Friday, April 9, 2010

The Commercialization of Religious Holidays: Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny

Christmas was celebrated in honour of the birth of Jesus Christ on December 25 (although the exact date of his birth is unknown, the date was chosen arbitrarily to be nine months after His hypothetical date of conception) (Wikipedia). Another major holiday, Easter, is commonly known to be celebrated in tribute to Christ rising from the dead after dying for the sins of mankind. Easter day has traditionally marked the end of Lent and the 40 days of fasting, prayer and penance to show respect for that what which Christ is said to have endured (Wikipedia). In celebrating these two holidays, certain behaviours have been ritualized and have been internationally recognized, such as gift-giving on Christmas. The practice of gift-giving could be traced back to the first Christmas with the Wise Men bringing gifts to honour Christ as the new King of the Jews. This practice has since evolved into an act of cherishing those we care about. As time wore on, and just as a rumour corrodes from the original meaning by the time it reaches the last ear, the meanings and practices of these holidays were altered completely. This can be illustrated through the ways in which commercialization of these holidays has led the invention of Santa Clause and the Easter bunny for economic gain. Santa Clause as we know today has roots in many cultures, but, the most common is that of Saint Nicholas, who was known to be very generous by giving gifts to the poor (Wikipedia). However, this image quickly mutated by different interpretations of a benevolent, gift giving person and the image of Santa Clause was ultimately immortalized by the Coca Cola company (Wikipedia). Since then it has further contributed to the commercialization of religious holidays. The Easter Bunny, and most modern day Easter traditions for that matter, were invented to please children. During its conception, the image of hares and eggs were seen as signs of fertility, or the renewal associated with spring and has lead to the ritual of engaging in Easter hunts during Easter in search for sweets such as chocolate (Wikipedia). Many of the modern Easter traditions were created as something to entertain children and keep them in line, where they would set out vibrant baskets and were rewarded for good behaviour with brightly coloured eggs from the Easter Bunny (Wikipedia). However, similar to the image of Santa Clause, the Easter bunny too has been utilized by marketers as a useful tool to shift the meaning of Christmas and Easter from spirituality and emphasis on religion to self-indulgence and consumption. This commercialization of religious holidays can even be seen within our own city. During Christmas and Easter, West Edmonton Mall is filled with consumers ready to buy the “hottest gifts,” numerous holiday displays, decorations, and advertisements can be seen almost everywhere, and the city of Edmonton itself contributes to commercializing holidays with the creation of “Candy Cane Lane, ” for example, which encourages Edmontonians to spend money on decorations for their homes.

Although the percentage of Christians (which includes Catholic, Protestant and Christian Orthodox) makes up 67.1% in the city of Edmonton (Statistics Canada), religious beliefs of the rest of population go virtually unrecognized since these religious events are not commercialized, and thus have little economic value. It is obvious that Christian religious images of Jesus, for example, invoke emotional experiences in people because of the meaning attached to them. Looking at this from a marketing perspective, this creates an opportunity to benefit from the significance of religion in an individuals life. By using religion as a marketing tool, religious holidays such as Christmas and Easter have been readily commercialized all over the world. Statistics Canada, for instance, shows that Albertan consumers spent $967 in December 2004, which was claimed to be motivated by Christmas and is was also well above the monthly average of $653 for that year. It is evident that Christmas day is no longer celebrated in secular rituals but Christmas marketing tries to persuade consumers to celebrate it in commercialized way: Christmas trees, gifts, expensive dinner, and so on. Furthermore, this commercialization of religious events cleverly plays on the importance of social ties and families in society. As a result, mass industries provoke consumers to buy more and better commodities for gift giving. Thus, consumers are led to believe that they need certain products to celebrate religious events in proper way. With an emphasis on family togetherness and giving during these celebrations, marketers have not only been able to appeal to family-oriented audiences, especially parents, but, they have also been able to get the attention of a new branch of consumers: children. As the documentary "Consuming Kids" states, children have “purchasing power” and “purchasing influence.” Children are estimated to influence $700 billion a year of consumer spending in the U.S, and is subsequently a group that must be catered to.
Through their use of what the documentary calls "the nagging factor," children have a huge impact on what their parents spend their money on and therefore are extremely important in driving the economy. It is this power that entices marketers to invent fictitious characters (Santa Clause and the Easter Bunny) designed to invoke meaningful and emotional reactions in the child in order to hold their attention. Santa Clause and the Easter Bunny have now allowed the attention to shift from the importance of Jesus to children and what they can make their parents buy. The holidays seem now to revolve around children and making them happy as the meaning of Christmas and Easter has been stripped and replaced by consumerism and gratification. This is extremely beneficial for the millions of companies dedicated to providing consumers (especially children) with seasonal products year after year during the holidays.

