Depiction of Santa Claus circa 1908

“What you call love was invented by guys like me to sell nylons.”

– Don Draper, Mad Men

Did you know that Coca-Cola popularized the modern-day image of Santa Claus? That Rudolph the Red-Nosed reindeer was a department store marketing gimmick? That Hanukkah, traditionally a minor holiday in the Jewish calendar, was promoted in the 1950s as a gift-giving holiday to complete with Christmas?

American Christmas celebrations are based less on ancient traditions passed down over millennia, and more on marketing and advertising executives who have created modern-day stories to get you to spend lavishly on gifts and decorations. Prior to 1931, Santa was depicted as everything from a tall gaunt man to a spooky-looking elf. Coca-Cola did not invent Santa, but through their advertising they popularized the jolly, chubby, red-suited Santa we know today.

1860s depiction of Santa Claus

Christmas card traditions were begun by a German printer who wanted to create a market for his newly invented color printing technology. Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer was created by an in-house ad man for Montgomery Ward department stores in 1939, as a free comic to hand out to children to help attract customers. In 1964 GE financed the claymation special as an indirect form of product placement – his glowing nose reminds you to buy light bulbs!

Christmas was so well-marketed that many non-Christians were celebrating it as well. For example in the 1950s about 40% of Jewish households in Chicago had a Christmas tree. In response to the popularity of Christmas, Jewish religious leaders and activists worked to promote Hanukkah instead. They framed it as a meaningful alternative with it’s own new traditions, including gift-giving.

Christmas marketing continues to this day with new campaigns such ‘Elf on the Shelf’ for Christmas and ‘Mensch on a Bench’ for Hanukkah. Many years from now (if society hasn’t collapsed from Climate Change by then) are we going to look back on these traditions as dating back to time immemorial? Or will we remember that it was just a ploy from advertisers who know how to move merchandise?

It’s all about selling you more stuff you don’t need, whether you want it or not. 

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