Pope Julian I in 350 C.E. set December 25th as the official day of observance for Christmas. It wasn’t until 1834 that it became a public holiday in the United Kingdom and it was declared a national holiday in the United States in 1865. The Night Before Christmas story was published in 1823, which solidifies the modern day Santa Claus in popular culture. 1898 saw the first depiction of Santa Claus on screen– a British short black and white silent film.
Many scholars have stated that Christmas, especially modern expressions of Christmas, have become wholly a commercial event. Stores have even started stocking Christmas decorations as soon as September to encourage the continual success of the holiday season. The edited collection, Christmas, Ideology, and Popular Culture states,
Christmas was intended as both a celebration of the prosperity made possible by the achievement of the Industrial Revolution, and a recognition of the need to share that prosperity.” (4)
This need to show, give, and ultimately receive prosperity has interwoven itself with the story of the birth of Jesus.
The celebration of Christmas, scholars can attest, is an amalgamation of other festivals and cultures, from its earliest foundations of Saturnalia, to the figure of Mithras, and even mistletoe holding Celtic and Norse mythology. Christmas, from its beginnings, has been a collection of many different elements; one that continues to grow. With the establishing of Christmas as a national and public holiday, a whole new sector and commodities were born. Charles Dickens’ most famous piece of work is one which helps to solidify Christmas as a commercial event, A Christmas Carol published in 1843. 1901 saw the first cinematic adaptation of the classic. To date, over ten feature films have been made regarding this work of fiction.
It sets up the template of “Christmas Spirit.” The magic of Christmas is also immortalized in the seminal classic It’s a Wonderful Life where Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey is helped by an aspiring angel to realize his importance. Many of the classic Christmas films have nothing to do with the actually observation of the religious holiday but of the generated aspects of Christmas celebration.
To date there are have only been nine mainstream movies which center on the actual foundational events of the birth of Jesus. While there are many independent films made by Christian movie houses, the majority of films being screened on television channels and movie screens are of the secular, commercialized Christmas genre. Even the Christian cartoon series Veggie Tales has five films dedicated to the Christmas season but surprisingly only one depicts the Nativity but it is through the popular song “Little Drummer Boy.” The intermingling of Christmas with items that can be marketed, sought after, and purchased is quite popular.
The department store Montgomery Ward created a marketing gold mine with the introduction of Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer in 1939.
Ten years later, Gene Autry came out with a song inspired by this character. (To date, Rudolph is one of the most popular Christmas songs and figures.) Multiple movies h
The success of Rudolph came on the brink of a string of Christmas themed movies, White Christmas, Holiday Inn, Miracle on 34th Street, just to name a few. The success of Christmas movies and music (Irving Berlin and Bing Crosby’s White Christmas was the number one Christmas song from 1941 to 1997) helped to also call for the production of made for TV Christmas movies. There is something unique to the holiday season which all forms of popular culture cash in on. Christmas, Ideology, and Popular Culture states,
Holidays become major sites of ideological posturing quite distant from the pious practices ideally imagined. Christmas in America has now become a stage for both commercial excess and majoritarian Christian identity.” (71)
The connections between the holiday season and commercial prosperity are strengthened in the medium of television. Hallmark Channel pulls out from its arsenal over 13 different movies concerning Christmas, with introducing a new holiday movie every season. ABC Family has the “25 days of Christmas” with non-stop Holiday inspired movies. The majority of Christmas movies being made have become tailored to the commercialized aspects of the Christmas tradition with Santa Claus, gifts, and finding true love. Movies like A Boyfriend for Christmas, Will You Merry Me?, and Christmas Cupid are just a few of the films which focus on particularly women finding their future husbands.
The magic of Christmas becomes the very thing needed for people, women especially, to find their soulmates. Movies where career driven women stumble upon a town, or return home to be thrown into situations which ‘awaken’ their hearts and focus towards love, marriage, and family. Miracle at 34th Street helped to usher in this prototype. The intervention of Santa Claus helped to remind Doris/Dorey (1947 original and the 1994 remake respectively) that children need to believe in the magic of Santa Claus and that happiness is home, husband, and family. There is even a two movie series where Santa Claus’s daughter seeks to remind a widower about the Christmas spirit and ends up falling in love with him and his two children, ultimately deciding to renounce her magical identity to be with them.
One of the most popular modern Christmas songs is Mariah Carey’s All I Want for Christmas Is You which has earned over 50 million in royalties since its release in 1994. The entire premise of the song is set amongst the telling signs of everything Christmas; which would be exchanged for being in the presence of her love interest. ‘Tis the season to crowd the stores seeking gifts, curl around a fire drinking egg nog, and turn on the television to see Christmas magic bring true love.
But yet, I still hope that this year, in light of all the events of the past months and years, the holiday season will bring peace, comfort, and healing for all.
Anjeanette LeBoeuf is currently studying for her qualifying exams in Women Studies in Religion at Claremont Graduate University. Her focuses are divided between South Asian religions and religion and popular culture. She has become focused on exploring the representations of women in all forms of popular culture and how religion plays into them. Recently she drove across country to learn Sanskrit at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. She is an avid supporter of both soccer and hockey. She is also a television and movie buff which probably takes way too much of her time, but she enjoys every minute of it.