The Meaning of Christmas


Elizabeth C. Hirschman and Priscilla A. LaBarbera (1989) ,"The Meaning of Christmas", in SV - Interpretive Consumer Research, eds. Elizabeth C. Hirschman, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 136-147.

Interpretive Consumer Research, 1989     Pages 136-147


Elizabeth C. Hirschman, Rutgers University

Priscilla A. LaBarbera, New York University

[The authors wish to thank Ronald Faber, Harold Kassarjian, Thomas O'Guinn, Clinton Sanders, and Barbara Stem for their constructive comments on an earlier version of this paper.]


Despite the fact that Christmas is the most important consumption festival in the United States, one which "mobilizes almost the entire population for several weeks ... and takes precedence over ordinary forms of work and leisure (Caplow 1984, pp. 13061307)", it has received almost no attention in the consumer behavior literature, or, indeed, in the social sciences generally. As Caplow (1982, p. 383), author of two of the seven [Although several investigators have examined the iconography of Santa Claus (see Belk 1987 for a review), few have examined the festival of Christmas, per se.] social science investigations of Christmas we reviewed noted, "An ethnographer who discovered so important a ritual in some exotic culture might he tempted to make it the centerpiece of his cultural description; it is remarkable that social scientists have given so little attention to this conspicuous cluster of symbolic and practical acts."

The investigation of Christmas ties together several diverse strands of research inquiry within consumer research. One very conspicuous aspect of the Christmas festival is its emphasis upon gift-giving and exchange processes of interest both to consumer (cf, Belk 1979; Brinberg & Wood 1984; Sherry 1983) and marketing (cf, Bagozzi 1974; Hirschman 1987) researchers. Second, Christmas is a festival celebrating sensory pleasure -- the holiday foods and feasts, punch and eggnog, bright decorations, cheering music, and the scent of evergreens [At least in northern climes.] (cf, Hirschman and Holbrook 1982; Holbrook and Hirschman 1982). Further, it is rich in both consumption symbolism and mythology (Rook 1986; Levy 1981); a time when many forms of sacred and secular iconography are blended together into a complex, evocative social text (cf, Mick 1986). Thus, by studying the meaning of Christmas, we may learn much not only about consumption, but about the overlap and interplay of many current consumption theories, as well.

Christmas In Social Science Inquiry

The most thorough examination of the role of Christmas in American life was undertaken by Barnett (1954). By interpreting a diversified collection of documentary evidence, Barnett traced changes in the meaning of the American Christmas festival from early Colonial days to the middle of the Twentieth Century. In his view, Christmas had come to reflect many deep currents of the American value system and national character. Barnett concludes that the American Christmas had acquired a seasonal cult status involving participation by the majority of the population. There were formal religious aspects to this cult, but "Christmas is also nourished by the ties of family life, by affection for children, by a willingness to aid the needy, and even by the profitseeking activities of modem business. The main rites of the cult are found in the midnight Mass of December 24th, the church service on Christmas Sunday, the family tree and dinner, Christmas shopping, gift giving, charity, Santa Claus' visit and the Christmas card custom... These activities are intended to banish anxiety, to enhance the present, and to secure the future (Barnett 1954, pp. 129- 130)."

Despite the thoroughness of Barnett's inquiry and the insights it provided on the ritual aspects of Christmas, three decades of rapid social change have now passed since Barnett's data were gathered. Six recent social science studies may Provide more current insights on the meaning of Christmas and consumption.

The first of these, "The Christmas Potlatch..." (Moschetti 1979), examined the asymmetries of Christmas gift giving between different 'classes' of consumers, for instance, the marked tendency of parents to give greater quantities of gifts to their children, than vice versa. Moschetti extended the principle of asymmetry to "the broader community where adults donated money, toys, food and other gift items for distribution to abandoned children, children of the poor and the poor in general (Moschetti, 1979, p. 3)". He then developed propositions on the "differences in empowerment" available to various Christmas gift givers. Asymmetries in gift giving, he proposed, reflect differences in social power, with a greater quantity (and economic value) of gifts flowing from those with more social power to those with less social power. Moschetti's conjectures, though intriguing, were based primarily on speculation and ignored other plausible explanations for the asymmetries he observed, for example, altruism, symbolization of inter-personal bonding, and self-effacement, among others.

In contrast to the speculative nature of Moschetti's (1979) paper, are three articles by Caplow and his associate (Caplow 1982; Caplow 1984; Caplow and Williamson 1980) based upon ethnographic data gathered during the Middletown III Project. [Middletown III was an interdisciplinary project led by Theodore Caplow (University of Virginia) and funded by the National Science Foundation. Conducted during the late 1970's, it replicated the well-known Middletown I and II studies undertaken by Robert and Helen Lynd during the 1920's and 1930's.] The earliest (Caplow and Williamson 1980) deals with the contrasting iconographics of Christmas and Easter. As the authors note (p. 224), "Christmas and Easter are each double festivals having separate secular and religious iconographics and separate religious and secular modes of celebration." Caplow and Williamson also discerned several similarities in consumption practices between the two festivals, as well. Each is associated with a vacation from normal labor; each requires gift exchange activities and the exchange of cards, and each involves family reunions culminating in a celebratory family meal.

