But in the newly industrialized cities of the late 19th century, the drunken, leisurely December holidays began to change. “Once some of those traditions are in more urban settings, where there’s a more discernible working class, they’re increasingly seen by the middle class and elites as more dangerous and destructive,” Schmidt told me. The interests of business and religious leaders aligned, and they endeavored to recast the winter holiday as pious and family-centric, revolving around the home instead of the tavern. They also pushed to shorten the holiday break—more Americans now had bosses, and those bosses wanted them back at work.
The rebranding of Christmas was an unmitigated success. And in turn, the holiday that the capitalist and merchant classes once deemed a threat to productivity had become “an incredible opportunity to promote consumption” of newly available mass-market goods, Schmidt said. Department stores also stoked demand, decorating their windows to make them destinations unto themselves. Macy’s and Marshall Field’s and Saks became temples for a new kind of religious observance: buying, buying, buying to fulfill the promise of Christmas.
In America, the economic, the religious, and the patriotic can’t be easily separated. Dell deChant, a religion professor at the University of South Florida and the author of The Sacred Santa: Religious Dimensions of Consumer Culture, calls Christmas “a huge ritual celebration honoring the economy and feeding the economy.” God, country, and cash are particularly tightly entwined during a year when America’s leaders can’t stop telling us that keeping the economy humming is our sacred duty.
Even in normal times, Christmas is essential to that effort—the moniker “Black Friday” has murky origins, but it stuck around to mark the day when consumer spending is said to finally push American retailers to annual profitability, or “into the black.” (Whether this actually happens is highly debatable.) During the Great Depression, arguably a time similar to our own, President Franklin D. Roosevelt went so far as to move the date of Thanksgiving by a full week to lengthen the shopping season.
Granted, certain aspects of Christmas won’t be the same in 2020. Many of us won’t be able to travel great distances to visit our families, and older relatives might not be able to see much of anyone at all. Two hundred thousand people and counting are gone, and millions of others have lost the income that funds bounteous celebrations. Still, deChant believes that the drive to create as much of the old Christmas feeling as possible will likely be strong.
“Christmas is a great normalizing experience—it’s powerful in terms of our personal and cultural identity,” he says. “If we’re not able to consume, then, to a certain extent, we’re marginalized—within the culture, as well as in our own minds.” For many Americans who don’t celebrate Christmas, sitting out the foofaraw while the whole country conducts Christmas consumption is an annual dose of alienation. For people who normally participate but suddenly find themselves unable to do so, the sense of detachment might even be more piercing for its novelty. Buying not just gifts, but decorations, sweets, and the trappings of a Christmas feast are deeply entrenched customs, and many Americans will want to hang on to those rituals in a world where so much else has been disrupted. For some, keeping Christmas, as a transformed Scrooge put it, will feel profoundly comforting. For others, the wish to do Christmas right will be tinged with defiance. Think we can’t buy gifts galore and decorate like busy little elves straight through a disaster? Think again.
This article appears in the December 2020 print edition with the headline “There’s No Stopping Santa.”