Culture  /  Antecedent

When Christmas Started Creeping

Christmas starts earlier every year — or does it?

Let’s start with the early era of Christmas creep, during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Americans acknowledged that the Christmas season was inching up the calendar, but they were not so much complaining about it as they were adjusting to it. They thought it made sense for shops and shoppers alike to start the season earlier: “The old custom of waiting until two or three days before Christmas, when the stores and shops are crowded and bad weather may intervene, has been abandoned.” Stores advised customers to purchase their gifts by December 1, if not earlier, or else the things they wanted might run out. “The early Christmas shopper … gets the prize."

Many Americans thought it wasn’t just prudent to shop early and “avoid the eleventh-hour rush”; it was also “considerate.” When everyone waited until mid-December to do their Christmas shopping, the stores were overwhelmed, as were the men and women working at those stores. A Keokuk paper pleaded with readers to sympathize with “the pretty little miss … standing behind the glove counter,” who had to deal with an onslaught of impatient customers “the last few days before Christmas."

As Paul Collins’s article explains, extending the Christmas shopping season became a Progressive-era cause. Reformers like Florence Kelley, at the same time they were demanding an eight-hour workday and the abolition of child labor, were also advocating early Christmas shopping. Progressive activists derided the holidays as a season of overwork, when young girls packed perfume past sundown and young boys carried heavy bundles in the snow. Kelley’s organization, the National Consumers’ League, launched a “Shop Early” campaign, urging people to beat the Christmas rush and thereby ease the laborer’s burden. The League distributed “Shop Early” posters to thousands of businesses throughout the 1910s.

After a few decades, however, many Americans soured on the extended Christmas season. “Carping” and “muttering” about “rushing the season” were widespread by the late 1940s. What provoked this backlash, and why did it gain momentum when it did?