Holiday Marketing: How Did it Start?

Christmas is less than a week away, but we all know the marketing started months ago. There’s endless promotions, campaigns, offers, deals and buzz popping up everywhere. Without a doubt, holiday gift-giving has become the most important sector of consumer economy. This is the most important time of year for marketing, but why did this even start in the first place?

Christmas wasn’t even considered a national holiday until the latter half of the nineteenth century because of the civil war. People had new social and personal desires for unity, because of the unsettling conditions around them. Families had an excuse to celebrate together, while also mourning the soldiers left behind. The religious messages relating to peace and goodwill were relevant to everyone during a time of sorrow and transition. This marked a quick development of one Christmas tradition after another. Sometimes this was by accident, but many traditions were built by marketing strategies that ended up being genius.

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Santa Claus

The vast majority of the time, Santa is involved in holiday marketing. His image is all over social media, promotional emails, coupons, gift cards and in-store decorations. This technique reminds children and parents that Santa is coming with gifts very soon, so you better purchase them fast. He’s a jolly and happy figure, but the original Sinterklass from the Dutch was more on the spooky side [1]. The images of Father Christmas, Saint Nicolas and the Dutch’s Sinterklass were nothing new, but Coca-Cola saw an opportunity to change this.

In 1931, Coca-Cola started placing a jolly version of this character into popular magazines [2]. Coca-Cola took inspiration from St. Nicolas’s image of being warm, friendly and pleasantly plump. They wanted this happy figure to deliver presents to those who needed them to make them happier. Thus, the present (a coke) would make your holiday season happier. This marketing campaign was executed so well that the entire nation caught on and directly related Christmas with Santa and Santa with Coca-Cola. Stories about Santa started rapidly developing based on American values. Him and his little helpers made toys for everyone across the nation. He worked with his heart and everyone loved him, which sounds very similar to the typical American Dream.

Santa inspired giving and marketers took advantage of this. Shopping Mall Santas are now almost expected in every large shopping center. This began in 1841, when a small store in Philadelphia had a life-size model of Santa Claus which caught children’s eyes [1]. 20 years later, Macy’s in New York City was the first department store to feature an in-store Santa. This was a huge success that drew children and parents to the store. Not only was this a fun activity for the family, but they bought many gifts while in the store.

Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer

Rudolph is another example of genius marketing. Robert L. May wrote a booklet about the fictional character Rudolph and Montgomery Wards issued 2.4 million copies to boost newspaper coverage [1]. This story took off in cartoons, songs, books and movies. “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer… you’ll go down in history” and they were very correct. Microsoft recently used Rudolph in marketing to compete with Google’s emotional advertisements. They knew that the holiday season is prime time for search engines, and they should be using as many well-known holiday symbols in their strategies as possible.

Black Friday

Of course we also can’t forget Black Friday, the one day of the year when retail companies finally move out from the red and into the black. In the 1950s, the police in Philadelphia used this term when dealing with the shopping chaos after Thanksgiving [3]. By the 1980s, retailers found a way to make this a huge event with one day only promotions[3]. This day creates more buzz than any day of the year for marketers. Around 135 million Americans shop on this day with their wallets out ready to spend.

Christmas Cards

By far one of the best examples of commercialism is the Christmas Card industry. It started in 1870 when a German immigrant wanted to expand his card business[4]. His wife suggested that he add a Christmas greeting to the card to make it more personal. The cards became small works of art that were affordable gifts. In 1875, this was such a hit that he couldn’t meet his demand [4]. As time went on, the nation became faster and more mobilized and people needed quick gifts. Instead of taking time to write a letter, they could quickly buy one. The cards drew long-distance friends and family together during a sentimental season.

Early and Pre-Christian Historical Precedent

There are many contributors to gift-giving during the holiday season that are less obvious. There are traditions from thousands of years ago of giving gifts during the winter. Early church leaders would celebrate Jesus’s nativity with winter festivals of gifts and food [5]. The ancient Jews started giving gelt to their teachers to show appreciation of their knowledge [6]. From an agricultural perspective, there was no work to be done and people could relax, give and feast at the start of winter [5]. Marketers understand all these reasons that people want to give presents during this time and they use that to their advantage.


All the marketing techniques toward gift-giving tend to work, because the winter season represents generosity and sharing. Everyone generally feels good during the holiday seasons, so they are in the shopping spirit and want to spend money. They want to welcome friends and family home with gifts and decorate everything to look nice and happy. These are associations that companies want to have with their brand.

Interaction on social media is always highest during the holidays, because people feel uplifted and excited for the big day with family and friends. They want to know what is going on and how they can be a part of it. Campaigns that are festive will capitalize on consumer sentiment and educate people on how to purchase their services/products [7]. By building up anticipation to Christmas and the anticipation of a deal or product, the consumer will appreciate it more when receiving it [7]. Brands can create excitement by offering discounts, giveaways and special content. During this time, people want to share things and receive things that will be valuable to them.

According the American Research Group, shoppers around the country are planning to spend $929 total on gifts this holiday season [8]. This number has exponentially increased throughout the years, so holiday marketing is not going anywhere. As long as people continue loving the season with a giving and sharing attitude, marketers will continue fighting during their time to shine.


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