The Christmas festival is associated with a rich set of secular and sacred symbols: "Santa Claus, the Christmas tree, the holly wreath, mistletoe, and the poinsettia; snow and reindeer; hearths, chimneys and stockings; the yule log; egg nogs and hot toddies; ribbons and bows; tinsel and stars; roast turkey and roast goose; carols and caroling; the major color combination of red and green" compose the secular symbol set. The religious emblems of the festival include: "the manger with its surrounding animals, the star of Bethelem, the shepherds and their flocks, and the three kings bearing gifts (Caplow and Williamson 1980, pp. 224- 225)."

In a second paper based upon the Middletown III data, Caplow (1982) investigated the pattern of gift giving during the Christmas season. He observed that gift giving formed a significant part of the celebratory activity: the 110 respondents to a personal inter-view gave a total of 2,969 gifts and received 1,378 gifts, a mean of 27 gifts given and 13 received. Women were more likely than men to give ornaments, craft objects, food, plants and flowers. Men gave most of the appliances and sports equipment. Females were disproportionately active gift givers. Alone or jointly, they gave 84 percent of all the gifts and received only 61 percent. Caplow also found that "money gifts were common from employers to employees ... Small money gifts are conventionally given at Christmas to newsboys, postmen, delivery men and other persons of relatively low status... (p. 386)", but no reverse instances were found, conforming to Moschetti's thesis of gift asymmetry and relative social empowerment.

Caplow concluded that the primary purpose of the Christmas festival, in general, and Christmas gift giving in particular was to reinforce social solidarity and kinship ties. The gifts given and received, the festivities shared, the meals taken together were a way of making tangible the "ties that bind" one generation to the next, sibling to sibling, and loved newcomers into the family group.

In his third paper on Christmas, Caplow (1984) described the social existence of several unwritten rules concerning the proper celebration of the Christmas festival. He again emphasized the importance of this ritual code to signify the strength of interpersonal relationships and to communicate bonds of kinship. Across his sample, these rules were remarkably uniform and should be easily recognizable by the reader. For example, consider the Tree Rule: "Married couples with children of any age should put up Christmas trees in their homes. Unmarried persons with no living children should not put up trees (p. 1308)"; the Gathering Rule: "Christmas gifts should be distributed at gatherings where every person gives and receives gifts (p. 1312)" and the Dinner Rule: "Family gatherings at which gifts are distributed include a traditional Christmas dinner (p. 1312)" which includes "(1) turkey or ham, (2) dressing, (3) white potatoes, preferably mashed; (4) sweet potatoes in some form (5) cranberry sauce or salad, (6) green beans, baked beans or bean salad; and (7) pumpkin pie and other pies (p. 1313)." The widespread cultural acceptance of this unwritten code results in the homogeneous celebration of the Christmas festival and in commonalities of consumption patterns among those who participate.

A fifth inquiry into the meaning of Christmas was conducted by Belk (1987). Belk reviewed several articles published in the sociological, psychological, and anthropological literatures, as well as the popular press, dealing with the consumption ideology of Santa Claus and the Christmas festival. Belk's interpretation differs from those of Moschetti (1979) and Caplow (1980; 1982; 1984) in that he is particularly concerned with the materialistic and hedonistic aspects of the Christmas festival. For example, Belk suggests (p. 91) "...If Santa is a god, he is the god of materialism... Both Santa and attendant seasonal rituals (these include huge family feasts, office parties, New Year's Eve parties, and even the large circulation of Christmas issues of Playboy magazine) celebrate greed, gluttony, and hedonism... American society has reflected its deepest values onto Santa Claus." Following this same line of interpretation, Belk proposes that the well-known editorial by Francis Church (December 1897, The New York Sun) 'Yes Virginia, There is a Santa Claus' "argues for faith in material bounty and hedonistic joy (p. 93)."

Belk also views Santa Claus as a symbol of American attempts to promulgate commercialism and materialism across the world. "Unsatisfied with merely inculcating Santa's consumption values in children, it appears that Americans believe that the entire universe should adopt these values. For if others adopt these values, it seems to justify our own materialism (p. 96)." Belk concludes his interpretation by suggesting that "the modem Christmas ritual is more than the celebration of the family that Caplow suggests... It is also a celebration of consumption, materialism, and hedonism (p. 96)."

A final paper by Pollay (1986) uses a case history approach to illuminate the compulsive behavior that sometimes characterizes Christmas. Pollay details Rita G.'s custom of decorating her home from early October until January with an excessive display of Christmas decorations. Rita is described as "totally lucid, gregarious, responsive and occasionally philosophical (Pollay 1986, p. 140)." Yet her Christmas behavior is unusual in that she displays over 5,000 ornaments including wreaths, trees, and statues. These pieces are then filled-in with tinsel garlands, simulated snow, and ribbons. In addition to an abundance of Christmas tree lights around the home, there are music boxes playing seasonal tunes and some rooms are equipped with tapes playing seasonal music. Shower curtains, toilet seats, cookie jars, dishes, glassware, napkins, lighting and so on reflect the Christmas decor. In sum, Rita's large home is "decorated inside and out, from street to rooftop, from front to back halls, from floor to ceiling, and from pillar to post with every imaginable square inch filled with Christmas decorations, save for the necessary floor space and seating to permit some semblance of normal functioning (Pollay 1986, p. 140)."

