poem begins with the well-known line, “’Twas the night before Christmas,” and goes on to tell that: inline graphic inline graphic

The children were nestled all snug in their beds,

While visions of sugar plums danc’d in their heads,4

Read about the history ofsugar plumsand otherChristmas foods.

The fact that it was sugar plums rather than toys that danced in their heads reveals an important fact about the development of Christmas rituals. The great festival of consumption, now so much a part of Christmas, was not in place in the early 1800s. America was still recovering from the Revolutionary War and was just beginning to move into the age of mechanization and mass production of consumer goods. In 1822, Christmas was a time for special foods, for feasting, and for indulgences not otherwise possible during the year. Although Moore’s family was quite wealthy, it would have been candy, not toys, his children dreamed of at Christmastime. inline graphic inline graphic

The story moves on to tell of the arrival of Santa, which was, according to the poem, a noisy affair: inline graphic inline graphic

When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter,

I sprang from the bed to see what was the matter.

The clatter, of course, was the sounds of the sleigh, reindeer, and Santa first on the lawn and then on the rooftop. At the time Moore wrote, it was common for merry-makers around the winter solstice to wander the streets of New York. Sometimes they would even break into the houses of the wealthy to steal property. Moore was relieved to find that he had “nothing to fear” because it was Santa, not revelers, who had arrived. inline graphic inline graphic

Read about the history of theChristmas tree and its adoption into American celebrations.

After descending the chimney and stuffing the stockings (there is no Christmas tree in the story; this German custom was widely adopted later), Santa laid his finger by his nose, gave a nod, and “up the chimney he rose.” Unknown in the present, this gesture of laying a finger beside one’s nose signified a pact with the person who saw the action, a private understanding or a shared joke. In this case, it signified an understanding between Santa and the story’s narrator that the details of Santa’s visit should be kept secret. inline graphic inline graphic

The story can be combed for more details about the cultural context of Christmas at the time Moore wrote. With or without this contextual knowledge, the story serves today to explain important components of Christmas: how Santa arrives, how he gets in the house, why no child ever sees him, how he looks, and so on. In other words, ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas is the mythological charter for Santa’s role at Christmas. Over the years, the myth has been embellished with other details: writing letters to Santa, leaving cookies, milk, and carrots for Santa and the reindeer, the toyshop at the North Pole, the elves who assist him, Mrs. Santa Claus, and mall Santas, just to name a few. Some questions are never given really clear answers, such as how Santa knows if you’re naughty or nice, how Santa’s workshop makes toys exactly like those found in stores, how parents pay for gifts by sending money to Santa, how Santa manages to visit all the children in the world in a single evening, how Santa knows what everyone wants for Christmas, and so on. The story of Santa, like other Christmas traditions, continues to evolve, but it was Moore’s poem that launched Santa into his central role. inline graphic inline graphic

Fig. 4. Clement Moore Reading A Visit from St. Nicholas to His Children[]
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Fig. 4.

Clement Moore Reading A Visit from St. Nicholas to His Children[Source]

Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol (1843) established other aspects of Christmas traditions by telling the story of the penniless Cratchit family and Mr. Cratchit’s miserly employer, Ebenezer Scrooge. It depicts the Cratchit family as warm and loving, despite their difficult position in life. Their son, Tiny Tim, is handicapped, and the family has a hard time making ends meet. In the story, the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future appear in dreams and show the humbug Scrooge how others view him. No one seems to care when he dies. No one bothers to visit his grave. These revelations convince Scrooge to mend his ways. On Christmas day, he buys food and presents for the Cratchits. The story ends as Tiny Tim utters the prayer, “God bless us every one.” inline graphic inline graphic

Read Dickens’sA Christmas Carolonline.

This heartwarming story of goodness winning out over evil, of sharing replacing stinginess, and of community transforming loneliness iterates what has become the Christmas spirit. Despite the emphasis that its continual retelling places on these central values, A Christmas Carol also teaches the pleasures of buying, giving, sharing, and consuming. The contrary values of turning away from consumption, not spending, and not giving are proscribed by the story. inline graphic inline graphic

The visual images of Christmas developed along with these two stories. Early images of St. Nicholas depicted him with a bishop’s miter and staff, often with the Christ child, and placed him in a religious context (see Figure 1). In the 1800s, the religious connection began to be downplayed. The illustrator Thomas Nast drew several versions of Santa Claus for Harper’s Weekly between 1863 and 1886. Nast’s images are considered the earliest representations of the modern (non-religious) Santa Claus. inline graphic inline graphic

Fig. 5. A Thomas Nast Drawing of Santa Claus from 1872[]
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Fig. 5.

