When Christmas Started to CreepRoundup
tags: holidays, Christmas, consumerism
Bill Black is a history teacher in Houston and an editor for Contingent. He holds a PhD in history from Rice University, where he studied religion, nationalism, and slavery in the 19th-century Ohio Valley.
Christmas starts earlier every year. Or at least it’s seemed that way for a long time. In 1944, the Cincinnati Enquirer warned that “some of us will become so tired of seeing Santa hanging around weeks on end we’ll be taking pot shots at him.” Earlier still, in 1913, the Sioux Falls Argus marveled that “the fourth of July flags and bunting” are barely “taken down before the Christmas holly and mistletoe go up.” And way back in 1883, the Washington Evening Star remarked that “the holiday season of trade seems to begin earlier every year,” with jolly storefronts occupying entire city blocks — weeks before the holiday.1
There’s a term for the Christmas season’s ruthless colonization of time, nudging Thanksgiving aside: “Christmas creep.” And though the term was only coined in the 1980s, the phenomenon itself is much older.2
Initially, that was going to be the thesis of this article. Out of curiosity, I logged onto newspapers.com and plugged in the search terms “Christmas” + “earlier every year.” I was tickled to see that Christmas creep has been around for more than a century. I thought it would be fun to compile a listicle with neat little quotes. The message would be something like: “You think this is new, but it’s not!”
Then, as I was preparing to write, I realized this article has already been written — nearly a decade ago, in Slate, by Paul Collins. With some newspaper quotes and even a couple of cartoons, he demonstrated that Christmas creep has existed since at least the 1880s.3
Well, darn, I thought. But then I actually looked at my research. I printed out every article I had clipped from newspapers.com and then annotated each article with markers, using different colors for different themes I noticed and jotting down my little color code on an index card. Then I regrouped the articles by theme and pieced together a logical way to order the themes. There was definitely something to write here, without just repeating what Collins had written.
To begin with, my dataset is a little different from Paul Collins’s. Collins mainly used newspapers from Chronicling America, a free database hosted by the Library of Congress. I used newspapers.com, a paywalled database, instead, because it has an easier search interface. But it also lets you look at newspapers published after 1926, whereas Chronicling America is limited to papers in the public domain. This allowed me to see that something significant happened to Christmas creep in the 1940s and 1950s. Collins explained why Christmas creep began, but he did not examine the widespread backlash to it, which continues to the present day — because that backlash did not really gather steam until World War II.