My festive Pause for Thought on the Chris Evans Breakfast Show on BBC Radio 2, 24/11/17:
I woke this morning to find that Christmas had started. One of those markers in the sand had been reached. We’ve crossed the Rubicon. No going back. The John Lewis Christmas ad is here (#MozTheMonster). (I feel I have to add the hashtag after saying that, like some kind of compulsory religious honorific. Like the sentence doesn’t carry the full weight unless you had the Moz bit.) If you’ve not seen it yet, well you know can – which according to some pals, means we can now play Christmas music, eat Terry’s Chocolate Orange till we turn orange, and generally claim now as Christmas.
— @johnlewisretail November 10, 2017
I disagree. Much as I love Christmas enough to write a book about all things Christmas past, for me, Christmas music starts December 1st. And even then, you need to be gradual before going full Christmas. Festive jumpers only a fortnight before (if then – and it should always be worn ironically). Be sparing in your chocolate orange.
Moz is the latest incarnation of several years of John Lewis riding high. How have we reached this point where we’re stopping work to click on Youtube to watch an advert – and not only that, but before the advert, we might even be made to watch another advert? And how is it that a fluffy character in commercial is somehow waving the starting-pistol for the Christmas season? (I wouldn’t trust #MozTheMonster with a starting-pistol – oh my, I’m falling for it…)
I trace it back to Rowland Macy and to the invention of plate glass. Macy started one of the first department stores, called, coincidentally, Macy’s. What started as farm goods and supplies quickly grew, into a store so big that it needed different departments (hence the name). Meanwhile the arrival (and cheapness) of plate glass meant we could finally see in shop windows, rather than have to go in or know in advance what would be stocked. This was of course vital for a shop that sold so much, that you wouldn’t know that on the 3rd floor there was something you never knew you wanted… unless you could see it in the window. So he accidentally – or deliberately – invented window-shopping.
Rowland Hussey Macy created the first ever festive window display, based on scenes from the book Uncle Tom’s Cabin. It was a hit. Rival stores picked up on the idea too. When Gordon Selfridge set up his store in London, he took the idea too, and then Harrod’s down the road muscled in on it too. Before you know it, you have Christmas creep – each store trying to get their festive window display up and ready before their neighbours.
Because they were huge hits. People would travel into the city after a hard day of work, just to see the window displays – and thanks to electricity they could be powered and brilliant well into the dark evenings. Often they couldn’t afford anything in the shop – but this was free festive entertainment. But that was okay by Macy and co – window-shopping meant aspiration, and aspiration meant a hunger for buying things, so those who could would spend more and more on what they could afford in-store.
‘Christmas creep’ was definitely a thing: displays gradually went up earlier, lights were switched on earlier. Oxford Street’s famed lights were turned on a full three weeks earlier in the 1990s than in the 1950s. Getting one over on the rivals it what causes Tesco’s to stock mince pies in the summer (allegedly – for my Christmas book launch I promised mince pies in September, and couldn’t find a pack anywhere… thankfully my wife makes excellent mince pies).
Shop-owners tried all sorts to win over customers – even hiring in Andy Warhol and Salvador Dali to create window displays. Some of their ideas became legacies still with us today. Macy himself was one of the first to offer a money-back guarantee in January, and added the first in-store Santa from 1862. He didn’t have a grotto yet though – just roamed the store wild. The first grotto appeared in East London in 1888, in J. P. Robert’s store, before even Selfridge’s appeared. When he did set up shop, Selfridge coined the phrase “only X shopping days till Christmas” (though he had the BRILLIANT idea to replace X with a series of steadily decreasing numbers).
Stores not blessed by world-renowned artists benefitted from technological advancements: mechanical characters, rising platforms, and frosted snow scenes were mainstays of stores in London, New York, and Chicago. In the 1950s, Woodward & Lothrop’s of Washington D.C. even featured live penguins in their window.
Which brings us back to John Lewis, and their fluffy animal fix. From penguins to #MozTheMonster (I’ve got Compulsive Hashtag Disorder), they’ve tapped into the family Christmas – which lest we forget, has only been family-oriented since St Nicholas became Santa Claus in the 1820s (that’s for another blog) – like no one else. In Britain at least. I’m British. We might need an American blog to tell us Walmart’s equivalent.
But over here, the starting pistol has been fired. While we’re watching cute characters get Christmassy on Youtube (once the ads before the ads have stopped playing), the shops are hoping we’ll turn that into sales. And I’m sure we will – Christmas creep has now crept in new days into our festive calendar. Alongside Advent Sunday and Stir-Up Sunday, we now have Black Friday, Cyber Monday, even Take-Back Tuesday (a true legacy of Macy’s money-back guarantee)… but also ‘Buy Nothing Day’, organised by counter-commercial Christmas fans.
Whatever we’re buying, it looks like John Lewis has decided that the Christmas season may now commence. So, Merry ChristMoz. Ugh. I’ve done it again.
The new book Hark! The Biography of Christmas is available on the highlighted link, just there. It’s all about sales, people (that’s Moz’s unheard catchphrase).