A Thomas Nast Drawing of Santa Claus from 1872[Source]

4. Advertising Enters the Christmas Scene

Sir Henry Cole sent the first commercially printedChristmas cardin 1843.

Images of Christmas and Santa Claus in particular continued to evolve during the latter decades of the 1800s and in the early 1900s. Christmas cards were especially popular during the period, and they helped establish the popular visual imagery of Christmas that continues to be used today. Parallel images were used in ads, although advertising itself was still in the early stages of its development. As advertising became more complex, it began to include iconography that mimicked more fully the images on Christmas cards, such as holly and mistletoe. By the 1920s and 30s, Christmas themes were linked solidly to the promotion of products. inline graphic inline graphic

Fig. 6. Santa Promotes Lundborg’s Perfumes in This 1894 Ad[]
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Fig. 6.

Santa Promotes Lundborg’s Perfumes in This 1894 Ad[Source]

In 1931, Coca-Cola commissioned artist Haddon Sundblom to draw advertising images of Santa and Coke. The jolly, plump Santa dressed in a red suit trimmed with white fur that Sundblom created quickly replaced other versions. Between the 1930s and the 1950s, Sundblom continued to draw similar images of Santa that were used to promote Coke products.5 inline graphic inline graphic

Fig. 7. Haddon Sundblom’s First Image of Santa for Coke (1931)[]
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Fig. 7.

Haddon Sundblom’s First Image of Santa for Coke (1931)[Source]

Sundblom’s Santa is today the definitive image. Moore’s story of Santa’s visit, previously illustrated with a thinner Santa wearing his sooty fur suit, is illustrated in contemporary editions with a Santa of Sundblom’s type in a vibrant red suit. Coke skillfully replaced Santa’s pipe in the advertising images with a Coke, linking the brand solidly to the dominant imagery of Christmas. Many other companies consider Santa the nearly perfect product endorser at Christmas because of his broad appeal and the fact that he does not have to be paid for his work. inline graphic inline graphic

Fig. 8. These Children Are Leaving Cokes Instead of Milk for Santa[]
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Fig. 8.

These Children Are Leaving Cokes Instead of Milk for Santa[Source]

Nowhere is the role of advertising in the development of Christmas traditions more apparent than in the case of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Robert L. May, who worked in the advertising department of the Chicago-based mail order house, Montgomery Ward & Company, was asked in 1939 to develop a Christmas story with an animal theme that could be distributed by his company as an annual “give-away.”6 In response, he developed the story of Rudolph, a shunned and unhappy reindeer with a red, shiny nose. When Santa asks Rudolph to guide his sleigh on a foggy Christmas Eve, he is delighted and the other reindeer begin to admire him. inline graphic inline graphic

Even thereindeer’s names have evolved over time.

At the heart of the Rudolph story is the ugly duckling myth—a misfit who grows up to be beautiful and admired. Building on this theme, May created a story that has now merged with the mythology of Santa Claus in American Christmas traditions. Helped along by a song recorded by well-known artists such as Bing Crosby, Gene Autry, and Burl Ives, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer has really gone down in history. Over the years, Rudolph’s red nose has become a regular feature on greeting cards, wrapping paper, and TV programs. The eight tiny reindeer invented by Clement Moore—Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner, and Blitzen—are now forever teamed with Rudolph. inline graphic inline graphic

Fig. 9. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer Was Developed by the Advertising Department of Montgomery Ward & Company in 1939[]
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Fig. 9.

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer Was Developed by the Advertising Department of Montgomery Ward & Company in 1939[Source]

In recent years, Coke has departed from its close connection to Santa Claus. Santa may not be appropriate in the context of diversity and multiculturalism. He is, after all, decidedly a Caucasian male. Newer Coke ads have found alternative icons for Christmas. In 1988, Coke turned to the “holiday” tree in Rockefeller Center—never mentioning Christmas in its advertising. The commercial tells the story of magic, belief, and family—all central elements of the tradition—without a specific reference to either Christmas or Santa. inline graphic inline graphic

Coke Sponsors Christmas at Rockefeller Center in New York City[]
Fig. 10.

Coke Sponsors Christmas at Rockefeller Center in New York City[Source]

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In its recent advertising, Coke has left even the Christmas tree behind. Polar bears and penguins replace people and represent, in their own way, diversity.7 This reflects the tendency in American society to speak of “holiday” parties instead of Christmas parties and to minimize even further the links to the Christian origins of the holiday. inline graphic inline graphic

Recent Coke Commercials Feature Polar Bears Rather Than Santa[]
Fig. 11.

