Today is the day after Christmas. Radio stations will stop playing Yuletide carols today. TV stations will stop airing holiday oriented programming. Many will take down their Christmas decorations. In effect, many will behave as if the holidays are over.
It wasn't always this way. There was a time when the Twelve Days of Christmas were observed. I am not sure when this changed. I seem to recall that in A Christmas Carol, published in 1843, Dickens makes reference to Twelfth Night. At any rate, it seems to me that at some point the Twelve Days of Christmas ceased to be observed, and I think I know why. In America, at least, it became conflated with the Christmas shopping season. While the Twelve Days of Christmas, the Yuletide proper, ran from the evening of December 24 (Christmas Eve) to January 6 (Twelfth Night), the Christmas shopping season runs from the day after Thanksgiving to Christmas Day.
None of this happened over night. Before the Christmas shopping season could overrun the Christmas season, many things had to fall in place. Indeed, prior the War Between the States, America was sharply divided when it came to the subject of Christmas. The Puritans were highly suspicious of Christmas. No less than Oliver Cromwell considered Yuletide customs to be "heathen traditions." Since New England was largely settled by Puritans, Christmas was not a major holiday there. Indeed, in 1659 the General Court of Massachusetts actually banned any observance of Christmas beyond attending church! Perhaps because of this, Christmas would not become a federal holiday until 1870. There was a very different situation in the American South. The South had largely been settled by Royalists (indeed, my mother's family came here to flee the Cromwellian dictatorship), who had no objections to the festiveness of Christmas. In the South, Christmas was the social event of the year. Indeed, the first states to recognise Christmas as a legal holiday were all in the South--Alabama in 1836, Louisiana and Arkansas in 1838!
Before the Christmas shopping season could develop in America, Christmas first had to become a holiday that was celebrated nationwide. This happened gradually, as New England lost its Puritanical attitudes over the years and American merchants learned that there was money to made out of Christmas. As early as the 1820s and 1830s, sweet shops and candy stores in New York City began to capitalise on the holiday. By 1840 many stores began to advertise themselves as Santa Claus's headquarters. The Christmas shopping season may well have already been in existence by 1870. It was that year that Macy's created its first Yuletide window display and also the first year that they had their first instore Santa Claus.
Another factor that had to fall into place to create the modern American Christmas shopping season was the creation of the holiday of Thanksgiving. In the beginning, Thanksgiving was largely a holiday observed only in New England and a few other states. In the South it simply was not celebrated--no doubt becuase of its Puritan origins. As early as 1827, Sarah Josepha Hale, editor of the women's magazine Godey's Lady's Book, campaigned to make Thanksgiving a national, legal holiday. Her fight to have the holiday legalised eventually paid off, with Abraham Lincoln signing it into law in 1863. With Thanksgiving now a legal holiday, American merchants could now capitalise on the day after that holiday as the first day of the Christmas shopping season.
I am not sure precisely when the day after Thanksgiving, now called Black Friday, became the first day of the Christmas shopping season, but it must have in the late 19th or early 20th centuries. At any rate it must have been well established by 1924. It was in that year that Macy's held its first parade in New York City, then called the Macy's Christmas Day Parade, even though it was held on Thanksgiving! Then as now, the parade ended with the arrival of Santa Claus. As further proof that the Christmas shopping season was well established by the early to mid-Twentieth Century, consider that in 1939 Franklin Roosevelt moved Thanksgiving from the last Thursday in November to the next to the last Thursday of November at the request of business leaders who wanted a longer holiday shopping season. Eventually public pressure would force the President to move it back. At any rate, it stands as proof that the Christmas shopping season was already established as beginning with Thanksgiving.
If the Christmas shopping season was well established by the 1920s, then it should be no surprise that concerns over the commercialization of the holiday were already being expressed. In 1938 author and Christian minster J. Harold Gwynne preached that "spiritual values" were being buried by "commercial activity." The classic 1947 film Miracle on 34th Street was essentially a protest against the commercialization of the holiday. A similar protest againt such commercialization was expressed in A Charlie Brown Christmas, which debuted in 1965.
Whether the commercialization of Christmas is a good or bad thing I will leave to others to decide, but one thing I do believe--that the Christmas shopping season obliterated the traditional Twelve Days of the Yuletide from people's minds. Consider that as late as 1843, when A Christmas Carol was published, the Twelve Days of Christmas were a thriving tradition, but by 1943 they were only a memory recorded in a popular Christmas carol. Indeed, not only do people fail to recognise the Twelve Days of the Yuletide, but they tend to think of the Christmas season as the Christmas shopping season. They think of it as beginning the day after Thanksgiving and ending with Christmas Day. I have observed over the years more and more people putting up their holiday decorations on Thanksgiving and taking them down the day after Christmas. Often the airwaves are filled with Christmas movies and specials on Thanksgiving Day. This year I saw the first holiday themed commercials of the year one full week before Thanksgiving!
Now I suppose some people might ask why any of this matters. Indeed, some might ask why it matters to me, as I am not Christian (I celebrate Yule, not Christmas per se). Well, I think it matters for three basic reasons. First, it seems to me that Thanksgiving is in danger of losing its own identity. It seems to me that it is becoming less and less its own distinct holiday and more and more a part of the "holiday season." Given that I can see a need for Thanksgiving in the American landscape, given that I think it is generally a good idea to have a day set aside to give thanks to whatever gods one worships, I do not think it is beneficial for Thanksgiving to be absorbed by Christmas. Second, the Twelve Days of Christmas were preciesly that--twelve days. They were twelve days during which people gave gifts, partied, and enjoyed themselves. While the Christmas shopping season is technically longer (nearly a month long), it is also less festive. Much of it is spent shopping and worrying about preparing for the holidays. It is hardly as enjoyable as the Twelve Days of Christmas must have been. In modern day America, when people work more than they ever have, I think it is a good idea to have a long period when people can simply relax and enjoy themselves. Third, there is something to be said for tradition. The Twelve Days of Christmas were celebrated before there even was a Christmas--the twelve days of the holiday known as Geol among the Anglo-Saxons (Yule is the modern word)and observed by nearly all the Germanic peoples. After the conversion to Christianity, many of the customs of Yule were absorbed by Christmas and the Twelve Days of Christmas as we knew them were born. And they were celebrated for centuries before dying out just recently. There is something to be said for the solace and enjoyment given by traditions which have been handed down for ages.
Unfortunately, I don't think any of this is going to change soon. Not only has the day after Thanksgiving long been established as the beginning of the holiday shopping season (and hence the holiday season in many's minds), but retailers are putting out Christmas goods earlier and earlier. At one time it was thought bad form to display any Christmas merchandise or decorations prior to Thanksgiving. Today it is standard procedure. Given that, I don't think we will be returning to the Twelve Days of the Yuletide sooner or later. For better or worse, the Christmas shopping season is here to stay.