How does a holiday become a holiday? That question may have crossed your mind recently as we transition from Mother’s Day to Father’s Day, shelling out hard-earned money for gifts all along the way.
Some holidays obviously have historical roots, while others are largely corporate creations, but for a holiday to achieve staying power it needs consumer interaction (and lots of it). With mainstream acceptance, a holiday can find a home on every calendar and grow into a huge source of revenue for business. Without it, well, just look at the likes of National Walk to Work Day (first Friday in April), National S’mores Day (August 10), Flag Day (June 14), and even Arbor Day (last Friday in April).
“In some sense, there’s a limit to the number of [holidays] you can stick in any given amount of time. On the other hand, you do find that certain new days do appear from time to time. They might not be as prevalent with everyone, but there’s a big proportion of the population that relates to at least some of them,” On Amir, associate professor of marketing at the University of California, San Diego and an expert on consumer behavior, said. “People quickly satiate from holiday to holiday, especially if they involve expenses and the feeling that you haven’t done what’s expected of you. These holidays, what they do is create norms. Norms come with expectations.”
As you can see from the following table, a select few holidays now carry enormous expectations (not to mention expenses) for consumers across the country.
|Holiday Expenditures||2008 ($ Billion)||2009 ($ Billion)||2010 ($ Billion)||2010 (%)|
The Transformation of Traditional Holidays
We now spend well over $200 billion each year on seven major holidays. And while each has certainly garnered consumer acceptance as well as a great deal of momentum over the years, their origins offered little or no indication of the future rock star status they’d eventually come to hold.
- Christmas: Christmas obviously has deep religious roots, denoting the birth of Jesus. However, it didn’t become an official holiday in the United States until 1870, when President Ulysses S. Grant signed it into law. Fun fact: Louis Prang – the “father of the American Christmas card” – first began printing holiday cards in 1875.
- Thanksgiving: We all know the story, Pilgrims and Native Americans came together to break bread in celebration of a successful harvest in 1621. But it wasn’t until 1843 that the event became a national holiday in the United States. Thanksgiving was celebrated on the last Thursday of November until 1941, when President Roosevelt changed it to the fourth Thursday in November in order to accommodate the years in which November has five Thursdays. “The official date of Thanksgiving was carefully orchestrated by major retailers to be sure it maximized the number of shopping days before Christmas,” Michael Soloman, director of the Center for Consumer Research at St. Joseph’s University, said.
Valentine’s Day: Valentine’s Day originally stems from legends associated with Christian saints named Valentinus. It gained romantic connotations in the Middle Ages, and the practice of giving loved ones gifts and greeting cards began in 18th Century England.
“February 14 was marked in Elizabethan England as a time for divination or commemorating love by writing on a slip of paper the name of someone you love. Customs of the time were associated with the fashions and tastes of Court,” Timothy Buzzell, Chair of the Department of History, Culture & Society at Baker University, said. “Today we have borrowed this ritual of sending messages to someone we love and incorporated that into making our own Valentine greetings in grade school, or mailing a card, or sending flowers. So we re-invent practices to reflect the period. This is especially true for the more ‘established’ holidays – those with centuries old traditions to borrow from.”
- Mother’s Day: Motherhood has been widely celebrated throughout history, according to Jerry O’Brien, executive director of the University of Wisconsin’s Center for Retailing Excellence, who noted that “Ancient Greeks had a day to honor Rhea the mother of many deities.” But Mother’s Day didn’t become an official holiday in the United States until 1914, when Congress set aside the second Sunday in May for the occasion.
Father’s Day: Father’s Day was made an official holiday in 1972 to complement Mother’s Day. “Its popularity was limited until the New York Associated Men’s Wear Retailers stepped in to support its promotion,” Catherine Lamberton, an assistant professor of business economics and marketing at the University of Pittsburgh, said. “Interestingly, Father’s Day was resisted for decades, both by consumers and by government, both of whom (likely correctly) saw it simply as a way to try to replicate the moneymaking success of Mother’s Day. However, persistent advertising eventually established Father’s Day as a legitimate holiday – and one that requires spending money.
“It’s interesting that both Mother and Father’s Day saw their biggest sparks around the 1920’s, with growing popularity through the 1940’s. One might conjecture that the World Wars created a high level of what psychologists call ‘mortality salience’; a keen awareness of our own ultimate death. When people experience mortality salience, they often look for symbols or actions that reinforce their core identities, traditions and values. Given that our parents are, quite literally, the sources of our identity and, for many of us, virtually synonymous with basic comfort drives, it makes sense that these holidays would flourish during times of war.”
- Easter: Easter is a Christian holiday based on the New Testament description of Jesus’ resurrection on the third day after crucifixion. Various countries and cultures have adopted different Easter customs throughout the years, but the practice of decorating eggs is actually meant to symbolize rebirth.