Recent Coke Commercials Feature Polar Bears Rather Than Santa[Source]

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In addition to its role in developing and popularizing the Christmas characters like Sundblom’s Santa and Rudolph, advertising is responsible for the development and continuity of some much-beloved specials that appear on TV each holiday season. A Charlie Brown Christmas, a perennial favorite, was suggested in 1964 by the McCann Erickson Advertising Agency as a means of promoting Coca-Cola products. Coca-Cola paid for the production of the special and the Coke logo appeared in three scenes of the original version. These have since been removed from the cartoon. Product placement flies in the face of the essential message about a non-commercialized Christmas, and such overt connection to the promotion of a commercial product seemed misplaced. A Charlie Brown Christmas continues to be one of the most popular Christmas specials. It is also an excellent medium for the placement of Christmas-related commercials. inline graphic inline graphic

View theTV promofrom 1966 for the Rudolph special.

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964) was originally sponsored by General Electric and included product placements like the Charlie Brown special had. These were removed after the first few years, and they are not found in the reedited version of the special. However, the print ad in Figure 12 for GE products uses characters, including Rudolph, from the cartoon. inline graphic inline graphic

Fig. 12. This Ad Announced the Rudolph TV Special (1964)[]
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Fig. 12.

This Ad Announced the Rudolph TV Special (1964)[Source]

5. Christmas Specials as Advertising Media

Since the emergence of television as an advertising medium, the sponsorship of seasonal specials has provided a targeted medium for delivering commercial messages at Christmastime. In the early years of television, it was not unusual for a corporate sponsor to host an entire program—such as General Electric did for the first Rudolph TV special. Hallmark did the same for Ahmal and the Night Visitors in 1951. In more recent years, Christmas specials tend to have multiple sponsors whose commercials appear during the airing of a special. Sponsoring a holiday special enables advertisers to encourage purchasing gifts for loved ones while viewers bask in the sentimental, non-commercial messages of the story. inline graphic inline graphic

Another enduring favorite at Christmastime is How the Grinch Stole Christmas. The TV special first appeared in 1966 and was based on a book of the same name written by Dr. Seuss and published in 1957. The Grinch story has entered the evolving tradition of the American Christmas. Thomas A. Burns argues that its themes ingeniously combine the basic ideas of Santa Claus in ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas and Scrooge in A Christmas Carol.8 Theodor Geisel (Dr. Seuss) deftly critiques the modern commercialism of Christmas without including specific references to the religious significance of the holiday, making the story a commentary on the values of sharing, giving, and togetherness, which are Christian values that are also widely held in the larger culture. inline graphic inline graphic

6. Christmas and Mass Consumption

Whatever else it may signify in the cultural life of America, Christmas is a time of mass consumption. Department stores and other commercial outlets do a disproportionate part of their annual business during the season. Consumers buy gifts for close family members and possibly a few friends as well. Nonetheless, the commercialism of Christmas seems to many to be out of place. inline graphic inline graphic

James G. Carrier, a scholar who has studied gift giving during the holiday season, considers gift giving to be as essential a part of contemporary Christmas as Santa, Christmas trees, and special music. He writes:

Complaints about the materialism of the American Christmas spring from [the] dual nature of the gifts given… The thing given at Christmas is a material object, usually a commodity bought in a crowded, garishly decorated store. But it is also a vehicle of affection that expresses private sentiment within a relationship that is personal and probably familial. Complaints about materialism typically point out that we pay too much attention to the vehicle and too little to the sentiments and relationships it is supposed to express. Thus, these complaints are one way of expressing a tension within the thing that is given. On the one hand it is a commodity purchased for money in an impersonal transaction, and on the other it is a gift given to express affection in a personal relationship.9 inline graphic inline graphic

Carrier argues that Christmas shopping is the cultural ritual through which we transform mundane, lifeless commodities into personal, meaningful gifts. He goes on to say:

This is what makes shopping an integral part of Christmas. It is a mistake to construe Christmas in isolation, to see it only as a celebration and recreation of family and friendship. Rather, it is a celebration and recreation that needs to be seen in its socio-economic context. Americans see family and friendship as surrounded by the impersonal world “out there,” the world of work and alienated commodities. It is the Christmas shopping that proves to them that they can create a sphere of familial love in the face of a world of money. Shopping is a key part of Christmas.10 inline graphic inline graphic

The role for advertising in all this is clear. It must promote shopping as well as the idea of imbuing goods with social significance. It must urge the consumer to purchase this or that gift and communicate the pleasure, significance, and human values that giving it will bring. The ad in Figure 13 promotes a utilitarian product, albeit a somewhat expensive one. Binoculars can be useful in various ways, but when they are given as a Christmas gift, as the ad suggests, they take on greater significance. They become more than just functional binoculars; they are a gift from a loved-one. The link between the giver and the object becomes eternal. The lifeless commodity has undergone a transformation into a treasured gift. inline graphic inline graphic

Fig. 13. This Ad Suggests Binoculars as a Christmas Gift with Lasting Significance (1927)[]
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Fig. 13.