In order to better understand the way in which commercialization of religious holidays functions in our society, we can look at several theoretical perspectives. In Marxist theory for example, Karl Marx and Freidrich Engels emphasize the way in which the inequality between the working class and the owners of production is necessary for capitalism to function. In Marx’s concept of false consciousness, he illustrates that capitalism is sustained because people eventually conform and do not realize that they are supporting and believing in a system that actually oppresses them. This idea can be applied to the way in which religious holidays are commercialized. For example, year after year, malls are packed during the holiday season as consumers spend ridiculous amounts of money on gifts and other Christmas related activities. As a consumer during the holiday season, it seems that we readily support the commercialization of holidays even if it means going broke. When it comes to shopping during the holiday season, most of the money spent is on gifts, especially for children. It is evident that children have an incredible amount of purchasing power as they can push their parents to buy them whatever they want. Now, marketers have commercialized religious holidays to turn the attention to these powerful consumers by the invention of appealing, fictitious characters. It is evident that the importance behind the birth of Jesus Christ and his resurrection has been masked by a Santa Clause and the Easter bunny. By applying the concept of semiotics, the denotative and connotative meanings of Santa and the Easter bunny help explain why they continue to be integrated and valued in society. The denotative meanings of Santa and the Easter bunny are the literal meanings. On the other hand, the connotative meanings of these images are what gives them value as they are influenced by cultural and historical contexts. In the case of the Easter bunny and Santa, these images may be associated with positive things such as joy, giving, love, and family which make up social ideologies in our society. According to Roland Barthes, myth occurs when the connotative meaning of an image appears to be denotative. In this sense, myth may occur when consumers see images of Santa and the Easter bunny as always being associated with the positive characteristics previously mentioned and can thus always be trusted images. Children and parents then learn to see these characters as being harmless and a fun part of religious holidays, yet they are in actuality being lured in to keep consuming and keep religious holidays commercialized. In addition to the concept of myth, the notion of surveillance further illustrates the way in which commercialization of religious holidays is maintained. According to Foucault, surveillance is the act of keeping watch over a person or place and is one of the ways society keeps its citizens in line, as they engage in self-regulation. For example, Santa clause’s “naughty and nice” list keeps children in line during the holiday season as they are persuaded into regulating their own behaviour so they avoid getting coal for Christmas due to their own misbehaviour. As a result, parents are especially attracted to Santa Clause as they can use the invention of his list to directly regulate their child’s behaviour as well, by reminding them that their misbehaviour will have its consequences when Christmas rolls around…Yet another reason to blindly trust the inventions of corporate America and keep consuming without question.

*** Be Sure to check out the video we made!!
By: Izabelle Allouche, Nagiko Hasumi, David Liu-Horvath


Articles/ Books

Cartwright, Lisa and Marita Sturken. 2009. Practices of Looking: An Introduction to Visual Culture. New York: Oxford Univ.Press.

Lin, Jane. 2004. Christmas Shopping: A Provincial Perspective. Statistics Canada.

Statistics Canada. “Religion.” Statistics Canada.


“Bring the Pain” from the album Tical. Written by Diggs, Robert Jr; Smith, Clifford. Performed by Method Man. Released in 1994 by Def Jam records. Produced by RZA. Firehouse studios, Manhattan.

“For the Love of Money” from the album Ship Ahoy. Written by Keneth Gamble, Leon Huff, Anthony Jackson. Performed by The O’Jays. Released in 1973 by Philadelphia International. Produced by Gamble and Huff. Sigma sound studios, Philadelphia.

“Music for soul” from the album Chant: music for paradise. Performed by the monks from Heilgenkreuz. Released May 2008 by Universal.

“Sunburn” from the album Showbiz. Written by Mathew Bellamy. Performed by Muse. Released February 2000 by Taste/ Mushroom. Produced by John Leckie. Sawmills Studio.

Consuming Kids: The Commercialization of Childhood, DVD. Directed by Adriana Barbaro &
Jeremy Earp. 2008.


-Wikipedia. “Christmas.”

-Wikipedia. “Easter.”

-Wikipedia. “Easter Bunny” Symbols

-Wikipedia. “Easter Bunny” Origins

-Wikipedia. “Easter Egg” Origin and folklore

-Wikipedia. “Santa Claus.” Early Christian Origins

-Wikiepdia. “Santa Claus.” American Variations

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