Rita claims that her primary motivation for decorating is charity. Visitors are asked to deposit packaged food products to be distributed to the hungry. When a good deal of publicity was received in 1984, the 10,000 visitors produced 15,000 food items. A secondary motivation is the delighted reactions of the visitors. Rita takes pleasure in making children happy and "being part of making Christmas a magic period for people. (Pollay 1986, p. 142)." She also exercises creativity in her decorating activity by trying to make each year's effort better, larger, and more successful. Pollay concludes that Rita's motivations "are not the vanity, social competitiveness or publicity seeking that might be assumed. Rather, her motivations are a complex of love of children, social identity, fulfillment of community expectations, desire to do good charitable work, pride of creativity and accomplishment of challenging goals (Pollay 1986, p. 142)."

To summarize, the research by Moschetti (1979), Caplow (Caplow 1982; 1984; Caplow and Williamson 1979), and Pollay (1986) suggests that Christmas gift giving is a means of symbolizing social ties and that the festival exhibits both sacred and secular dimensions of meaning. Belk (1987) adopts a more critical view of the Christmas festival , characterizing it as a largely secularized celebration of commercialism, materialism, and hedonism. Collectively, these prior works identify several common themes relevant to the Christmas festival: gift-giving, sociability and family togetherness, commercialism and materialism, hedonism and sensuality, and religious tradition and spirituality.

Except for Pollay's (1986) work, however, these studies relied on the interpretation of indirect forms of evidence or theorization to arrive at their conclusions. Moschetti and Belk, for example, relied upon existing social science paradigms or the reinterpretation of other's work to generate their propositions. Caplow conducted first-hand field investigations of the Christmas festival, but drew his interpretation from indirect indicators. For example, he inferred the meaning of Christmas gift giving by looking at the tangible flow of gifts, rather than by directly inquiring from respondents "Why are you doing this?" While Pollay examined the motivation behind excessive Christmas decorating, his inquiry was based on a single subject. Of course, there may be many instances in which directly questioning consumers about the purposes or meaning of their actions is inappropriate or likely to produce misleading responses. However, as ethnomethodologists point out (cf, Garfinkel 1967; Heritage 1984; Leiter 1980), there is also much to he learned by examining the meanings people construct to explain their behaviors or to describe personal events. The present study used such an approach to discover what meanings consumers ascribed to Christmas.


Because prior investigations (Barnett 1953; Caplow and Williamson 1980) have suggested that Christmas has both sacred and secular meanings, we thought it appropriate to approach consumers who a priori might be expected to have a more sacred or secular orientation to life. Consumers who exhibited strong religious or commercial orientations (described below) were identified and asked to write an essay in response to the question: "What does Christmas mean to you? [Some of the essay writers were Jewish. They were asked to write instead on the meaning of Hanukkah. Their responses are interpreted in the Appendix.] The individuals selected were drawn from four populations: (1) Evangelical Christians, (2) members of the Society of Friends ("Quakers"), (3) undergraduate business school students, and (4) candidates for the Master of Business Administration degree. The ideology of each group and the means used to obtain their cooperation in the research are described briefly below.

Evangelical Christians. Evangelical Christians are part of a conservative Protestant movement present in America since colonial times (LaBarbera 1987). In survey research Evangelicals have been defined as those Christians who have (1) had a born again experience, (2) believe in the inerrancy of the Bible, and (3) practice Christian evangelism (Gallup 1981). Evangelical Christians who participated in the present research were members of several congregations in New York. These congregations were contacted by one of the authors, who is an Evangelical. This author spoke to the congregations (usually at the close of Wednesday evening services) and distributed the essay questionnaires and self-addressed, stamped envelopes to those willing to participate in the study. A $2.00 donation to each church's charitable fund was promised, and paid, for each completed essay. A total of 60 essays was received.

The Society of Friends (Quakers). Quakers historically were known for their extremely plain material lifestyles (e.g., black and gray apparel), as well as their commitment to human rights (Whalen 1984). During the meetings observed by the author, the Friends sat in silence on plain benches in an unadorned room. There was no pulpit, shrine, or minister as in other Protestant services. Instead, individual Friends spoke from their benches, if they were so moved. The essay questions and stamped, return envelopes were distributed at the close of each meeting. A total of 39 completed essays was returned. In lieu of direct monetary contributions to their congregations, which were declined, a donation was made to a local shelter for the homeless.

Under-graduate Business School Students. Consumers who would be expected to have a more secular orientation toward life are college students majoring in business administration. These persons have chosen to pursue instruction in finance, accounting, management, marketing, and similar activities central to the operation of the commercial sector. Essays were obtained from two sets of undergraduate business students at New York University. The first set was collected over a three week period from members of one of the author's classes. Students were assigned the essay as part of a take-home assignment in partial fulfillment of course requirements. Forty-two essays were collected in this manner. A second set of forty-nine essays was collected from students participating in the student subject pool of the undergraduate business school.

