It’s out today! Apparently. It’s very difficult to tell in a world of Amazons and Kindles and 24hr e-bookshops. So I thought we’d enjoy a brief history of festive marketing.
Some folks have asked me why a Christmas book is coming out so early. All I can say is a) the publishers have decreed it, b) I guess they need a month or two to get it out there, and to bookshops, and to people, in time for Christmas proper, c) part of the joy of the book is to read it in the run-up to Christmas – ideally you should reach Chapter 9 (Dickens) at your most Christmassiest, about a week before Christmas – so you’ve got to get the rest read before that. And e) Tesco’s have been stocking mince pies for weeks, so I’m allowed to have a Christmas book out, surely.
Get yours here, or if you’re looking for it in stores (good luck), this is what you’re looking for…
Whenever you get your hands on it, navigating the choppy (and grubby) waters of P.R. can be troublesome but rewarding. Of course for years, Christmas has been dominated by commercialism, and the very act of things being marketed, and things being sold.
Our festival found a merry home in nineteenth-century department stores – notably Macy’s of New York, boasting the first Christmas window display, the first in-store Santa, and the first money-back guarantee. Gordon Selfridge imported similar ideas to his new London store, then Harrods began outdoing Selfridge’s displays, starting earlier, going bigger… Christmas creep began.
But midwinter marketing crept in centuries earlier. For Christianity to promote its festival, it gave the people what they wanted, absorbing pagan customs from Anglo-Saxon wassailing (daubing orchards with cider every Twelfth Night) to Yule evergreens. Holly may have started as a Norse winter-defying evergreen, but it came to represent Christ’s crown of thorns; the Danish still call holly ‘kristtjørn’ – ‘Christ thorn’. For centuries, holly’s spikes were thought to repel evil – even baddies hate being pricked by shrubbery (which may explain why supervillains wear gloves).
As for the rosy English Christmas, that was marketed to the masses not by Dickens, but by his favourite American writer, Washington Irving. Irving was the world’s first international best-selling author, penning Rip Van Winkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. On his European travels, he spent Christmas in Birmingham at the house of James Watt (yes, namesake of the 40 Watt lightbulb). Irving fictionalised this homely English Christmas into legendary tales of fireside games and family warmth, harking readers back to an aspirational Christmas that never really was. Oh, he also inspired the word ‘knickers’ (from the fake author he made up, Diedrich Knickerbocker) and ‘Gotham City’ (named after a village in Nottinghamshire he visited, applied to New York as a nickname, then borrowed by Batman). Knickers and Batman, eh? Christmas history is weird.
Irving’s biggest marketing feat? Taking every Dutchman’s favourite saint St Nicholas and sending him global. St Nick was a Turkish bishop (like Christmas stuffing, he started in Turkey) and patron saint of sailors, who took his legends to the Netherlands. Dutch settlers brought him to America (England’s Father Christmas didn’t make the jump thanks to the American Revolutionary War), and Irving brought him to his readers, writing of “riding over the tops of trees, in that self-same wagon wherein he brings his yearly presents to children”. Half a century on, Santa made his Macy’s debut.
No time to tell of Father Christmas’ marketing role in returning the banned Christmas to Puritan England, or how the mince pie changed from coffin-shaped to circular to flout the law, or how a picture of Prince Albert sold Christmas trees to America (his moustache was photoshopped out to make him less German).
For that you’ll have to buy the book, out now, apparently, priced £7.99, to be found in all good bookshops, on all good websites, and in all good Christmas stockings.