Is Christmas Season Coming Earlier? A Statistical Analysis.
It's beginning to feel a lot like Christmas, sooner. So what does the data say?
Intro: What is Christmas? And When is Christmas?
What is Christmas? On paper, Christmas celebrates Christ's birth (pretty wild, I know). But is that all Christmas celebrates? When we queue for hours to acquire an air fryer on Black Friday, are we celebrating Christ? When we pour peppermint schnapps down our throats at an ugly sweater party, are we convocating Jesus' sacrifice? When I listen to Mariah Carey's "All I Want for Christmas is You" for the 800th time in 20 days, it is my unique way of commemorating Jesus' birth? Likely the answer is no (though maybe some tie these traditions to their religiosity). In practice, Christmas is both a cultural and commercial holiday. Christmas' cultural traditions involve religious rituals (Mass, nativity scenes, caroling, etc.), and its commercial practices concern unabashed consumerism encouraged by overly-positive media. And guess what - I love every single minute of Christmas season. It's the most wonderful time of the year.
But there are moments when I question Christmas consumption - like when Black Friday sales begin mid-October or when I hear the sleigh bells of "Last Christmas" before Thanksgiving. Of course, as far as the calendar is concerned, Christmas is December 25th and Black Friday is the day following Thanksgiving. But those are merely dates, and time is a construct.
Many moons ago, cultural norms suggested Christmas music and Christmas lights appear at Thanksgiving's conclusion. Or at least that's how I was raised. But at some point, our culture, and more likely corporations looking to pull forward holiday sales, decided many of our beloved Christmas institutions were abstract and unconstrained by time. And we all played along because why not. Who doesn't love Christmas music?
And here we are, the year 2022. Elon Musk owns Twitter, and the Christmas season begins at the end of Halloween. And so it got me thinking, is Christmas' temporal expansion real or imagined? Is Christmas sooner each year?
Methodology: Tracking the Ascension of Christmas
How do you pinpoint Christmas' arrival to the zeitgeist? Sure, holiday season ads may play sooner, but do they impact mindshare? And how do you measure awareness within the collective hivemind? Well, it's simple - Google. Google knows what we want and the degree to which we collectively care about that thing. So I decided to analyze Google trends to understand whether Christmas has moved forward within our cultural awareness.
I picked five key search terms and tracked their search index scoring since 2004, specifically in the month before their literal commencement. These terms include:
"Black Friday" search volume in October
"Cyber Monday" search volume in October
"Christmas Lights" search volume in November
"Christmas Tree" search volume in November
"White Christmas" search volume in November
These are the index stocks of our Christmas experience. If the Christmas season has annexed new calendar space, we should see the abovementioned volumes increase compared to their 2004 baseline. Assuming volumes have increased since the early 2000s, then we will explore three hypotheses as to why:
People are Google-ing stuff more (overall)
The distribution of Christmas search volume has shifted a month earlier
Christmas search volume has grown overall
Hypothesis 1: People are Google-ing Stuff More
People are certainly Google-ing more, but Google Trends standardizes results to mitigate confounding factors like time, geography, and macro-level traffic fluctuations. From the Google Trends FAQ:
Google Trends normalizes search data to make comparisons between terms easier. Search results are normalized to the time and location of a query by the following process: Each data point is divided by the total searches of the geography and time range it represents to compare relative popularity. Otherwise, places with the most search volume would always be ranked highest.
So even if overall Google queries have increased since 2004 - which is undoubtedly true - index results should remain comparable over time. Good job, Google! Hypothesis disproved!
Results: Have the Holidays Moved a Month Earlier?
Before we investigate hypotheses 2 and 3, let’s examine our search trends in the month preceding their occurrence. Our analysis compares a term's Google Trend scoring between a given month and its 2004 search baseline. To use Black Friday as an example: we compare October 2005 volume to October 2004 volume, October 2006 volume to October 2004 volume, and so on until we compare October 2021 volume to October 2004 volume.
As you can see, the frequency of our chosen terms has grown massively since 2004. However, it's important to note our baseline values are small for newly-emergent phenomena like Black Friday and Cyber Monday. These holidays (if you can call them holidays) were effectively conjured from thin air by corporate interest and made ubiquitous through pervasive advertising. The internet only further accelerates our ability to purchase anything, anywhere, immediately, all of the time.
Hypotheses 2 and 3: Is Christmas Awareness Shifting Earlier or Growing Overall?
So are our Christmas celebrations increasingly enthusiastic, or is our awareness growing in the months preceding the holidays? Let's suppose the Christmas contagion is only increasing in the period before the holiday season (October, November), not the actual holiday months. In that case, we should see little growth in search volumes while Christmas and Black Friday are occurring. As such, we can repurpose our framework above, focusing on the period we celebrate our selected events.
According to trends data, our chosen search terms also experience traffic increases when they occur. So it seems Christmas and its November subsidiaries (Black Friday and Cyber Monday) come early this year - and likely all future years.
Conclusion: Is it Bad that Christmas Comes Early?
Christmas began as a single day; then, it became a season. As Christmas transformed from a single date to an abstraction, it became a medium for manipulation (the Christmas spirit gets us to do things we wouldn't otherwise do). In his book The Society of Spectacle, a critique of media-driven consumption, Frenchman Guy Debord laments advertising's mediation of human striving and connection:
Just as early industrial capitalism moved the focus of existence from being to having, post-industrial culture has moved that focus from having to appearing.
The tl;dr here is that our culture focuses on acquiring and signaling as existential priorities. In the case of Christmas, we buy the presents, the tree, and the lights because movies and TV tell us to live this way during November and December. We drink the eggnog - because it's a Christmas thing to do - even though eggnog tastes like shit. We gather 'round with our loved ones, forgive others, and feel a bit more cheery because that's what Christmas songs preach. Sure, it's a manipulative, self-reinforcing loop, but is it wrong? I don't think so.
Christmas is a merry yet bizarre form of mass hysteria. And yes, Guy Debord is right - Christmas facilitates social signaling via buying stuff and consumption for consumption's sake. But Guy Debord probably never watched Love Actually or experienced an ugly sweater party or participated in a white elephant gift exchange. It's easy to poo-poo unnatural human behavior, especially when that behavior is encouraged by dominant media. But what if these traditions, no matter how abnormal, make people happy? Didn't consider that, did you, Guy?
Being happy is hard. As such, people have allowed Christmas' calendar expansion because they enjoy how they feel during the holidays. The only thing stopping Christmas from annexing an entire calendar year is the value derived from its scarcity. So likely, Christmas (the enterprise) will grow until it reaches a perfect equilibrium of scope and scarcity. End state, we will have enough Christmas to boost annual happiness but not too much to spoil the holiday's significance. It's the most wonderful time of the year - and that "time" is spreading.
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