Master of Business Administration Degree Candidates. Persons pursuing the MBA degree typically may be expected to have a secular world view, in that they have chosen to seek extended instruction in the ideology of capitalist enterprise. Thirty MBA students, approximately half of whom were majoring in accounting and finance, the rest in management, marketing, economics, and business information systems at New York University, completed the essay. The essays were Written out-of-class in partial fulfillment of course requirements.


The several topics mentioned in the essays were organized by the two principal investigators into five primary categories, which largely reflected themes identified in earlier research: (1) Religion (Formal Sacredness), (2) Interpersonal Relationships (Communalism), (3) Secular Materialism, Cynicism, Commercialism, (4) Gift-giving (5) Sensuality and Hedonism. The contents of each of these categories is described below.

Religion (Formal Sacredness)

An aspect of the Christmas festival downplayed in the accounts of both Caplow and Belk is its commemoration of a significant religious event, i.e., the birth of Jesus. To believers, this event and its commemoration have important theological meaning. Among our essayists, 55% of Evangelical Christians, 22% of Quakers, 17% of undergraduate business students, and 13% of MBA candidates included religious themes in their essays. [These proportions are provided as descriptive sample statistics only. Our intent was not to test whether one sampled group expressed a given theme more than another group, but rather to generate diversity by gathering responses from persons who had chosen different paths for their lives.] Representative excerpts drawn from all four groups are given below:

"I do tend to attribute some religious aspects to it. I turn to feelings of a sense of holiness, a heightened belief in divinity or a higher force, in miracles, or perhaps ultimately in hope and the optimism of possibilities to be within the future ... I seem to associate aspects of an infant with Christmas, personifying characteristics of innocence, renewal, and joy-"

"There is also the religious aspect of Christmas. Even though I am not a real religious man, that is I don't go to church every Sunday, on Christmas Eve it is like I -change personality. I feel closer to God, and usually I go to church. This may be the result of the atmosphere of love and serenity that the family experiences."

"It is the birthday of Jesus Christ ... and the way in which we show our love for one another is through the presentation of gifts to the special people in our lives. It is also a time to reflect upon the love God has for us by giving us a precious gift -- his son, Jesus."

"I go to Mass on Christmas. It gives me a chance to thank God for all that I have. Sometimes I feel like a hypocrite because I don't go every week like I should."

"It is also a time to rethink the religious meaning of Christmas and how this affects my behavior towards others throughout the year. For example, it prompts me to try to be more charitable and consider those less fortunate than myself."

"...Christmas is a celebration of life, of the most perfect life ever conceived, and of the family, the most blessed family ever gathered. It is a time for all people, not only Christians, to reflect on what it means to be bom, to be human, to be loved, to be touched, to be humble."

The expressions of religious sentiment above were drawn from essays from all four of the consurner groups we examined. They reflect a tendency across diverse groups of people to see in the Christmas religious festival a link to humanity, to God and to rebirth. These same themes were echoed in the essay descriptions of interpersonal relationships.

Interpersonal Relationships (Communalism)

Expressions of the importance of interpersonal relationships at Christmastime were found across all four consumer groups: MBA candidates were highest at 43%, Quakers next at 38%, Evangelical Christians 25%, and undergraduate business students 20%. Excerpts reflecting the range of sentiments expressed are given below:

"To share in my husband's simple joy at it all."

"The true meaning of Christmas is the giving of love every day and the fact I can say that to those I am with on that day."

"Christmas has a very warm, sentimental family-oriented feel for me. I want the celebrating of the season (as opposed to just the day) to be very special and shared with relatives or close friends."

"Christmas is the season when we remember that Love is the greatest thing in the world... We make time to see friends and loved ones; to reaffirm the love we share with them, and to celebrate the holiday with them."

"The traditions which mean something are giving gifts, spending time with friends and family, and extending warm greetings to all I meet... Unselfish giving is a wonderful thing don't you wish it would last all year?"

"Our family gathers and reinforces its bonds."

"I hope that in the coming year the world will be a nicer place for my family and all families.

"Christmas is the time when everybody comes home."

"An excuse for people to get together and make each other happy."

"I love walking down the street and smiling at people I don't know and have them smile back simply because they feel Christmas inside."

"I like to believe that for one moment in time every being would share in a bond of peace and goodwill."

Clearly, these statements lend support to the Durkheimian notion that sacredness arises in part from the "miracle of sociability" (Durkheim ed. 1961); that interpersonal bonds can generate an aura of spirituality that binds mankind together. The Christmas festival appears to engender in many a sense of universal communality and genuine sentiment for others' welfare.

Secular Materialism, Cynicism, Commercialism

In dialectic contrast to the expressions given above, there were also essay descriptions of Christmas filled with complaints of commercialism, frustration, loneliness and cynicism. To paraphrase Dickens: Christmas is the best of times; Christmas is the worst of times. Proportionately, these negative essay themes were cited by undergraduate business students in 28% of their essays, by MBA candidates in 20% of their essays, by Quakers in 13% of their essays and by Evangelical Christians in 12% of their essays. A representative sampling drawn from all four groups of consumers is given below:

"Looking around at today's commercialized Christmas ... makes me sadder. It tells me that most people have missed out on the best part of Christmas."

"My daughter thinks Christmas is another day to receive gifts and cannot understand why, if it is Christ's birthday, everyone else is getting a gift."