- Halloween: While scholars debate Halloween’s religious/Pagan roots, we can trace the holiday back to harvest festivals, All Saints’ Day, and All Souls’ Day. Historically, it’s been a day to honor religious figures and pray for recently departed loved ones.
It’s obvious that the major holidays currently celebrated in the United States have evolved significantly throughout the years. Many still have close ties to their religious and historical roots, but they’ve undergone significant commercialization as well.
“The consumer aspect of these holidays didn’t come into force until the industrial revolution,” O’Brien said. “This makes sense as until then most families stayed in close proximity to their extended families, often working together with family to make a living. Also the availability of mass produced gifts and cards would not have existed. As families moved to cities to find employment, the ability to express love and appreciation for family was hampered by distance. The holidays took on more importance, as a reminder to reconnect with distant family.”
In other words, new norms were gradually established to reflect broader societal trends. There’s also a case to be made that new norms were developed at least in part to justify growing consumerism that might have otherwise been view unfavorably. “Some of the social psychological forces include the value of thrift (holidays are an excuse for a sale, which is a high cultural value), and the legitimization of what might be distasteful materialism through the connection to holiday legitimacies, especially religious holiday ‘reasons’ for purchasing,” Bo Cassell, associate professor of sociology at MidAmerica Nazarene University, said.
This all raises a number of interesting questions about sociology, consumerism, and the future of more recently formulated “holidays.” For example, are the likes of Black Friday, Cyber Monday, and Small Business Saturday destined for major makeovers as well as long-term adoption fueled by social media connectivity? Or will contemporary cynicism as well as the tendency people have to eschew anything new conspire to prevent modern occasions from attaining truly celebrated status?
Holidays In The Social Media Age
We turned to experts in the fields of consumer studies, sociology, and history for insights into the fate of new holidays in contemporary society. While their responses differed considerably, a general theme did in fact emerge: We will continue to create and celebrate holidays that reflect societal values, though their overall tenor, the manner in which they spread, and the way in which we celebrate them will change with the times as well.
Just see for yourself:
“If you think of candles what comes to mind? Romance and ambiance, right? But if you think about it, candles for like 2,000 years were the only source of light. So how did they somehow begin to have this different meaning of romance and ambiance? It takes two things. It takes somebody trying to position them like that and society accepting that positioning. In the same sense, you can take a particular date and infuse some positioning into it, as long as society actually accepts that.
Today, that process of acceptance might actually be easier because what you’re talking about is joint acceptance. It’s not enough that one person accepts it; everybody needs to be on board. To get everyone on board with something today is much easier because many more people are accessible to messaging and to ideas. Suppose that you say this is going to be ‘Kid’s Day,’ and everybody accepts it. Then kids begin to request that they be taken to Disney Land on Kid’s Day and before you know it, schools offer a one-day holiday on Kid’s Day or a long weekend or however you want to do it and then parents respond. You need mutual acceptance and then some norms change or customs, but those can change.
That’s why you don’t see it happen every day. For something like this to happen, usually you need something more gradual and more grassroots than someone trying to bluntly impose something. Just like we’re more likely to get those [blunt] messages, we’re more likely to get messages that are against that.”
Jerry O’Brien – Executive Director of the University of Wisconsin’s Center for Retailing Excellence
“It would be difficult for a newly created holiday focused on relationships to take hold. Just as the movement to cities and away from family made staying connected difficult for families and loved ones due to distance and lack of communication tools, the rise of social media has made staying connected even over vast distances easy and instantaneous. So we’ve come full circle. The fact that familes can stay in touch will most likely preclude the need for a created holiday to encourage the general populace to connect with a particular loved one on a special day.”
Timothy Buzzell – Chair of the Department of History, Culture & Society at Baker University
“Technology is an important social driver of social change. Holidays and rituals of commemoration don’t escape the influences of technology by any means. The speed at which change occurs and the degree to which the technology becomes part of day-to-day human interaction is a telling indicator of whether or not the technology will ultimately change holiday rituals. Sending greeting cards is a good case in point. Technology of mass production and mass delivery changed significantly between 1830 and 1930. The holiday ritual of sending greeting cards evolved from sending through the postal system of the day a small piece of cardboard as a work of art ( 1830s/1840s), to a widespread holiday ritual by 1930. Technology played a role in shaping a new custom.
Can new holidays be created in an era of social media? Of course they can. I think that the generation characterized by habitual use of social media in day-to-day social interactions will adapt the technology to newer holiday customs. … The values of the Millennials offer important clues. For example, I have often wondered if Earth Day or Ecology Day would evolve into widespread Holiday practices associated with a younger generation that, based on some survey results, seems more concerned about Mother Earth than older age groups. That deserves more study.
