Not long ago, a friend sent me a video which featured a new holiday character, “Pumpkin-Headed Turkey Claus,” with a note saying how appalled he was with the way retailers had hijacked
I’m pretty jaded myself by holiday retailers. But even I’ve winced a few times this fall. There was the Christmas wrapping-paper sale I stumbled upon in mid-October, for example, and the recent news that many large retailers would be opening their doors at 8 or 9 p.m. on Thanksgiving evening. (Who’s going to eat cold turkey sandwiches with me?) Now, I’d been introduced to the Pumpkin-Headed Turkey Claus offering proof positive that Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas had finally been smashed together into the twisted wreckage of one long retail extravaganza.
Remember the time when Christmas was simple and less commercial, when you could step out of your door into a Currier and Ives print. No? How about a $29 Thomas Kinkade “Memories of Christmas” print? Precisely. One of the greatest of all holiday traditions is recalling a holiday season—historian Stephen Nissenbaum reminds us in his superb book, The Battle For Christmas—that never existed at all.
Commercial Christmas presents were already common in America by the 1820s, Nissenbaum writes, and in 1834 a letter to a Boston Unitarian magazine complained about aggressive advertising and the fact that “everybody gives away something to somebody,” turning the holiday into a source of bewilderment. In 1850 when Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote her Christmas story, readers could identify with the character who groaned, “Christmas is coming in a fortnight, and I have got to think up presents for everybody! Dear me, it’s so tedious!”* Just a few years before, Philadelphia’s confectioners had begun displaying huge cakes in their shop windows a few days before Christmas, actively competing for customers.
Few technologies would have a greater impact on Christmas and consumerism than the railroad. In The Search for Order, Robert Wiebe tells us that it was two great explosions of railroad construction following 1879 and 1885 that, combined, produced hundreds of miles of feeder line designed to connect countless American towns—once isolated communities—into a single, massive, national distribution system. This was aided by agreement on coordinated time zones in 1883, and a standard railroad gauge largely adopted by 1890.
Retailers heard the whistle and jumped on board. In 1872, Aaron Montgomery Ward produced his first mail-order catalogue, in 1874 Macy’s presented its first Christmas display, and in 1888 the first Sears catalog was published. By 1890 many Americans were trading Christmas cards (thanks to affordable imports), and Santa had gone from icon to messenger, his arrival defining the holiday for many children. Mass distribution had become a reality, though Santa might have felt more at home in a boxcar than a sleigh.
In November 1924, editor and journalist Samuel Strauss (1870-1953) penned “Things Are in the Saddle” for the Atlantic Monthly, an essay that addressed head-on the issue of American consumerism (or what he termed “consumptionism”, i.e.—the science of compelling men to use more and more things). “Something new has come to confront American democracy,” Strauss sounded the alarm. “The Fathers of the Nation did not foresee it.” And then he asked the reader, “What is the first condition of our civilization? In the final reason, is it not concerned with the production of things? It is not that we must turn out large quantities of things; it is that we must turn out ever larger quantities of things, more this year than last year?” Writing in the month leading up to Christmas, Strauss concluded, “The problem before us today is not how to produce the goods, but how to produce the customers.”
What had happened, he concluded with some pain, was that the American citizen had become the American consumer. Civic duty now meant buying goods as fast as the great machines of industry could produce them, and the great trains of industry could deliver.
Strauss implicitly understood that the relationship between our year-end holidays and merchant needs has always been incestuous. While the Pumpkin-Headed Turkey Claus didn’t exist in 1939, for example, President Franklin Roosevelt most certainly did. When merchants complained that a late Thanksgiving (on November 30) would reduce the number of shopping days before Christmas, he gladly changed the date. The Thanksgiving Proclamation of 1939 declared the date of the holiday to be not the last, but the second-to-last Thursday of the month.
Miracle on 34th Street wove Santa Claus, Christmas, Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, and the company’s flagship store into one happy story. In 1966, another of our beloved holiday classics, It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, frankensteined Christmas and Halloween when Linus sat in the most sincere of pumpkin patches, waiting for the Great Pumpkin to arise and deliver toys to all the boys and girls. In fact, you might remember that it was in yet another Peanuts special, It's the Easter Beagle, Charlie Brown, when the kids are disgusted to find Christmas store displays in the middle of April and a sign warning that there are only 246 days left until Christmas.
I don’t mean to sound like the Grinch, but hopefully your children have talked you into purchasing tickets (at $115 per seat) to his live holiday show by now.
In any event, Stephen Nissenbaum, Samuel Strauss, and Robert May all remind us that we come by the “Ho-gobble, gobble” of Pumpkin-Headed Turkey Claus honestly, one in a long line of characters that has contributed to what is now called “Christmas Creep.” We’ve even developed an entire vocabulary around the launch of retail Christmas, including Grey Thursday, Black Friday and Cyber Monday. It is the very reason you can hear David Bowie and Bing Crosby singing "The Little Drummer Boy" long before the jack-o-lantern on your front porch goes soft and mealy.
Columnist Yvonne Abraham wrote recently in the Boston Globe that she was shocked to find a house adorned in Christmas lights on the first week of November, and “the red snowman cups at Starbucks came out on Nov. 1. Ditto the elves on shelves at CVS. The wall-to-wall carols weren’t far behind.” Indeed, global warming scientists warn us that our lawns are moving the equivalent of 6 feet south every year due to climate change. It seems the Pumpkin-Headed Turkey Claus is here to warn us that Christmas is moving right before our eyes as well, a few hours earlier every year—a cultural movement that is nearly 200 years old and just as traditional as Old St. Nick himself.