"I must admit that I find the Christmas season to be too commercial and sometimes a burden of empty obligation."

"The tv programs concentrate mostly on Santa Claus, not on Christ."

"it is sad that so much regard is placed on [material] things instead of love and brotherhood. It is a sly idol that steals the true meaning of Christmas."

"I don't like the false thanks that often occurs."

"I have become increasingly tense over how much money we spend and over the requirement that I Provide an enormous feast."

"I get up early and with cash and credit cards in hand go about the difficult and dirty task of spreading Christmas cheer."

"Fighting crowds of shoppers."

"The overall level of collective neuroses rises, as do guilt, false expectations, and disappointment."

"Aggressive advertising exploits the religious holiday."

"People become grumpy and tired and sick."

"Today it seems the importance of the present is its price."

"A season to worship credit cards."

"Christmas shopping is like going to war."

"Overworked, rude, hostile Clerks."

"People who are alone and unhappy, feel isolated and abnormal."

"Depression is widespread."

It is ironic that the negative aspects of the Christmas festival, as described by those we queried, are virtually opposite to those viewed in a positive way by people from these same groups. Whereas in the two earlier categories, people described aspects of the Christmas festival that filled them with joy, united them into vital, loving kinship groups, engendered feelings of self-less giving and concern for the less fortunate, connected them to a Divine Presence, and evoked feelings of rebirth and eternity; this third set of comments provided accounts of Christmas that focused upon commercialization, selfishness, sadness, secularization, hypocrisy, pressure to perform undesirable rituals, stress, fatigue, disappointment, and depression.

One reviewer (C.S.) suggested that these negative affective aspects of Christmas may be due to the fact that Christmas is essentially a gemeinschaft festival embedded in a gesellschaft culture. The inevitable social stresses and emotional strains that result from trying to create a communal, spiritual atmosphere in a pluralistic, secularized society are focused and intensified during the Christmas season. At the same time that Christmas calls us home to family and friends, it tears us away from our many secular responsibilities and commitments. Christmas challenges us to create, during a relatively brief holiday, a reality that is fundamentally different from that which most of us construct during the rest of the year. As a result, many of us fail that challenge. Many consumers cannot create bonds of fellowship and communion, experience feelings of generosity and nurturance, and open-up their hearts, souls, and senses when these aspects of themselves have lain dormant for so long. Sadly, one of the least recognized, but most painfully experienced, costs of modem man's independence and individuality may be the existential angst and loneliness in which he has become suspended.


The fourth category of themes dealt with a ritual activity central to the Christmas festival -- giftgiving. Proportionately these were distributed across the four groups of consumers we queried as follows: Quakers, 17%; undergraduate business students, 15% MBA candidates, 12%; and Evangelical Christians, 6%. The sacred/secular dialectic noted by Barnett (1954) and Caplow and Williamson (1980) was quite evident in people's attitudes toward both giving and receiving gifts. The following are representative pairs of oppositional statements excerpted from essays. For each pair, a statement expressing the sacred, interpersonal bonds associated with Christmas gift-giving precedes one indicating more selfish, secular interests.

'To show people through presents that you care about them."

"I feel duty bound to buy, buy, buy."

"Christmas gives me a chance to give presents to those I enjoy."

"I look under the tree to see if there are any gifts with my name on them."

"It's giving someone the present they've been them into vital, loving kinship groups, engendered hoping for all year and holding the memory of feelings of self-less giving and concern for the less their happiness."

"Christmas in the purely material sense has come to mean a real Catch-22: every year I attempt to outdo last year's performance by buying more lavish or original presents ... while I try to lower my expectations for what I will receive in return."

"We give presents to each other to represent the gladness and celebration of Christ's birth."

"As I grew older Christmas became less and less a religious ceremony than a market for consumption..."

"As I wrap gifts I think of the person who's going to receive them and become filled with pleasure."

"I enjoy receiving gifts, but would be willing to forego that to be released of the burden and expense of buying gifts for others."

"I prefer a child's poem or picture, rather than a box from Macy's."

"For those I can't decide which present to get I give one of the following: cologne, perfume, Walkman, shaving cream, cigarette lighter, watch or sunglasses."

These statements illustrate the sacred and secular bipolar structure of Christmas gift giving. As Belk (1987) has argued, there is a materialistic, greedy, selfish side to gift giving during the Christmas festival and some of these statements support that view. Yet as Caplow (1982) has proposed, there is also evidence in these statements that gift giving can signify love and interpersonal bonding. The true meaning of the gifts given and received thus would appear to reside more in the spirit of the giver/receiver, than in the gift, itself.

Sensuality and Hedonism

Many of the statements made regarding feasting and other holiday traditions such as caroling, stocking hanging and decorating the Christmas tree revealed yet another aspect of the festival -- the sensual and hedonic pleasures that are both revelled-in and regretted by consumers. The undergraduate business students expressed the largest proportion of these sentiments in their essays, 19%, followed by MBA candidates, 8%; Quakers, 8%, and Evangelical Christians, 1%. Some representative excerpts are given below:

"Delicious pumpkin and mincemeat pies, colorful Christmas cookies, Jesus birthday cakes, hams and salads are proudly presented after hours of preparation."

