It's Not the Eggnog Talking: Christmas Is Starting Earlier

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By John Kelly
Thursday, November 20, 2008

At any other time of year, the sight of an older, unshaven man dragging a child toward his lap would be reason to call the cops. And yet when I witnessed just such an incident Sunday at White Flint mall in North Bethesda, no one seemed to mind. No, it was just Santa being Santa, signaling that the holiday season had begun.

"Santa?" I thought as I spied the elf in his little grotto. "But we're barely halfway through November. Isn't he a bit early this year?"

And thus I joined the chorus of Americans outraged by what's been called "Christmas creep": the ever-earlier onset of holiday decorations in stores, the premature sound of carols in dentists' waiting rooms, the sight of Kris Kringle before the smell of Tom Turkey. But is Christmas really coming earlier, or does it just seem like it's coming earlier? I decided to investigate.

According to The Washington Post's archives, in 1985, Santa arrived at White Flint on Nov. 22. In 1999, he arrived Nov. 19. This year, he arrived Nov. 14. So in the case of that mall, Christmas is coming earlier.

Let's go back even further. With the help of my colleague Meg Smith, I perused clips from the past 100 years of The Post. I found evidence that Christmas has been creeping forward for a century.

Before 1910, stories concentrated on the crowds who did their shopping in the days just before Christmas. The inference I took from this was that the holidays didn't really get rolling until well into December. A story published Christmas Eve, 1885, describes crowds so large along the sidewalks of Pennsylvania Avenue NW that people had to walk in the street to get by.

By 1910, there was a move toward advancing the holiday season, and it came from an interesting quarter: The Post. This newspaper distributed buttons with the slogan "Shop Early for Xmas" to area merchants "as a reminder that the holiday season is nearing." The campaign was announced Nov. 27, and the buttons went out soon after. "Early" obviously meant early December.

This wasn't just a craven attempt by The Post to ingratiate itself with advertisers. Consumer groups, women's clubs and churches were the main boosters behind what was dubbed the shop-early "crusade." The reason? A concentrated shopping rush right before Christmas was physically demanding on shop employees. Women employed in retail stores "were subjected to such wearying strain during the Christmas week shopping rush," wrote The Post in 1926.

Another benefit of spreading shopping over six weeks rather than six days was that customers could "obtain a far better choice of gifts and could shop with more comfort."

On Nov. 6, 1926, members of the Washington Merchants & Manufacturers Association agreed to move forward the dates of their Christmas displays and Christmas stocks to Nov. 26, the day after Thanksgiving. "In the past," wrote The Post, "it has been customary of merchants here and elsewhere to defer the display until early in December."

Christmas crept a bit earlier in 1939 after FDR moved the date of Thanksgiving a week ahead at the request of business leaders. In 1942, The Post reported that merchants planned to start Christmas promotions a whopping two months before Dec. 25 as a way to "spread buying because of the manpower shortage." The post office also needed more time to send gifts to soldiers stationed overseas.

What all these stories tell me is that there's nothing recent about Christmas creep. I have some more theories about this, and I'll share them in my column Monday.

Children's Hospital

I have a confession: We started our Children's National Medical Center campaign a week early this year. I noticed that contributions drop way down after Jan. 1, and so I want to give readers every opportunity to donate to this worthy cause.

We need your help. Your tax-deductible gift will help pay the bills of poor sick children. To donate, write a check or money order payable to "Children's Hospital" and mail it to Washington Post Campaign, P.O. Box 17390, Baltimore, Md. 21297-1390.

To donate online using a credit card, go to

To contribute by phone using Visa or MasterCard, call 202-334-5100 and follow the instructions on the recording.

It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Chatmas

Is the Christmas season starting too early these days? Pull out your tinsel and join me at noon tomorrow as we discuss that, and so much more, during my online chat:

See you on my blog:

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