In 1958, a writer in The Times remembered that before the war older people were complaining how tawdry and commercial Christmas had become ‘but in their most disgruntled moments they had never imagined anything like this steam-roller, gathering momentum all October and November, with the London streets disguised as toy bazaars, and false Father Christmases popping up in every store’.
Complaints about the commercialization of Christmas date back into the Victorian period but one of the most persistent was the claim that it was appearing in the shops earlier and earlier. Yet actually proving that assertion is not easy. What is certain is that Christmas in November is not a twentieth-century development and Christmas in October dates back to at least the 1950s.
In as early as 1824, the compendium Forget Me Not was being advertised as a Christmas present at the beginning of November, complete with the claim that many people had been left disappointed the previous year when stock sold out a few days before the festival. The commercial Christmas was still very much in its infancy at this time but over the course of the nineteenth century it grew as people indulged themselves in the pleasures of food and presents, and appreciated how the festival reaffirmed social bonds. It was thus as much in response to consumer demand as a shopkeepers’ hunger for profit that advertisements for Christmas goods became very common in November in the last quarter of the nineteenth century.
However, there was never any agreed date among retailers about when festive displays and advertising should begin and by the early twentieth century the Christmas shopping season was something that arrived gradually in November rather than suddenly at a set date.
Consumers, of course, did not have to respond to advertisements and displays but even early in the century, November Christmas shopping was not uncommon. In November 1921, for example, Christmas shopping was reported to be in full swing in Knightsbridge by the middle of the month. Some started well before this. On 30 October 1933, The Times was reporting early Christmas displays in large London shops and that the Queen had begun her shopping. Shops explicitly encouraged this, not just for the sake of their profits but also to relieve the workload on their staff in December.
The war and subsequent austerity curtailed this, at least temporarily. In 1952, it was noted that Christmas was now concentrated in the week or two before the day itself and the time of its stretching back into November was gone. That did not last and the return of affluence renewed and enabled people’s desire to spend at Christmas. Just a year later, there were reports of a Christmas tree being put up outside a Leeds store in October. In 1959, the first decorations in Oxford Street went up on 22 October.
Even some children were put out at the fact that Father Christmas was in some stores in October. ‘Christmas is lasting too long these days’ remarked one lady to a television reporter in October 1959. In the same year, Coventry City Council responded by banning shops putting illuminated trees up outside before 1 December.
Christmas in October may have been thought by some to be too early but the logistics of supplying and storing festive goods encouraged shops to erect October displays. Local authorities too had played their part in pushing the date back into October by deciding when to erect their street decorations. In 2008, when town centre decorations went up in Coleford (Gloucestershire) on 12 October, even some traders were upset but one shopper told a paper that the decorations were ‘splendid’ and it was better to enjoy them for three months than three weeks. Although some hated Christmas shopping, more saw it as a fun, pleasurable and exciting activity, something to be indulged in over a number of trips rather than cramped into a one stressful day. A vocal minority complained about the early Christmas but the silent majority shopped away.
Throughout the 20th century, retailers thus claimed that early starts were a response to consumer demand. In 1926 Selfridge’s were justifying Christmas preparations in November by saying that anticipation was a central part of the season’s enjoyment. In 2002, Debenhams, who put up its Christmas display on 20 October, claimed that if they did not do this they would get hundreds of complaints, while Marks and Spencer claimed that half of their customers wanted to buy Christmas items in October.
In fact, for some people Christmas shopping was a year-round activity. Even in the 1930s there is evidence of people making lists throughout the year of anything they saw in the shops that would make a suitable present. As pockets deepened after the war, this extended to some people actually buying presents all year round. This was partly because they enjoyed buying presents but it also spread the cost and avoided the pressures of shopping in December. A 1973 survey found that 56 percent of respondents had started thinking about Christmas shopping by 8 November and 28 percent had actually bought some presents.
There may not be much evidence that Christmas in the shops has got earlier since its clear encroachment on October in the 1950s but it is undoubtedly the displays and advertisements that mark the arrival and approach of the season in the public mind. Not everyone approved but there was little they could do about it when consumer demand was big enough to make the October and November efforts of retailers worthwhile.
Martin Johnes is author of Christmas and the British: A Modern History (2016). Available all year round and not just at Christmas.