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Unwrapping the history of holiday shopping and what it says about gift-giving this year

people in protective masks running to store on sale black friday promotion event
The National Retail Federation predicts the highest holiday retail sales on record as shoppers unleash their pent-up desire for goods.

Black Friday comes this year amid supply chain issues and soaring prices. Climate change is also ravaging the planet — in part from the toll exacted in the making of consumer goods. Yet, the National Retail Federation forecasts that holiday sales will be the highest on record — potentially as much as $859 billion.

Russell Belk is a Marketing Professor at York University in Toronto. He was also the Eldon Tanner Professor of Business Administration at the University of Utah for 20years. He studies Christmas and consumerism.

KUER’s Morning Edition host Pamela McCall spoke with Belk about the festive frenzy.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Pamela McCall: Can you take us back to when we started buying Christmas presents in the first place?

Russell Belk: There's some evidence even going back to Roman times of holiday gifts at this time of year, but Christmas, as a celebration, was dying out in the 19th century. Dickens, along with some Americans, began to write about Christmas in a nostalgic, romantic sort of way and basically resurrected the holiday from going away. At the end of the 19th century, people were still giving homemade gifts, and the stores wanted to sell holiday gifts. Department stores had come on not long before that and were still growing. So what they did was put out merchandise and celebrate Christmas, but people weren't buying particularly. They thought it was sort of bad to buy these cheap, commercial gifts. So what they had to do was bring in special Christmas merchandise. They would have a display of dolls in the window, for example. But these weren't regular dolls available throughout the year, they were special Christmas dolls. So, it took it from that category of the profane and put it into more sacred gift categories.

PM: Fast forward to today, if you will. What is it that drives people to still buy presents?

RB: Part of it is the smile that we put on our children's face and the smile that we put on our friend's and neighbor's face sometimes. This is the one time of year when we become a bit altruistic. It's the time of year when most charitable contributions come in. It's the time of year when we feel like giving back. We don't want to be a Scrooge.

PM: How does the pandemic factor into this?

RB: There is, for at least those of us who were lucky enough to be able to work from home, the ability to store up some funds. Also we have pent-up demand because we haven't been able to get out to the stores previously, and we may not need to this holiday season either, because of course, we can still buy online. But we have that pent up expectation of the explosion of energies at this time of year and the explosion of holiday cheer.

PM: Russell, this planet is in a climate emergency. What do you see in terms of the role that that reality plays?

RB: If people are very conscientious, and I would say that a relatively small percentage of us are, they might give things like a certificate that we planted a tree in your name — or here is a certificate for helping children by giving something to them and we're doing it in your name. There are ways that we could perhaps circumvent some of the apparent materialism of Christmas, but we're buffeted by the winds of merchants sales pitches, and we're looking to get back to that old and familiar and traditional holiday cheer — "environment be damned" is sort of the attitude of people have it in mind at all.

PM: You say that at one point in Roman times when they became wealthy, there was a so-called "orgy of consumption." Then there was a backlash, a drive toward simplicity. Tell us about that and whether you see the possibility of something like that happening today.

RB: Well, it would be nice and it could happen. I'm old enough to think back to the 1972-73 Arab oil embargo when it became a status symbol to have a small car, and it became a stigma to have a big car, a gas guzzler, a dinosaur. So that mentality of acquiring a mindset that we're going to minimize, and we're going to give gifts of experiences that are relatively costless rather than things — that we're going to do things or help rather than hurt the environment, and we're going to look at the supply chain and who makes these goods and who is benefiting from them and so forth. There have been for many years — again, going back to Greek and Roman philosophers — admonitions to live simply and to get off the treadmill of working in order to consume. And they've all gotten a little bit of traction for a while. It's like a New Year's resolution that we're going to diet and it last for a while and then sort of gradually fades away.

PM: For this holiday season, you see this — I guess what we've been doing for years — continuing unabated and to an even greater extent than last year?

RB: Yes, but I think we'll also see greater charitable donations and people that might go down to the homeless shelter and volunteer to work or might volunteer to donate some clothing and merchandise.

Pamela is KUER's All Things Considered Host.
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