The Christmas Carol Ethic or a Festival of Consumption
Executive Director – Historical Society of Talbot County
Written from Tunis Mills, MD on December 15, 1913
My Dear Mr. and Mrs. Santa:
I am a good little girl of nine years old and I will try to tell you best I can what I want you to bring me for Christmas. Please try to bring me the following: a very nice doll, one that will go to sleep; two linen tablets, a box of pencils, pair of gloves for school, a pretty hair ribbon, nuts, oranges, and a large box of “Belle Mead” Sweets. I do hope you will bring me these things. I will close my letter now and will anxiously await your coming Christmas Eve.
Lovingly your little girl.
P.S. Don’t forget to bring a complete outfit of clothes and dishes.
In December of 1913, the Easton Star Democrat published the above letter to Santa Claus along with those from other Eastern Shore children. Today, we accept gift giving as a commonplace activity during the holiday season. It was not always so in America.
In the eyes of the early New England Puritans, for example, Christmas posed a menace to the pure Christian spirit. It invited “popish” idolatry. Gifts most certainly were not exchanged. In fact, the Massachusetts colonial legislature passed an act in 1659 punishing with a five shilling fine “anybody who is found observing, by abstinence from labor, feasting, or any other way, any such days as Christmas day.”
Over the next two centuries an Americanized version of the holiday evolved. Still, in the middle of the 19th century, Christmas remained a simple holiday marked by no grand religious observance or economic significance.
After the Civil War, however, signs appeared signaling that things were about to change. In the words of former Librarian of Congress Daniel J. Boorstin, Christmas was evolving into “a spectacular nationwide Festival of Consumption.”
The evidence of the transformation was everywhere. On Christmas Eve in 1867, R.H. Macy’s department store in New York stayed open until midnight and set a single-day sales record of $6,000. In 1880, a Christmas ornament salesman had a difficult time convincing F.W. Woolworth to buy $25 worth of his product. Within a few years, the dime store millionaire purchased $800,000 worth of ornaments from this supplier alone.
Woolworth quickly recognized the possibilities in holiday sales. “This is our harvest time,” he told his store managers in 1891. “Make it pay.” He offered advice on how to accomplish the latter:
Give your store a holiday appearance. Hang up Christmas ornaments. Perhaps have a tree in the window. Make the store look different. This is also a good time to work off the “stickers” or unsalable goods, for they will sell during the excitement when you could not give them away other times.
By 1930, F.W. Woolworth’s buyers purchased $25 million in goods for the holiday season.
If the Town of Easton is any indication, Eastern Shore merchants quickly grasped that the Christmas season could be their harvest time too. In the 1850s, merchants ran their regular advertisements in local newspapers during the holiday season. By the 1880s, however, Easton newspapers exhibited the new trend in Christmas advertising. Not only did the ads focus on “holiday goods,” but their layout displayed more imagination.
Easton merchants took seriously Woolworth’s maxim to give their stores a holiday appearance by making them look different. In an 1888 advertisement, jeweler and optician E.P Sangston proclaimed his store to be the “Christmas Sensation of the Season,” urging shoppers to visit a “Glimpse of Fairyland.” One year later, Henry & Brothers general store encouraged customers to “See our Splendid Holiday Display.” Advertising copy assured readers, “Our Magnificent Stock is a Vision of Beauty and the Greatest Holiday Hit of the Season.” That stock included fancy goods, toilet articles, bronzes, manicure sets, and “Dog, Cat and Owl Fairy Lamps.”
By the 1910s, holiday ads were enhanced with stronger graphics and photographs. Compared to several decades earlier, more merchants participated in the Christmas sales season. John D. Williams noted that the purchase of a Colombia Gramophone meant a “Christmas filled with music and the coming year crowded with joy.” L. Hill Mullikin proclaimed his Christmas Shop, “THE BEST PLACE IN EASTON in which to get the real substantial Christmas presents that gratify the recipient and last for many years.” Mullikin carried on the long-standing small town tradition that the local undertaker also served as a furniture dealer. Most locals likely knew that his Christmas Shop could easily be found by visiting “James A. Spence and L. Hill Mullikin, FUNERAL DIRECTORS AND EMBALMERS.” Their holiday gifts must have been to die for.
By the end of the decade, Easton merchants confronted another nationwide trend. Large out-of-town stores began running ads in small-town newspapers. Baltimore and Wilmington merchants solicited customers through the Star Democrat. Like the catalog companies, these stores offered mail-order service. During the 1920s, local merchants fought back by mounting “Shop at Home” and “Shop Early” campaigns. Booster newspaper articles clearly depicted the downtown shopping experience in Easton as equaling that of any urban center. In 1928, a reporter enthused:
The Easton Stores are resplendent in their holiday attire of attractive decorations and the display windows are fairly alive with the novelties of the season. It invigorates one with pulsations of keen delight to mingle in the jostling, good-natured throngs of shoppers, who, laden with bundles, gather about the counters of the brightly lighted stores and take stock of the hundred and one knick knacks so alluringly displayed.
By 1930, the nationwide Festival of Consumption clearly had reached the Eastern Shore. The festival’s patron saint was also much in evidence. Boorstin identifies him as Santa Claus Americanus. In the pages of Easton newspapers this super salesman huckstered everything from toys to used cars. In 1913, an ad for jeweler E.D. Sturmer depicted Santa holding up a tray of rings for inspection. The ad copy noted, “Yes, we feel that Santa Claus is behind the counters of our store during Yuletide.”
Boorstin concluded that Santa was above all others responsible for shifting the primary scene of our Christmas festival from the church to the department store. In fairness to Old Saint Nick, however, he also represents the spirit of generosity that marks the season. Some historians label that spirit the “Christmas Carol Ethic.” The name is derived from the transformation of miserly Ebenezer Scrooge into a benefactor of Tiny Tim in the famous tale by Charles Dickens. Alongside the Christmas advertisements, Easton newspapers carried stories of free Christmas dinners being delivered to the less fortunate and the sale of Christmas Seals to fight tuberculosis. Even today, those engaged in community service are often described as “playing Santa Claus.” Give the jolly old elf some credit, not many people can simultaneously be a saint and a used car salesman.