This Ad Suggests Binoculars as a Christmas Gift with Lasting Significance (1927)[Source]

7. Gender Lessons

Christmas is also a time in which lessons about gender are repeated. Advertisements in particular repeat and reinforce cultural ideas about the gender associations of particular objects. The link between children and toys provides a special opportunity to remind boys about masculine behaviors and girls about feminine ones. These associations can be found throughout the history of Christmas representations and are particularly pointed when toys come on the scene as appropriate gifts in the mid-1800s. Boys are typically linked with swords, guns, and action toys while girls are linked to dolls and other objects that signify domesticity. The image in Figure 14 depicts a middle-class family at Christmas. One of the boys plays with a toy horse and soldier. His sister, by contrast, holds a doll in her arms. inline graphic inline graphic

Fig. 14. Children Playing with Gender Specific Toys at Christmas (1869)[]
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Fig. 14.

Children Playing with Gender Specific Toys at Christmas (1869)[Source]

The ads in Figures 15 and 16 are quite specific in their messages about the gender appropriateness of certain toys. Girls are depicted as wanting dolls and play houses. Boys, by contrast, are linked to electric trains and outdoor camping. Even a cursory look through contemporary magazines will show that toys continue to have strong gender links in many of the advertising images. inline graphic inline graphic

Fig. 15. A Gender Specific Christmas Toy for a Girl from 1964[]
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Fig. 15.

A Gender Specific Christmas Toy for a Girl from 1964[Source]

Fig. 16. A Gender Specific Christmas Toy for a Boy from 1955[]
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Fig. 16.

A Gender Specific Christmas Toy for a Boy from 1955[Source]

Christmas is also gendered in another important way. Much of the work of shopping and preparing for Christmas, as well as the facilitation of familial sociability during the holidays, falls to women. Men and children are bystanders in comparison to the work women do at Christmas. Ads depicting Christmas scenes typically show women buying and wrapping presents, cooking and cleaning in preparation, and serving food to family and friends. For example, the Absolut ad in Figure 17 parodies the last minute shopper who is still trying to find the perfect gift on December 24th. In the image, only the woman’s legs are apparent. The remainder of her body is replaced by Christmas packages. Semiotically, this image can be read as representing the leg work of women and the replacement of their bodies and minds by the objects they acquire. inline graphic inline graphic

Fig. 17. This Absolut Ad Parodies the Female Christmas Shopper[]
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Fig. 17.

This Absolut Ad Parodies the Female Christmas Shopper[Source]

8. Getting the Message to Santa

Over the years, two important mechanisms have developed for getting the message to Santa about what children want. One is the letter that a child writes to Santa (or that an adult writes on behalf of the child). The other is visiting Santa, or one of his helpers, in a department store or shopping mall. In either instance, this is a child’s opportunity to spell out precisely the material objects he or she hopes to receive at Christmas; the child is able to get this message directly to the magical source that has the power to satisfy these desires. inline graphic inline graphic

Perhaps the most famous Christmas letter ever written was published in the New York Sun in 1897:

Dear Editor: I am 8 years old. Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus. Papa says, “If you see it in The Sun, it’s so.” Please tell me the truth; Is there a Santa Claus? — Virginia O’Hanlon inline graphic inline graphic

And the editor’s response:

Virginia: Your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except [what] they see. They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds. All minds, Virginia, whether they be men’s or children’s, are little….

Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus. It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias….

Not believe in Santa Claus! You might as well not believe in fairies. You might get your papa to hire men to watch in all the chimneys on Christmas Eve to catch Santa Claus, but even if they did not see Santa Claus coming down, what would that prove? Nobody sees Santa Claus, but that is no sign that there is no Santa Claus. The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see. Did you ever see fairies dancing on the lawn? Of course not, but that’s no proof that they are not there. Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in this world….

