The Herald, Sharon, Pa.

Community News Network

November 7, 2013

The myth that Christmas season starts earlier every year

PORTLAND, Ore. — It's the kind of jump-the-gun October ad that brings the same excuse, year after year: "This may SEEM a little premature to you - but it really is NOT . . . " Ah, yes: It's once again the time of year when retail giants begin their insistent reminders that there are "not many days left in which to do your Christmas buying."

But here's the catch: This ad ran in 1912.

The gripe about Christmas coming "earlier every year" is a hardy media perennial across decades and borders, as British complaints in 1954 and American ones in 1968 about September Santas attest. But the practice of pushing early shopping is much older - older, even, than that 1912 ad - and the blame goes to everyone from retailers to rabble-rousers to the U.S. government.

Like so many of our retailing habits, early shopping dates back to the late Victorians. Along with inventing cash registers, mail-order catalogs, and escalator-filled flagship stores, the Victorians also discovered the value of starting the Yuletide shopping season before Thanksgiving. A Nov. 19, 1885, ad by South Carolina retailer Wilhite & Wilhite already shows the familiar combination of apology and all-caps hucksterism: "KEEP IT IN MIND! It is needless to remind you that CHRISTMAS IS COMING, But we want everybody who intends purchasing CHRISTMAS PRESENTS to comprehend that we are now all ready . . ."

It was only a short leap from ad copy to in-store blowouts. A Nov. 16, 1888, event by the Kansas City, Mo., emporium Bullene, Moore, Emery & Company saw a preholiday rush that "packed every square foot of the store," while promotions for an 1893 "Early Christmas Event" by one Salt Lake City retailer almost reads like a ransom note: "This is no joke. We mean it. We will do it . . . MONDAY, MONDAY, MONDAY."

Inevitably, complaints followed. The problem, then as now, was not the idea of shopping before Thanksgiving - that barrier had already toppled - but the more heated question of pushing past another holiday and into the precincts of Halloween. Sioux City, Iowa, merchants were berated in 1901 for revving up Christmas sales in mid-October, and that same season saw the Philadelphia Inquirer sighing the annual complaint that "Gift buying has begun in earnest - seems to get earlier every year."

Early shopping might have faded into history like other Gilded Age excesses were it not for the arrival of an utterly counterintuitive player into our story: progressive titan Florence Kelley. Better known today as a co-founder of the NAACP - and for teaming up with Upton Sinclair and Jack London to start the Intercollegiate Socialist Society - Kelley also has a special place under the historian's Christmas tree. Her widely distributed 1903 essay, "The Travesty of Christmas," was not, as you might expect from a socialist suffragette, an attack on early shopping - it was in support of it.

The December rush on stores, Kelley explained, brought "a bitter inversion of the order of holiday cheer" for overwhelmed clerks and delivery boys. Early shopping was part of Kelley's crusades for child labor laws and an eight-hour workday, because the last few weeks before Christmas were exactly when overtime and seasonal child labor were most abused. The employment of messenger and delivery boys especially appalled her, as these were the "many children for whom the cruel exposure attending their holiday work is followed by nervous prostration, or pneumonia, too often ending in tuberculosis."

Kelley's mass movement, the National Consumers League, turned their "Shop Early Campaign" into a progressive juggernaut over the next decade: Tens of thousands of posters were distributed in cities each year to halt "the inhuman nature of the eleventh-hour rush" on sales clerks. Cities were annually plastered with "Do Your Christmas Shopping Early" signs - "they are everywhere," a wire service reported from New York City in 1913.

Savvy merchants were quick to adopt the Shop Early Campaign, which made for strange bedfellows: Shop Early was promoted by retail clerk unions and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce alike. And as ever, a few retailers were ready to push beyond even these new boundaries of good taste. One 1914 Hoosier Cabinet ad coyly appealed to American wives: "Just Wink your Christmas eye at Mr. Husband and say 'Hoosier.' " The ad ran in August.

The transformation of the early shopping movement was complete by 1918, when the Council of National Defense backed early buying to ease transport and labor shortages - and ran jaw-dropping ads of Santa Claus in a doughboy uniform, urging Americans to "Take the Crush out of Your Christmas Shopping and Put It Into Winning the War."

Retailers' fondness for early shopping meant that these efforts were kept up after the war, too. One Albuquerque, N.M., retailer in 1920 demanded, with unanswerable logic, "If Christmas Came Tomorrow, Would You Be Ready?" Americans were: Shop Early drives roared through the 1920s and 1930s, and the Washington Times even held prize contests for schoolchildren to write 100-word essays on "Why Everybody Should Do Their Christmas Shopping Early." The notion continued making wartime surges, with the postmaster general urging Americans in August 1943 to shop "really early, indeed right now" - a situation revisited in the Vietnam War.

