The holiday season is upon us and, once again, we find stores filled with shoppers looking for the perfect gift. This is also the time of year when people begin to lament about the crass commercialism of the season and talk fondly of old time Christmas’ that were focused more on the spirit of the season and less on the consumption of presents.
While this appears to be a modern phenomenon, as evidenced by retail stores shifting to Christmas the day after Halloween, this complaint is not new.
In fact, it stretches back to the last quarter of the 19th century, a time when many of us believe the holiday season, infused by the spirit of Dickens, was more homely, wholesome and spiritual.
While there is no doubting the fact that the Victorians in the later part of the 19th century, partly inspired by Dickens, were fascinated by the celebration of Christmas, they didn’t invent it. Rather they reinvigorated it and brought together the many Christmas customs of Britain and threw themselves into the season in a way not seen before.
Being a nation of manufacturers, industrialists and shopkeepers, it was not long before our ancestors realised that Christmas, with its emphasis on generosity and hospitality could be exploited for commercial possibilities.
The merchants advertised their Christmas stock on printed posters and in newspapers, hoping to catch the attention of holiday shoppers. The Dec. 13, 1901 Oshawa Vindicator newspaper is filled with ads highlighting where residents can buy the best meat for the holiday meal, ads for shops selling women’s and men’s clothes, and even an ad from a local insurance company showcasing the benefits of the gift of insurance.
The Christmas season meant increased business. The store would be stocked with many specialty items such as exotic fruits, spices, holly, mistletoe and glass-blown ornaments, as well as staple products to ensure that the customers found all that they needed for their holiday preparations. Many ads even offered suggestions as to the perfect gift for all those in you life and, it just so happened, that gift could be conveniently found in their store.
The local store was not the only retail outlet to recognize the commercial importance of Christmas. Through their own advertising, pharmacies promoted some of their own products, such as eye glasses, as potential Christmas gifts. The chemist could rely on an increased demand for medicines by Christmas as winter brought with it the cold and flu season.
Everyone knows about the last-minute Christmas shopping rush. “Consumer madness” is not only a feature of modern society but was well known at the end of the last century when a shift could be observed in the custom of giving presents.
Shopkeepers were clearly the first to benefit from this “consumer madness”.
Around Dec. 10, owners of department stores and grocers would begin their newspaper advertising campaigns. Since presents and food were bought customarily between Dec. 21 and 24, merchants stepped up their hard-sell strategy in the newspapers on those days to attract even more customers.
So this year, as you finding yourself rushing around with last minute holiday preparations, remember that those in Victorian Oshawa were not all that different.