No Santa Claus? Thank God! he lives, and lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay ten times ten thousand years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood. inline graphic inline graphic

This letter and response have entered the folklore of Christmas. It speaks of the sentiments of Christmas and the reality of cherished hopes and beliefs. It does not talk of materialism, but rather of faith in cultural traditions and practices. These in turn set the stage upon which the drama of buying, giving, and consuming take place. inline graphic inline graphic

More typical are children’s letters written directly to Santa. Here are some recent examples:

Dear Santa, How is Mrs. Claus? Are you busy this time of year? I have been extra good this year. I want a flaming Cyndaquil from Pokemon. Can you get this? Also, I would like the Laser trip wire, Foam the fun you can feel, Zathura the book and a robot. Please get me these things. Have a merry Christmas and a happy new year! Brandon

Dear Santa, This year can you please bring me a new electric scooter, abercrombie clothes, bitty baby clothes, and a big sequin purse. Do you think you can get me Marisol by December 20th? And if you do, I would like the outfit that matches hers. I’m asking for another scooter because someone stole it from my garage. I would also like to get my mom the full/queen comforter she wanted from the store. Love, Amanda B.11 inline graphic inline graphic

Read aboutOperation Letters to Santa,a charity that answers many children’s Christmas letters.

These requests are often specific to the point of naming the desired brand. Children’s letters are typically polite, often include requests for others, and frequently inquire about Santa’s well-being, but they show no signs of limiting requests or thinking about the costs. From a child’s point of view, it is simply the time to ask for what you want without having to worry about cost, difficulty of obtaining it, or reciprocating. Some early versions of Santa included such ideas as bad children being punished by Santa who would bring them bags of switches or lumps of coal. Sometimes children make claims to have been very good so as to be sure Santa will not punish or forget them. inline graphic inline graphic

Santas have been appearing in the midst of shopping complexes and receiving requests directly for a very long time. This is a means of enticing parents into department stores and shopping centers. The ritual of sitting on Santa’s knee and telling him what you want for Christmas is usually photographed. The image in Figure 18 shows a small girl visiting a mall Santa. inline graphic inline graphic

Fig. 18. A Child Visits Santa in a Shopping Mall[]
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Fig. 18.

A Child Visits Santa in a Shopping Mall[Source]

9. Tracking Santa on His Visit

Among the many ways the Internet has influenced the celebration of Christmas is the popular North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) tracking system that follows Santa Claus on his whirlwind Christmas Eve trip. Eclipsing the toll free numbers that are still in use, the web site allows continual monitoring of Santa as he visits children in different countries around the world. The site is only fully active on December 24th each year, but it can be visited at other times for an idea of what it offers. inline graphic inline graphic

Read about the1955 eventsthat sparked the NORAD systemfor tracking Santa.

Advertising played a serendipitous role in bringing NORAD into Christmas activities. In 1955, a misprinted number in a Sears, Roebuck and Co. newspaper advertisement directed callers instead to the predecessor of the North American Aerospace Defense Command. The defense personnel who answered the phone thought at first that the calls were a practical joke. When they discovered they were talking to real children about their Christmas wishes, they did their best to confirm Santa’s existence. As its popularity has grown, volunteers field calls and emails, and sponsorship pays for the other expenses of the multilingual call centers and websites. inline graphic inline graphic

Fig. 19. The Original Sears Ad that Led to NORAD Tracking Santa[]
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Fig. 19.

The Original Sears Ad that Led to NORAD Tracking Santa[Source]

10. The Globalization of Christmas

Christmas has increasingly moved from local celebrations to an event that is now recognized and celebrated on a global scale. The importation of European Christmas customs into the New World and their amalgamation into the American version of Christmas was a form of globalization in its own time. Britain exported its Christmas customs to the countries of its former empire as did France. The Spanish and Portuguese took their Christmas traditions to Latin America. This process has continued, and Christmas is now marked and celebrated—at least the secular aspects of it—in countries where few people are Christians. American influence abroad, nowhere perhaps more significant than Japan, took Christmas to other parts of the world. inline graphic inline graphic

David Sedaris has acomedic commentary on Dutch Christmas customs.

Dutch cultural practices contributed significantly to early American Christmas celebrations. Many of those practices such as Sinterklaas (St. Nicholas) dressed in red, his nighttime distribution of presents, and his accompanying helpers continue into the present. Other aspects of the Dutch Christmas tradition differ. For example, the visitation of the white-bearded Sinterklaas happens on December 5th. He wears a red bishop’s robe, carries a mitre and rides his white horse, Amerigo. He is assisted by helpers who usually have blackened faces and wear Moorish clothing. During the Middle Ages, his Zwarte Piet (Black Peter) helpers were said to represent the devil over whom St. Nicholas triumphed. Today, the faces are usually said to be darkened from chimney soot. Sinterklaas is said to only give presents to good children. The others receive coal or a lashing instead. inline graphic inline graphic

Fig. 20. The Dutch Sinterklaas Delivers Presents on December 5th[]
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Fig. 20.

