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Is Christmas Season Starting Earlier? A Statistical Analysis
Is Christmas season coming sooner each year?
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, is it my unique way of commemorating Jesus' birth? The answer is no (though some may tie these traditions to their religiosity).
In practice, Christmas is both a religious and commercial holiday. Christmas' religious traditions involve church-going and family feasts, while its commercial practices concern unabashed consumerism encouraged by overly-positive media. And guess what—I love every single minute of Christmas season.
Many moons ago, widespread norms suggested Christmas music and Christmas lights appear after Thanksgiving's conclusion. But at some point, our culture, heavily influenced by businesses looking to pull forward holiday sales, decided that many of our beloved Christmas institutions were abstract and unconstrained by time. A week ago, Christmas content overtook Max's top 10 movies list, which means the holidays have begun.
And so it got me thinking: is Christmas' calendar expansion real or imagined? Is Christmas season starting sooner each year?
Is Christmas Season Starting Earlier?
How do you pinpoint Christmas' arrival to the zeitgeist? For this analysis, we'll utilize data from Google Search and holiday mentions in national news coverage to understand whether our cultural awareness of Christmas increasingly commences well before December 25th.
I picked six holiday-centric terms and tracked their Google search interest or Mediacloud news mentions since 2012. For each term, we'll catalog search volumes and news coverage in the month before that event occurs (i.e. "Black Friday" searches in October) and then compare these figures to our 2012 baseline. Our terms include:
"Black Friday" news mentions in October
"Cyber Monday" news mentions in October
"Holidays" news mentions in October
"Holiday Shopping" news mentions in October
"Christmas" news mentions in November
"Christmas" search volume in November
"Christmas Lights" search volume in November
If the Christmas season has annexed calendar space (in our collective consciousness), we should see the abovementioned volumes increase compared to their 2012 baseline.
Indeed, pre-holiday Christmas search traffic and news mentions have increased in recent years, with a noticeable uptick in 2020.
These volumes are even more pronounced for newly emergent commercial phenomena like Black Friday and Cyber Monday.
There are two potential readings of this data:
The simple interpretation: Christmas is entering our awareness sooner. People like the Christmas season and are willing to let it creep up the calendar.
The digitization interpretation: The pandemic significantly accelerated the digitization of cultural celebrations. The Amazon-ification of Christmas has accelerated the prominence of holiday consumption while extending the span in which we buy things.
Ultimately, I believe Christmas' temporal expansion is a product of both phenomena. People like Christmas, we like buying things, we enjoy celebrating, and we now do a lot of these things online.
But what about the stuff we consume during Christmas? Much of the holiday season is experienced through media, especially festive movies and music. Are Christmas songs and films also arriving earlier?
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Are Christmas Movies and Music Arriving Earlier?
Hallmark's "Countdown to Christmas" was introduced in 2009, and the world hasn't been the same since. From the last weekend in October until January 1st, Hallmark's "Countdown" devotes itself to a mix of holiday movies, specials, and original programming—producing as many as 40 original films in a given year. In 2021, Hallmark released 41 new Christmas movies that attracted over 85 million viewers.
Hallmark's success has not gone unnoticed, and other media outlets (Netflix, Hulu, etc.) have copied their Christmas content strategy. Since the introduction of "Countdown to Christmas" in 2009, we've seen a rapid increase in holiday movie production.
The share of Christmas film releases in November and October has also increased as Hallmark and other media outlets commence their festivities sooner and sooner.
If Halloween's end is the new beginning of the holidays, streamers must have content awaiting viewers on November 1st—a strategy the music industry adopted some time ago. When we look at release dates for Christmas albums, we find that most holiday records drop in October and November.
Numerous well-known Christmas albums are released as early as mid-October.
Perhaps releasing music during this timeframe allows an album to generate buzz heading into Christmas season. Festive songs must be assembled into playlists and radio lineups before the holiday season starts. A pre-December release may target the DJs and playlist curators that define holiday music lineups. If this is true, it's another fascinating display of commercialism driving the timeline of festive media consumption.
Final Thoughts: Is It Bad That Christmas Season Starts Earlier?
Christmas began as a single day; then, it became a season. As Christmas evolved into something more abstract, the "Christmas spirit" became a powerful rationale for doing things we wouldn't normally do.
In his book The Society of Spectacle, Frenchman Guy Debord laments advertising's mediation of human striving and connection. He complains, "post-industrial culture has moved [our existence's] focus from having to appearing."
According to Debord, our culture focuses on acquiring commodities and social signaling as existential priorities. In the case of Christmas, we buy the presents, the tree, and the lights because movies and music tell us to live this way during November and December. Sure, it's a manipulative, self-reinforcing loop, but is it wrong? I don't think so.
Maybe Guy Debord is right—Christmas pushes us to consume for consumption's sake. But Guy Debord probably never watched Love Actually, 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 pervasive media constructions. 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 to expand across the calendar 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. Christmas (the enterprise) will grow until it reaches a perfect equilibrium between abundance and scarcity. End state, we will have enough Christmas to boost annual happiness but not too much as to spoil the holiday's significance. It's the most wonderful time of the year—and that "time" is spreading.
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