"Much delicious food that Mom prepares just for the occasion."

"Hanging stockings, putting Rudolph on the lawn, and hanging mistletoe in the doorway."

"The scent of spices."

"Bright twinkling lights and festive decorations."

"Children march on multi-colored snow from one house to the next singing Christmas carols and glancing up to the starlit sky to try to catch a glimpse of Santa and his reindeer."

"A roaring fire."

"It's smelling the Christmas tree."

"Getting fat -- all the Christmas cookies, cakes, holiday dinners and parties -- I end up gaining at least 10 pounds."

The Christmas festival is a time of vivid and intense sensory stimulation: bright colors, spiced cooking aromas, 'spirited' drinks, blinking lights, happy music, bright fires, evergreen scents. The intensity of the sensory stimuli seems to correspond to the heightened sense of communal bonding, spiritual commitment and, perhaps, to our urge to acquire and give large quantities of tangible gifts. It is a festival of excess, and that excess includes positive as well as negative affective features. But it is perhaps more a function of how the individual chooses to participate in the excesses of the festival that determines whether the outcome is positive or negative. Some will use the heightened reality to create a spiritually uplifting, joyous time for themselves and their loved ones; others will overindulge, become sensorially and materially bloated, and feel pangs of guilt, envy, and frustration. Each consumer creates from Christmas, what s/he is able.

Integration of Sacred and Secular Themes

Finally, the four excerpts below exhibit the interweaving of sacred and secular themes and the generally positive affective tone that was typical of the majority of the essays.

An MBA candidate wrote:

"At my house in Minneapolis, one knows that Christmas is near when my aunt and uncle arrive from Indiana. One of my fondest memories is playing Christmas carols on the piano or drinking eggnog while decorating the tree. Of course my brother and I always try to hide the paper chains that we made in kindergarten, but my mother insists on displaying them. On Christmas Eve, Grandma joins us for a typically Scandinavian meal: lutefish, krurnkake, Yulekaka, Swedish meatballs, boiled potatoes, fruit soup, fruit cake, and rosettes abound. The smells of the house and the warmth of the fire are like no other atmosphere during the year. Then it's time to open gifts and realize that all of the preholiday hassles are worthwhile... Our relatives join us for a big turkey dinner and more togetherness in the evening."

The essay of an undergraduate business student stated:

"Christmas time is the season of the year when family becomes the focus of all activities. The two weeks before Christmas Day are spent doing activities to prepare for a big family celebration on the 25th. Cooking and decorating the house are two of the main traditions we follow. We cat certain foods every year and decorate with ornaments that have been in our family for generations. Christmas time is also special because of the traditions that we have. For example, we always go to Mass on Christmas Eve and on Christmas morning we always drank champagne, even when we were little kids. I look forward to having all the relatives together to celebrate."

An essay from a Quaker read:

"Christmas morning means opening stocking presents first, eating stolen bread and sausages, and waiting for all the older sisters and their respective beaus to arrive so we can open the good stuff. My mother is fanatical about Christmas and no details are spared. We always listen to traditional Christmas music and a family specialty, Dylan Thomas' A Child's Christmas in Wales."

Another undergraduate business student wrote:

"On Christmas Eve great excitement is always felt through my whole house. Especially in the young twins; they cannot sleep for anticipation overtakes them... No one begins to open gifts until everyone is out of bed... The Christmas tree twinkles in the haze of dawn and gifts still wrapped beckon their new owners to come and peer underneath the colorful patterned paper. As always there is a china plate on the tiny reading stand next to the fireplace. It is sprinkled with Christmas cookie crumbs and a glass that was filled with milk stands next to it empty. Two large footprints stamped in the ashes of the fireplace can always be found to add to the magical reality of Santa ascending up the chimney ... The sharing of love, faith, and tradition with family and friends is what Christmas means to me. It is all very familiar and rarely varies from year to year. However, every year's celebration seems new to me and its love and magical makeup will always be deeply appreciated."

These texts evoke the multi -dimensional aspect of the Christmas festival and convey its diverse and sometimes contradictory symbolism. A theme common to all four is the centrality of family bonding; in one of its many essences, Christmas is a celebration and commemoration of family life. Its secular consumption aspects, such as feasting, decorating, and gift giving, all activate and require family interaction. Correspondingly, its religious iconography -- the nativity scene with the mother, father, and infant -- celebrates and commemorates the family. Thus, Christmas is, we propose, first and foremost a celebration of and by the family.

A second consistent theme is consumption. People enact the Christmas ritual by and through consuming. They give and receive presents, they make and eat special foods, they purchase and decorate a Christmas tree, they hang and fill stockings. Santa Claus, as Belk (1987) has insightfully pointed out, is undoubtedly the icon of the consuming aspect of Christmas. He comes and leaves presents and, in turn, he is given and consumes food (cookies and milk). Santa is both giver and consumer. Yet, unlike Belk, we do not find it appropriate to cast Santa in a negative light. He does, indeed, represent consumption, but consumption may be a means of making tangible the sacred interpersonal bonds that, by nature, are felt but not seen. We believe it is the attitude projected by the consumer that determines whether the nature of Christmas is sacred or secular, and not consumption, itself.