The Dutch Sinterklaas Delivers Presents on December 5th[Source]

Read about the Befana legend.

In Italy, home to the Catholic Church, the religious aspects of Christmas continue to play an important role in the celebrations. The Italian Christmas season begins on December 8th with the Feast of the Annunciation and continues until Epiphany on January 6th.12 Santa Claus is slowly making his way onto the Italian Christmas scene, but he is still considered a foreign icon. Living manger scenes, such as the one in Figure 21, are common ways to celebrate Christmas in Italy. Children’s presents are delivered on January 6th by the Befana, or good witch. She appears dressed as an ugly witch and carries a broomstick and a bag of toys, as shown in Figure 22. The holidays, especially the period between Christmas Eve and Epiphany, are a time for elaborate meals with family and friends. The Feast of the Seven Fishes in which seven different seafood dishes are prepared marks the Christmas Vigil. inline graphic inline graphic

Fig. 21. A Christmas Nativity Scene at St. Peter’s Basilica, Rome[]
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Fig. 21.

A Christmas Nativity Scene at St. Peter’s Basilica, Rome[Source]

Fig. 22. A Child’s Rendition of the Befana Bringing Gifts[]
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Fig. 22.

A Child’s Rendition of the Befana Bringing Gifts[Source]

Read aboutEl Día de los Reyes (King’s Day).

In Mexico (and many other countries influenced by Iberian cultural practices), it is January 6th, King’s Day, when children receive presents. The presents arrive not from Santa but from the Three Kings who came bearing gifts for the baby Jesus. This mode of delivering presents links the religious and commercial aspects of Christmas more directly than does the Santa Claus tradition. Children reciprocate by leaving straw in their shoes for the camels. inline graphic inline graphic

Fig. 23. The Three Kings Distribute Presents at a Mexican School[]
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Fig. 23.

The Three Kings Distribute Presents at a Mexican School[Source]

In Australia where seasons are reversed, the weather is hot in December. Santa and the traditions of Christmas have to be adjusted. Christmas dinner might just as well be a barbeque as anything else, and Santa may need to park his sleigh by the swimming pool. Nonetheless, the ritual of gift giving continues in the Southern Hemisphere and in other commonwealth countries like New Zealand and South Africa. inline graphic inline graphic

Fig. 24. Did Santa Take a Christmas Swim in Australia? []
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Fig. 24.

Did Santa Take a Christmas Swim in Australia? [Source]

Anthropologist Daniel Miller investigated Christmas practices in Trinidad and found both universal and distinctively local aspects to the celebrations. Old Year’s Night (New Year’s Eve) is both the most important church service and the most important party of the year. Artificial snow and imported commodities like apples and grapes help give this Caribbean island some of the feel of Christmas elsewhere, but their cost and inauthentic nature typically receive criticism. Newspapers print calls for culturally independent Christmases and rail against snowmen and holly as symbols of Christmas. Such searches for cultural authenticity are common in parts of the world where Christmas feels like a heavy infusion of someone else’s culture.13 inline graphic inline graphic

Fig. 25. A Reworking of Christmas “Traditions”[]
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Fig. 25.

A Reworking of Christmas “Traditions”[Source]

Japan, seemingly always selecting elements from other cultures and incorporating them into its own culture, has adopted Christmas as a commercial holiday. Since few Japanese are Christians, the religious aspects of the holiday are unimportant. Rather, it is a time for gift giving. Parents typically give gifts to children, but children do not give gifts to their parents. This follows the notion that it is Santa who brings and gives gifts. Older children who no longer believe in Santa usually do not receive gifts. Many Japanese families decorate Christmas trees, and it is common to hear Western Christmas carols being played at Christmastime. Sometimes the outsides of houses are also decorated with lights, another adopted practice in the developing Japanese Christmas tradition. Christmas cakes, with decidedly Western ingredients like butter and milk, are often eaten at Christmas.14 inline graphic inline graphic

Fig. 26. Christmas Celebrations are Increasingly Popular in Japan[]
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Fig. 26.

Christmas Celebrations are Increasingly Popular in Japan[Source]

11. The Remaking of Christmas in America

There are at least two important ways in which Christmas has been reworked in America. One of these is the introduction in 1966 of Kwanzaa, a holiday celebration that emphasizes the cultural connections of African Americans to mainland cultures of Africa. The other has been a shift of focus away from the term “Christmas” in favor of terms that are more culturally and ethnically inclusive. The term “holidays” is frequently used nowadays to refer to the Christmas season. inline graphic inline graphic

Fig. 27. This Ad Talks about “Holidays” Instead of Christmas[]
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Fig. 27.

