Published in the Montreal Gazette on December 20, 2016
When, on September 8 last, I spotted in a popular city centre retail store the untimely presence of Christmas-related particulars, I immediately understood once again just to what extent the Yuletide season had been brusquely made off with by commercial and consumer interests. More than anything else, it struck me that peddling products three and half months before Christmas Day was actually pushing what should be a joyful happening just a little.
My own childhood memories of the holiday period recall a much different scenario. The moneymaking side of the festive season really didn’t start to manifest itself until after the annual Santa Claus Parade, and that colourful event normally took place in the second half of November.
In fact, throughout most of the twentieth century, the Christmas term (along with its mercantile expression) habitually began with the arrival of the Christian observance of Advent, which this year started on November 27. Advent traditionally initiates the Christmas countdown on the fourth Sunday before December 25. It was during these 24 (sometimes 25) days that people customarily began to think in terms of the big day itself, and, above all, its non-secular importance to them.
This state of affairs is today, of course, completely transposed with the consumer aspect of the season enjoying far more significance than the sacred. People are actively and constantly encouraged to buy, and to buy early. Indeed, nowadays, it is not unheard of for some clients to launch their Christmas shopping outings during the summer, virtually a half year before December 25. Many commercial malls commence piping out Christmas music a full two months before the historic day. In the United Kingdom, and to a certain extent here as well, pubs and restaurants start posting as early as the beginning of the autumn the availability of their facility for lavish corporate holiday parties.
Fittingly, it might be asked at what point did Christmas become just another excuse for an exaggerated, protracted, materialistic carousal?
As always, an answer to that question can be found by combing through local history.
For instance, in 1865, the first appearance of a seasonal advertisement in a Montreal newspaper took place on December 9 – only 16 days before Christmas Day. The somewhat modest announcement promoted the arrival of women’s dresses “for Christmas and New Year’s presents” at the James Morison Dry Goods Store on Notre Dame Street. More marketing appeared later that same month and year, less than a week before the 25th.
Flash forward four decades to the Edwardian Period. Again, throughout the first decade of the twentieth century, Christmas was rarely mentioned before the month of December, and, more often than not, only in the second half of the month at that. At the time, newspapers, including The Gazette, ran ‘feel good’ editorials about the ‘true meaning of Christmas’. In those years, the religious and spiritual side of the feast day were always paramount to that of commercial interests.
On December 24, 1906, the now defunct Montreal Star ran a Christmas Eve editorial in which this tell-tale extract is found –
“You may be poor, you may be hopeless and lonely, you may be obscure, but you can rise to the spirit of the day, you can take your part in the universal festival, by showing love towards some fellow creature. A smile and a pleasant word are within the reach of all and are most acceptable Christmas gifts.”
It is obvious then that in days gone by Christmas was above all an inspirational observance in which all were invited to share and participate.
Unfortunately, Christmas 2016, for all intents and purposes, promises to be yet another worldly exercise devoid of virtually any grand altruistic consequence. Neither will the day, despite the efforts of numerous benevolent groups, provide genuine solace and comfort to many.
Indeed, most of us, simply overwrought with having heard just one too many renditions of Bing Crosby’s ‘I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas’, will be content enough in that we won’t have to think about the holiday for at least another six months!
Below, advert from Montreal Gazette Christmas Supplement, 1865