Meditations on the demise of Advent and the commercialisation of Christmas

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By Professor John Bryson, Professor of Enterprise and Competitiveness
Department of Strategy and International Business, University of Birmingham


Every year Christmas seems to become closer to the end of October. Retailers begin to signal the start of the season of Christmas. Illuminated Christmas trees begin to appear in shops and houses. Perhaps Christmas now commences on Black Friday. For 2018 this was November 23rd and next year it will be November 29th. One indicator of the start of Christmas is the date when shops begin to play Christmas music. For H&M, the fashion retailer, Christmas music appears from mid-November while for Next, the retailer, Christmas starts on 1 November[1].  Perhaps, officially Christmas commenced this year on Thursday November 15. This was the release date for the John Lewis Christmas advert and we all know that John Lewis is “never knowingly under-Christmassed”.  I find this all most confusing. Christmas is very special and part of the excitement of Christmas is the anticipation of Christmas or a period of expectant waiting or longing.

We are currently in Advent. For Christian churches this is a time of ‘coming’ or waiting and preparation for the celebration of the Nativity of Jesus at Christmas. Advent commences on the Sunday nearest to the 30 November. This year, Advent commenced on the 2 December and concludes at midnight on the 24 December, on Christmas Eve. Christmas commences at midnight on the 24th and concludes 12 days later with Epiphany on January 6. The twelve days of Christmas from December 25 celebrate the nativity and Epiphany the visit of the three kings or the realisation of the manifestation of Christ’s glory. Advent is a time of waiting. The third Sunday in Advent, last Sunday, is known as Gaudete Sunday or a time of rejoicing.

For the majority, Advent perhaps appears to have disappeared and to be replaced by an extended Christmas.This reworking or transposition of Christmas to December or even November is best seen in the too rapid removal of Christmas decorations in early January and well before the conclusion of Christmas. Christmas has been simultaneously extended and curtailed. This process removes some of the suspense, excitement and expectation resulting perhaps in an anti-climax – there is too much Christmas or too little Advent.

When should Christmas start? This is an interesting question. Should Christmas parties held in Advent be relabelled as Advent parties? Does it matter that Advent has become blurred or confused with Christmas or that for many Christmas ends well before January 6th?  This is also to ignore the double celebrations that occur over this period – Christmas and New Year.

For some people living in Birmingham, perhaps Christmas starts on Christmas Eve at 6pm with the annual gathering on Bournville Green to sing Christmas carols. This Bournville tradition dates back over 60 years and is an excellent example of a local community celebrating the end of Advent and the start of Christmas. For me, this year the start of Christmas occurs at 9.30pm and at 11.30pm on Christmas Eve. Why do I have two starts to Christmas? The answer is simple. I have an organist for a son and he is playing at two ‘midnight’ masses. One in Worcester that commences at 9.30pm and another 17.5 miles away in rural Worcestershire that commences at 11.30pm. Two celebrations in a single night.

Every family has its own traditions that indicate the start and end of Christmas, but it is worth reflecting on the history and symbolism of Advent, Christmas and Epiphany. This history, and symbolism, is written across Western culture. It is inscribed in paintings, music, architecture and literature. On Monday evening, I attended a performance of Olivier Messiaen’s (1908-1992) La Nativité du Seigneur (Mediations on the birth of the Saviour) (1935). This is one of the most imaginative and original organ compositions of the 20th century. Messiaen intended that La Nativité would deepen listeners’ understanding of profound theological concepts through exotic harmonies and unusual timbres. This is an astonishing composition. To understand this composition requires an appreciation of the interrelationships between musical form and theology.  At the end of this performance there was silence and no applause; this composition is an epic spiritual journey and silence seems to be the most appropriate form of applause.

This gets me back to my last blog on value and valuing Christmas. There is no question that there are many ways of experiencing Christmas. On the one hand, Christmas has become a secular and highly commercialised holiday at the end of December. This process of secularisation and commercialisation leads to perverse consequences including indebtedness, bickering, marital breakups and ill-health, but it also creates employment across the UK and elsewhere. On the other hand, Advent, Christmas and the Epiphany are a time for reflection and celebration and not necessarily for consumption.

It is perhaps impossible to decommercialize Christmas. Nevertheless, Christmas results in some interesting distortions on economic activity.  A period of peak consumption impacts on the organisation of production including logistics and retailing. This is not environmentally friendly or even employee friendly. It is also not part of a responsible approach to managing economic activity. Alternatively, the secularisation of Christmas has also increased commercialization. What is required is the development of a better balance between commercialization and an appreciation of the true meaning or value of Christmas.

In simple terms, this is a call for Christmas to commence on Christmas Day and to conclude on January 6th and for a rediscovery of the value or meaning of Advent. All that is left to write, is that on January 6th we can all look forward to the first display of Easter eggs. Nevertheless, the one thing we are unable to avoid is Brexit. Brexit will be an on-going discussion – a continual discussion, a never-ending discussion. At least, Christmas commences on November 15 and ends in early January, but Brexit appears to be never ending.


[1] https://www.yorkshirepost.co.uk/read-this/uk-shops-christmas-music/


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