This Ad Talks about “Holidays” Instead of Christmas[Source]

There have been efforts over the years to find ways for non-Christians to celebrate during the Christmas season. New Year’s Eve celebrations have often performed that function. The Jewish festival of Hanukkah (or Chanukah) is one such alternative. In response to Christmas, however, its celebration has been growing in significance as have the gifts now associated with it. The Chanukah Live celebration that was recently inaugurated in Canada exemplifies the emergence of specifically Jewish festivities as an alternative to Christmas.

“Chanukah Live was created as an alternative to all the Christmas parties. We wanted to do something similar for all the Jewish families and thought we should have representation for Chanukah,” said David (Gershon), who has two children of his own with Judy. “Chanukah parties tend to be a guy with an accordion and not a big production like Ross Petty shows that tend to be big and theatrical.” And this production is big, with talented members from York Region’s CharActor Theatre Troupe taking part in a show that features candle lighting, Boomy the Boom Box, the Magic Menorah, Bagel the Dog and other surprises. Yet people of all faiths attend the Chanukah Live show because the performance is engaging, David said.15 inline graphic inline graphic

Fig. 28. The Chanukah Live Show Is an Alternative to Christmas Pageants[]
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Fig. 28.

The Chanukah Live Show Is an Alternative to Christmas Pageants[Source]

The African-American holiday of Kwanzaa was first celebrated in 1966. Professor Maulana Karenga of California State University at Long Beach conceived Kwanzaa as a synthesis of elements from continental Africa and the African-based cultures of the Americas. It provides an alternative to the traditions of Christmas by celebrating central values of African and African-American cultures. inline graphic inline graphic

Fig. 29. Kwanzaa Celebrates the African Origins of African-American Culture[]
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Fig. 29.

Kwanzaa Celebrates the African Origins of African-American Culture[Source]

Kwanza symbols include the colors black (for the people), red (for the continuing struggle against slavery and oppression), and green (for the future). The festivals of Kwanzaa are based around seven symbols that are given names in both English and Swahili. They are: crops (mazao), the mat (mkeka), the candle holder (kinara), corn (muhindi), the unity cup (kikombe cha umoja), gifts (zawadi), and the seven candles (mishumaa saba). During the seven days of the celebration, the significance of each of the symbols is explained and discussed. inline graphic inline graphic

One of the goals that Professor Karenga envisioned for Kwanzaa was the creation of an alternative to the commercialization of Christmas for the Black community. Although gifts (zawadi) are one of the seven symbols of Kwanzaa, Karenga wanted to relieve African Americans of the social and financial costs of excessive consumption. He wrote:

[I]n order to escape the economic entrapment of Christmas, we would not buy presents until after Christmas and also observe some basic rules. These include the stipulations that: 1) children be the main recipients of Kwanzaa gifts; 2) that the gifts be given on the basis of commitments made and kept; and 3) that they not be mandatory or excessive. To purchase gifts after Christmas is to take advantage of after-Christmas sales and thus escape the exorbitant prices established for the season. Secondly, making children the main recipients of the gifts rightly lowers the number of recipients and in many cases also lowers the price of the gifts. Thirdly, to make the gift equal in value to the achievement record moderates the mania for unrestricted buying just for the season or in response to the open or subliminal seduction of advertisers. And fourthly, the stipulation that gifts not be mandatory or excessive relieves poor parents of feeling that they have to compete… regardless of the economic burdens this imposes on them.16 inline graphic inline graphic

12. Conclusion

The celebration of Christmas is continually evolving. Although it is a central holiday in the American lineup, its very nature is changing once again. At its core are the practices of families gathering and celebrating the holidays together and buying and giving gifts to relatives and close friends. The history of Christmas notes its religious as well as pagan origins, the transfer of various European practices to America, its distinctive evolution in the United States, and its contemporary spread in places far beyond its European and American bases. Since their development in the late 1800s, the institutions of modern advertising have promoted Christmas buying and giving and contributed to the development of the mythology of Christmas itself. inline graphic inline graphic

William M. O’Barr

William M. O’Barr is Professor of Cultural Anthropology at Duke University where he has taught since 1969. He holds secondary appointments in the Departments of Sociology and English. He has been a visiting professor at Northwestern, Dalhousie, and Oxford Universities. He has been recognized for his outstanding undergraduate teaching by both the Duke University Alumni Association and Trinity College (Duke University). His course, Advertising and Society: Global Perspectives, is one of Duke’s most popular undergraduate courses. His many seminar courses include Advertising and Masculinity, Children and Advertising, and The Language of Advertising.