By then, early Christmas shopping had fermented into the potent historical brew of idealism, patriotism and sheer retail gluttony that we know today. Uneasiness over November shopping and outright ire over September and October sales are now some of America's oldest Yuletide traditions. Like the annual unwrapping of a fruitcake or an ugly sweater, the idea that Christmas "comes earlier every year" is entirely predictable, bound by tradition - and yet somehow always surprising to us.

              

1
Text Only
Community News Network
  • Church's denied request for National Guard visit draws national attention

    A Missouri church finds itself in the middle of a media storm after the Missouri National Guard, citing short notice and time constraints, was not able to fulfill a request last week to appear at the church’s vacation Bible school.

    August 1, 2014

  • 20140727-AMX-GUNS271.jpg Beretta, other gun makers heading to friendlier states

    In moving south and taking 160 jobs with it, Beretta joins several other prominent gunmakers abandoning liberal states that passed tough gun laws after the Newtown shooting.

    August 1, 2014 1 Photo

  • Screen Shot 2014-07-28 at 2.21.22 PM.png VIDEO: Dog 'faints' from excitement of seeing owner

    A reunion between a Pennsylvania woman who had been living overseas for two years and her pet schnauzer has gone viral, garnering nearly 20 million views on YouTube.

    August 1, 2014 1 Photo

  • Why a see-through mouse is a big deal for scientists

    A group of Caltech researchers announced in Cell Thursday their success in making an entire organism transparent. Unfortunately, this isn't any kind of "Invisible Man" scenario: The organism in question is a mouse, and the mouse in question is quite dead.

    July 31, 2014

  • Screen Shot 2014-07-31 at 2.12.55 PM.png VIDEO: Five-year-old doesn't want her brother to grow up

    Sadie, an adorable 5-year-old from Phoenix, wants her brother to stay young forever, so much so that her emotional reaction to the thought of him getting older has drawn more than 10 million views on YouTube.

    July 31, 2014 1 Photo

  • lockport-police.jpg Police department turns to Facebook for guidance on use of 'negro'

    What seems to be a data entry mistake by a small town police department in western New York has turned into a social media firestorm centered around the word "negro" and whether it's acceptable to use in modern society.

    July 31, 2014 3 Photos

  • The virtues of lying

    Two computational scientists set out recently to simulate the effects of lying in a virtual human population. Their results, published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, show that lying is essential for the growth of a cohesive social network.

    July 31, 2014

  • Sunburn isn't the only sign of summer that can leave you itchy and blistered

    You've got a rash. You quickly rule out the usual suspects: You haven't been gardening or hiking or even picnicking, so it's probably not a plant irritant such as poison ivy or wild parsnip; likewise, it's probably not chiggers or ticks carrying Lyme disease; and you haven't been swimming in a pond, which can harbor the parasite that causes swimmer's itch.

    July 30, 2014

  • Survey results in legislation to battle sexual assault on campus

    Missouri U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill joined a bipartisan group of senators Wednesday to announce legislation that aims to reduce the number of sexual assaults on college campuses.

    July 30, 2014

  • An alarming threat to airlines that no one's talking about

    It's been an abysmal year for the flying public. Planes have crashed in bad weather, disappeared over the Indian Ocean and tragically crossed paths with anti-aircraft missiles over Ukraine.

    July 30, 2014

  • Sharknado.jpg Sharknado 2 set to attack viewers tonight

    In the face of another "Sharknado" TV movie (the even-more-inane "Sharknado 2: The Second One," premiering Wednesday night on Syfy), there isn't much for a critic to say except to echo what the characters themselves so frequently scream when confronted by a great white shark spinning toward them in a funnel cloud:
    "LOOK OUT!!"

    July 30, 2014 1 Photo

  • 20140729-AMX-GIVHAN292.jpg Spanx stretches into new territory with jeans, but promised magic is elusive

    The Spanx empire of stomach-flattening, thigh-slimming, jiggle-reducing foundation garments has expanded to include what the brand promises is the mother of all body-shaping miracles: Spanx jeans.

    July 29, 2014 1 Photo

  • Medical marijuana opponents' most powerful argument is at odds with a mountain of research

    Opponents of marijuana legalization are rapidly losing the battle for hearts and minds. Simply put, the public understands that however you measure the consequences of marijuana use, the drug is significantly less harmful to users and society than tobacco or alcohol.

    July 29, 2014

  • linda-ronstadt.jpg Obama had crush on First Lady of Rock

    Linda Ronstadt remained composed as she walked up to claim her National Medal of Arts at a White House ceremony Monday afternoon.

    July 29, 2014 1 Photo

  • Can black women have it all?

    In a powerful new essay for the National Journal, my friend Michel Martin makes a compelling case for why we need to continue the having-it-all conversation.

    July 29, 2014