More formally, the dimensions of meaning for Christmas we have discerned from this collection of essays may be depicted as shown in the Figure. The vertical axis we have labeled as a sacred/secular dimension. By sacred we refer to spiritual and emotional bonds that transcend the individual and connect him/her to a Deity or to mankind. Included in our conception of the sacred would be sentiments expressing familial and communal love, as well as formal religious beliefs. By secular we refer to aspects of the material world, especially those having to do with self- gratification, sensory pleasure, and commercialized activities. The horizontal axis represents a positive/negative affective dimension. Let us examine the contents of each quadrant.

Quadrant 1: Sacred-Positive

Quadrant I contains those elements of the essays which we interpreted as signifying positive sacredness. Two forms of sacredness are included in this quadrant: formal religious sacredness refers to those essay themes associated with Christian religious tradition, including acknowledgment of a unitary Diety and belief in the divine birth of Jesus. Essay themes of this genre were consistently positive in affective tone and cited such specifics as holiness, innocence, humility, thankfulness to a Diety, and the birth of Jesus.

Within our interpretive framework, interpersonal relationships are also viewed as sacred, in the sense implied by Durkheim (ed. 1961). Transcendant, spiritual bonds can connect the individual not only to a Diety, but also to family and friends, and even to a universal sense of belongingness to all humankind. The essay contents included under interpersonal relationships in this quadrant were those that reflected a positive emotional tone; specific essays cited sharing joy, giving love, extending oneself to others, and the sharing of peace and goodwill among all people. In our view, material expressions of these sentiments through gift-giving, charitable donations, and other tangible acts are not inconsistent with sacredness. If the gift represents love to the giver and the receiver, then it is sanctified.

Quadrant II: Secular-Positive

The second quadrant contains essay elements which we viewed as representing the secular aspects of the Christmas festival having a positive emotional impact on consumers. There were two primary categories here. The materialism category refers to essay themes which described receiving presents, in a materialistic sense, as positive and enjoyable. Although this may be viewed by some readers as morally reprehensible, there are obviously those who enjoy getting many presents for Christmas because they enjoy having many things. Rather than condemning this form of material pleasure a priori (e.g., Belk 1987), it might be fruitful to examine this phenomenon with an open eye. It could be quite edifying to discover why some people enjoy getting and having many things.

Similarly, several essayists also associated sensual/hedonic aspects of the Christmas season with positive emotionality. Belk (1987) seems to view this part of the Christmas season as unsavory; whereas others (Hirschman and Holbrook 1982; Holbrook and Hirschman 1982) have applauded consumers' sensual and hedonic behaviors. Despite the differing normative perspectives of consumer researchers, some consumers do seem to enjoy Christmas for its heightened sensory experiences. These include such specifics as tasting traditional foods, smelling the scent of evergreens, seeing brightly colored lights, hearing carols, and feeling the warmth of a fire.



Quadrant III: Secular-Negative

Quadrant III contains those secular essay themes associated with negative emotionality. As in Quadrant 11, the contents were interpreted as signifying materialism and sensory/hedonic experiences. Negative aspects of materialism derived from specific essays included the commercialization of Christmas, the deification of Santa Claus above Christ, excessive emphasis on having things versus loving relationships, and the pressure to overspend during the holiday season. Aggressive advertising was viewed by some consumers as the origin Of this undesirable overemphasis on materialism.

The heightened sensual/hedonic experiences of the season -- which some revelled in -- were viewed by other consumers as leading to ennervation and self-destructive consumption behaviors such as gluttony. Both the consumer's willingness and ability to appropriately self-regulate sensual/hedonic stimulation may account for why some people looked forward to the heightened experiential aspects of the season, while others regretted and dreaded them.

Quadrant IV: Sacred-Negative

The final quadrant contained essay themes which had a negative affective tone and were sacred in signification. In this quadrant we included essay contents which referred to the breakdown, dissolution or resentment of self -transcendant interpersonal relationships. For some consumers, Christmas is an especially stressful and anxiety-ridden period, because they are unable to experience the sacred bonds of family and friendship that are so central to Christmas' meaning. Feelings of emotional isolation, bitterness, personal Mortality, and loneliness may become overwhelming to those who feel left out of the "family of mankind" sentiment generated by the season. One empirical indicator of the damage wrought by the absence of interpersonal bonds is that suicides, acute psychotic episodes, and admissions to psychiatric clinics are all at high levels during the Christmas season. One intriguing absence in our essays was the lack of any negative comments concerning formal religion. In none of the essays did Writers attribute hostile or angry emotional sentiments to theological elements of the Christmas season. This was interesting, because certainly not all the essayists felt a strong religious commitment (some saying so explicitly), and several were willing to express disappointment and cynicism with other socially desirable aspects of the holiday, such as family relationships and gift-giving.

We believe that the marked absence of similar negative affect being directed toward religious ideology may be indicative of a cultural taboo against such emotional expression. There may be a deeply embedded norm which permits consumers to express anger at their own family during Christmas, but which prohibits these sentiments from being directed at the sanctified Christmas family. Since the existence of affective taboos is rarely reported in the social science literature on modern cultures (and none were cited in the studies reviewed for this paper), this might be a fruitful avenue for future interpretive inquiry.