I would also predict that social media will find ways to tap into the emotions of the established holidays. Technology adapts. So, even though today’s Millennial might not send mom or grandma an e-card for Mother’s Day, that will no doubt change in the near future. Given the pace of social media change, e-cards may be common practice in 20-30 years when today’s Millennials become mothers and grandmothers! … Holidays typically borrow from rituals of the past to construct re-arrangements for the present.”
Bo Cassell – Associate Professor of Sociology at MidAmerica Nazarene University
“It would be difficult to create “new” holidays, not for the reasons you mention, but because of other factors. However, some existing holidays are being “co-opted” internationally– in other places and cultures where traditional Christian holidays have not been practiced, they are being introduced specifically for the purposes of creating new shopping opportunities and stimulating consumerism (e.g. Easter sales in China).”
Michael Solomon – Director of the Center for Consumer Research at St. Joseph’s University
“I believe Hallmark has cleverly been on top of various social trends and capitalized on these by creating new holidays (and reasons to buy cards) such as Secretary’s Day or even celebrating the ‘freedom’ of a divorce. And, it’s hard to omit the DeBeers diamond company, which almost singlehandedly created the “requirement” of buying a diamond ring when a couple gets engaged.
People need events like these; a chance to step out of the ordinary and to mark various rituals. Every culture has them, though ours has managed to commercialize them more than others. All of them are a blend of cultural and commercial influences. … Still, they serve a real function for us – as long as they are not overdone. Marketers have a nasty tendency to poison the well – once someone stumbles on a good idea like creating an event that’s linked to a cultural phenomenon, everyone piles on. That in turn devalues the original efforts. Still the evolution of social media – and particularly the ease with which we can award “badges” and points etc., to our thousands of friends – makes it likely that consumers themselves will probably create their own holidays and share these with their networks. We can probably expect that eventually every day will be a ‘holiday’ for someone (like when parents tell their children, ‘Every day is Kids’ Day’).”
Angela Lee – Professor of Marketing in Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management
“Whether a newly created holiday could take hold would depend on how passionate people feel about it, and how long their passion last. And it takes some very dedicated individuals to keep an idea alive over an extended period of time. Social media definitely helps if one wishes to mobilize a large number of people in a short period of time, but the idea has to be genuinely meaningful for it to last. I don’t think social media driven cynicism is the reason why people stop celebrate a newly created holiday; it is probably due to a lack of sustained advocacy to keep the fire alive.”
Catherine Lamberton – Assistant Professor of Business Economics and Marketing at the University of Pittsburgh
“At the same time that it may foster cynicism, social media use could foster rather than squelch new celebrations or holidays.
First, social media has taught many of us to curate our own lives – to create visible, semi-public markers of events or people who are important to us. As a result, individuals who share a passion for a given entity can now find one another. Individuals who would like to celebrate great American authors, for example, can easily find one another. To the extent that these groups seek a way to commemorate the events and people involved in their interest, a holiday could certainly take hold.
Second, research suggests that there may be a link between social media and narcissism. If a holiday celebrates us, aspects of our identity of which we’re proud, our social media use may in fact prepare the ground for its launch.
Third, social media may commodify relationships – making gift-giving opportunities even more precious for their ability to signal our special relationships with others. Because we feel like everyone is our friend, in a very non-specific sense, we might embrace opportunities to signal ‘real friendship.’
Social media has also opened a lot of peoples’ eyes to holidays that, while new to them, have ancient roots. For example, there’s no reason for US citizens to necessarily celebrate Cinco de Mayo. However, a growing Hispanic population has made this day quite familiar to many Americans…even if it mostly translates into a reason to buy more salsa and guacamole. Chinese New Year is celebrated in many major cities, drawing attention from a wide range of individuals, who may also find some meaning in its rituals and symbols.
One caveat: Recall that people resisted Father’s Day because they feared that it would be commercialized. Today’s consumers are particularly sensitive to a lack of authenticity. They also have little patience for blatant attempts to induce spending. As a result, the best angle for a new holiday’s success may have to go beyond encouraging gift exchange. In fact, new work suggests that acts of generosity, connecting with others through shared experiences, and being part of a community that can lead to more happiness than buying more stuff. So, my bet is that a new holiday that allows ‘those’ kinds of opportunities: volunteering, connection, experiences, community involvement – may be more welcome than a holiday that requires us to head back to the mall or pick up a gift card at the store.”
At the end of the day, it’s simply human nature to infuse meaning into particular days and recognize our social values in the form of holidays. What we celebrate and how we celebrate it may very well change, but while that may force Hallmark to invest more in the e-card business, the rest of us can simply enjoy the new excuses we find to throw a party!