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:
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!