He is author or co-author of ten books, including Culture and the Ad: Exploring Otherness in the World of Advertising, Rules versus Relationships, and Just Words: Law, Language and Power. He has conducted anthropological research in East Africa, Japan, and the United States. In addition to his interest in social and cultural aspects of advertising, Professor O’Barr has researched law in a variety of cultural settings.

In 2000, he founded Advertising & Society Review and served as editor from 2000 to 2005. He is author of Advertising and Society—An Online Curriculum which will consist of 20 units published as supplements to AS&R.


1. Russell Belk, “Materialism and the Making of the Modern American Christmas,” in Unwrapping Christmas, ed. Daniel Miller, 76–77 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993).

2. Jock Elliott (1921–2005) was Chairman Emeritus of Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide.

3. Belk, 77.

4. Mary S. Van Deusen, “Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas—Troy Sentinel for 1823,” InterMedia Enterprises, (accessed October 12, 2006).

5. During November and December, 1991, the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto mounted an exhibition of Sundblom’s paintings of Santa. The paintings were lent by Coca-Cola which provided promotional funding for the exhibition. In addition to those who liked the exhibition, there were those who took exception to Coke’s sponsorship. Jill Savitt of the Center for the Study of Commercialism in Washington, DC, complained that “It is sad that an august institution like the Royal Ontario Museum would put its imprimatur on junk food ... [linking] the birth of Christ with Santa Claus, with consumption ....“ Quoted in Belk, 76.

6. James Barnett, The American Christmas: A Study in National Culture (New York: Macmillan, 1954), 109.

7. Similarly, in the Disney version of Tarzan (1999), animals with human emotions replace humans, solving certain problems in representing African people in the movie.

8. Thomas A. Burns, “Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas: Its Recent Acceptance into the American Popular Christmas Tradition,” New York Folklore 2, nos. 3–4 (1976): 191–204.

9. James G. Carrier, “The Rituals of Christmas Giving,” in Unwrapping Christmas, 55.

10. Ibid., 63.

11., “Emails to Santa,”, (accessed October 12, 2006).

12. The first of these celebrates the day on which Mary was told by an angel that she would bear a child. The second is the celebration of the arrival of the three wise men.

13. Daniel Miller, “Christmas against Materialism in Trinidad,” in Unwrapping Christmas, 134.

14. Hideyo Konagaya, “The Christmas Cake: A Japanese Tradition of American Prosperity,” Journal of Popular Culture, Spring (2001): 121–136.

15. Pam Clavir, “Judy and David Present Their Alternative to Christmas,” Canadian Jewish News, (accessed October 12, 2006).

16. Maulana Karenga, The African American Holiday of Kwanzaa: A Celebration of Family, Community & Culture (Los Angeles, CA: University of Sankor Press, 1989), 87–88.

Media Credits

Fig. 3. Jock Elliott, Inventing Christmas: How Our Holiday Came to Be, (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 2001). Courtesy Eleanor Elliott.

Fig. 4. An original oil painting © 1996 by Thomas H. Carlisle and Harold R. Schuler, Denver, Colorado. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

Fig. 5. Thomas Nast, Christmas Drawings for the Human Race (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1889).

Fig. 6. [[/a]]Provided courtesy HarpWeek LLC.

Fig. 7. [[/a]]Collier’s, December 26, 1931, 37.

Fig. 8. Collier’s, December 23, 1950, back cover.

Fig. 9. Robert L. May, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (New York: Maxton Publishers, 1939).

Fig. 10. From the author’s collection.

Fig. 11.Fifty Years of Coca-Cola Television Advertisements: Highlights from the Motion Picture Archives at the Library of Congress,” American Memory from the Library of Congress,

Fig. 12. Look, December 15, 1964, 20–21.

Fig. 13. National Geographic, December 1927.

Fig. 15. Look, December 15, 1964, 104.

Fig. 16. Collier’s, November 25, 1955, 21.

Fig. 17. Garden Design, December 2000/January 2001, back cover.

Fig. 19. Courtesy NORAD US NORTHCOM.

Fig. 20. Courtesy St. Nicholas Center Collection. “Sinterklaas parade in front of St. Nikolaaskerk, Amsterdam.” Illustration from Panorama, 1958,

Fig. 22. Courtesy Katie O’Connor, Yandoit Primary School, for Carlton Business Association.

Fig. 25. Courtesy of OCP. Used with permission.

Fig. 26. Courtesy Ruters/Scanpix/Jens Norgaard Larsen.

Fig. 27. MAXWELL HOUSE is a registered trademark of KF Holdings and is used with permission.

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