Christmas is the central festival of American culture, making manifest the norms and ideals that inform not only our consumption ideology, but also our societal character, as well. Christmas is a study in contrasts, of many dialectics which we embrace as individuals and as a society. It is both happy and sad, ingenuous and cynical, spiritual and crass, selfish and altruisitic, a celebration of God, a deification of Mammon. Consumers make of Christmas what they can; what they will; what they wish. The true meaning of Christmas lies within each of us; and for each of us, it is a unique truth.


A Brier Excursus on Hanukkah

Hanukkah, or the Festival of Lights, is a Jewish holiday commemorating a historic event in which the Temple at Jerusalem was re-dedicated after a fierce battle between the Hebrew Maccabees and the Syrians. According to religious tradition, only one day's quantity of oil remained to relight the altar in the Temple, yet, miraculously, the oil burned for eight days. As Jews have become more assimilated into mainstream (i.e., Protestant Christian) American culture, their celebration of Hanukkah -which occurs for eight days in early-to-mid December -- has taken on many aspects of the Christian Christmas festival. For example, in many Jewish households children now are given gifts by their parents on each of the eight nights of Hanukkah. Further, the menorah (an eight-branched candelabrum used to signify the eight days of light) is now available in an electric version, which 'bums' Christmas tree lights, instead of the traditional candles. Some Jewish households even incorporate a small evergreen tree (euphemistically referred to as a 'Hanukkah bush') into their celebration of this religious festival.

Within our sample were several MBA degree candidates and undergraduate business students of the Jewish faith. Their essay assignment was to write about "What does Hanukkah mean to you?" In keeping with the adaptation of Hanukkah to resemble Christmas in many of its ritual aspects (e.g., gift- giving, evergreen trees), their essays reflected a tendency to ascribe sacred and secular characteristics to this festival that reiterated those in the Christmas essays. However, there were some instructive shadings of meaning, as well.

For example, consider some essay excerpts below on the religious aspects of the festival:

"Hanukkah in a religious sense means the remembrance and commemoration of good triumphing over evil, of the miracle of lights, and the assertion of freedom."

"Hanukkah is also a time for reflection about the history of my ancestors ... Thinking about the story of the Maccabees as I light the menorah always makes me feel proud of the small group of Jews who won a war. It also makes me think about hope and miracles."

"Jews have been through so much, [but] they've still managed to hold on to their religion. I think of this during Hanukkah and hope that the religion will live on."

"Being proud of the fact that I am a Jew."

"It helps me remember who I am, the people I come from, and their past."

As these excerpts indicate, the religious aspects of Hanukkah (for these Jewish consumers) are centered much more around ethnic identity and heritage, than transcendant theological beliefs, as was the case for Christmas. In essence, the sacred, religious aspects of Hanukkah are closely akin to the sacred communal sentiment of interpersonal bonding -- except that here the bonding is to one's ancestors and their history. The Hanukkah festival and the Jewish people are viewed as one-and-the-same; to celebrate one is to be the other.

Despite this difference in the religious meaning ascribed to- Hanukkah vis a vis Christmas, the Jewish essayists expressed sentiments about the communal/interpersonal aspects of Hanukkah that were analogous to those of their Christian counterparts.

"I tell my family I love them."

"Brings the family together, which adds to the fun and excitement of the 'giving' season.

"A happy time; a family time -- that about sums it UP."

"A time to see faces that have been missed throughout the year."

Despite these positive, familial sentiments, these essayists also expressed the dialectic negative reaction to the commercialism and materialism of the season that characterized the Christmas essays.

"I basically think of Christmas and Hanukkah as a time for high prices, crowds, retail pressure, waste, and general fervor."

"Christmas/Hanukkah is a time for retailers to make more money ... [It] has become representative of American commercialism..."

Some also expressed a negative response to the season that was not typical of their Christian counter-parts. While some Christian consumers were disappointed and cynical over the superficiality and frustration of Christmas shopping and gift-giving, Jewish consumers sometimes experienced feelings of alienation and isolation due to their minority ethnic status.

"Christmas time brought with it feelings of coziness, frivolity and love ... [which] made Hanukkah look rather shabby in comparison... A beautifully lit Christmas tree made the menorah appear quite drab..."

I loved the Christmas season, but felt left out... "

"Hanukkah means days full of anticipation for the children, [but] also watching their difficulties in dealing with the hype of Christmas."

Although gift-giving is not as central to the celebration of Hanukkah as it is to Christmas, many Jewish essayists also cited this as an important aspect of the festival. As with Christians, Jews viewed gifts in both a secular and sacred sense:

"I remember awakening at dawn for eight straight days nearly bursting with anticipation. What would I get?!"

"We strive to show our warmth, caring and indebtedness to others by bringing gifts."

Finally, as with the Christian essayists, the Jewish writers also associated sensual and hedonic experiences with Hanukkah:

"Excellent food and great parties."

"Sleeping late."

"I can't get through the holidays without eating 3/4 of everything in sight."

"Eating latkes!"

Thus, like Christmas, Hanukkah has its own sensual pleasures and its own sources of hedonic guilt.


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Elizabeth C. Hirschman, Rutgers University
Priscilla A. LaBarbera, New York University


SV - Interpretive Consumer Research | 1989

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