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A Brief History of Christmas Presents

Christmas is truly a wonderful time: Decorations, trees with ornaments, and Christmas music everywhere. Who doesn’t like the smell of hot cocoa and mulled wine at the Christmas markets? Kids and adults, everyone loves Christmas. And you know who else loves Christmas? eCommerce people. It’s the last big shopping event of the year for the eCommerce world 𑁋 the grand finale if you will.

Christmas is mainly known as a Christian holiday. Of course, Christmas has become highly commercialised. Still, nevertheless, Christmas presents are thought to be a Christian ritual of some sort. The reality, however, is quite different. So in this article, we will first look into the history of Christmas presents. Then, we will take a closer look at the relationship between eCommerce and Christmas.

Christmases of Past

The Origins of Christmas Presents: Saturnalia and the Ancient Rome

Christmas celebrations have their roots in the pagan festival “Saturnalia” in Ancient Rome. Saturnalia festivities were held to honour the God Saturn and express their gratitude for the bountiful year they’ve had, as Saturn was the god of agriculture. The celebrations were held from 17 December to 23 and involved a sacrifice at the Temple of Saturn and a public banquet, private gift-giving, and wild parties.

During the Saturnalia, Rome became more egalitarian than ever before. Slaves were equal to their masters and had a place at the banquet table; free speech was embraced, and gambling was permitted.

Another major part of the Saturnalia, you guessed it, was gift-giving. The gift exchange was called “Sigillaria” and took place on 19 December. Romans considered gifts of value at odds with the season’s spirit as such gifts were signs of wealth and social status. Therefore, Romans exchanged more modest gifts, such as pottery or wax figurines called sigillaria made for the day, candles, or “gag gifts”. It is known that August, the first emperor of Rome, also known as Octavian, was especially fond of these gag gifts.

Unlike several other Roman festivals, which were specific to the Roman cities themselves, Saturnalia celebrations were held in all territories in the Roman Empire. Hence, Saturnalia would be difficult to handle once the Roman Empire declared Christianity as its official religion.

The Birth of Christian Traditions of Christmas

In the 4th century, once Christianity was made the Roman Empire’s official religion, the religious leaders sought ways to eradicate the pagan rituals and festivals. This proved to be quite the challenge for certain practices like Saturnalia, as it was a widely popular and practised festival.

Today, the birthday of Jesus is a widely popular holiday. However, in the early years of Christianity, the birth of Jesus was not celebrated. In fact, the actual date of birth of Jesus is unknown, although there is some evidence suggesting that he was born sometime in the spring. Many believe that Pope Julius I declared 25 December as the birthday of Jesus because the church wanted to create an alternative holiday to Saturnalia. Thus, Christmas was born: An alternative festival that would take the Pagan Saturnalia’s place and commemorate a Christian occasion instead.

The old pagan tradition of gift-giving at Saturnalia was projected onto a Christian story: The gifts of Magi to Jesus. But there’s one name in history that influenced the meaning of Christmas gifts unlike any other and is considered the original Santa Claus: St. Nicholas of Myra.

The Origins of Santa Claus: St. Nicholas of Myra

Surely you know Santa: The jolly old guy with a big belly and a correspondingly big beard, who wears a red suit and uses a sleigh and reindeers to go around. Oh, and he loves bringing gifts to children! Well, the Santa we know today is quite different from the guy who inspired the legendary figure. First of all, he did not live in the North Pole; instead, he was from the Mediterranean.

St. Nicholas was born around 280 AD in Myra under the Roman Empire, now called “Demre” in modern-day Turkey. He was and still is known for his generosity. There are countless stories of him helping the people of Myra. Even when he was still alive, people attributed the anonymous gifts they would receive to him and gave thanks to Nicholas. As time went on, people started believing that he was magical and could be in several places at the same time. And over time, he became St. Nicholas, the patron saint of children and sailors.

The legend of St. Nicholas and his love of children continued to spread throughout the world. Over the centuries, St. Nicholas became a prominent figure in European folklore of the festive season. In The Netherlands, St. Nicholas was called “Sinterklaas”, which later became widely known as “Santa Claus”.

Today, the kindness and generosity of St. Nicholas is still remembered on his death anniversary, December 6, and is celebrated as the Day of Saint Nicholas in many European countries.

The Journey to the New World

In 1610, the first English settlers known as the Pilgrims crossed the Atlantic bound for North America and carried the tales of St. Nicholas with them. Their goal was to find a place where they could practice their sect of Christianity without the bounds of The Church of England. However, they were soon followed by the Puritans, followers of a much more strict sect of Christianity. They thought that the grandiose celebrations, such as Christmas, were decadent against Christianity and banned them. And those who attempted to celebrate Christmas in the privacy of their homes were punished. It was only in 1870 that Christmas was finally declared a federal holiday.

The Reintroduction of Christmas in the 19th Century USA

After the American Revolution, the English way of living was rejected, and new American traditions were sought after. Christmas traditions of the English were among these as well. The authors like Washington Irving were of tremendous help with this new agenda. Irving had heard stories of Sinterklaas and decided to give him a new name that made him sound American: Santa Claus. And thus, St. Nicholas became a part of the North American Christmas tradition. Irving did not only give Santa his modern name, though. He is also often credited with having created the modern Christmas traditions we know today (picture the iconic Coca Cola ads): A peaceful holiday spent with family and friends.

Over the years, with more additions from other authors, Santa became what he is today: A chubby old man who brings presents to children and leaves them in stockings and under the Christmas tree. 

Early 20th Century: Christmas Becomes Commercialised

Christmas became a true phenomenon in the 20th century USA. In the post-WWII world, American consumers were more than eager to spend their money, and Christmas was the perfect occasion for this. Christmas has been criticised for becoming commercialised since the 19th century. But it was in the 20th century that Christmas became truly commercialised.

In the early 20th century, consumers would rush to the department stores to buy gifts for their loved ones. In 1903, The Consumer League of New York started a nationwide marketing campaign to cut down the long working hours of the retail workers. As a result, consumers were called on to start their holiday shopping earlier – a tradition still in place today.

Late 20th Century: New Technologies, New Habits

In the late 20th century, new technologies like TV changed Christmas marketing immensely. In addition, new materials, such as plastics, became widely available during this period, which allowed producers to lower production costs. Thus, Christmas gifts became more affordable and widespread. This was when toys like Barbie and Lego became popular Christmas gifts. And as the 20th century came close to its end, the electronics category became popular Christmas gifts for holiday shoppers with products like the Nintendo Game Boy and the Tamagotchi.

Christmases of Present

If society was already criticising Christmas over becoming commercialised since the 19th century, imagine them seeing the 21st century way of Christmas shopping. They would clutch their pearls!

Early 21st Century: The Birth of Online Shopping

The shopping habits of the general public changed forever after companies like Google, Amazon, and eBay came onto the scene in 1995. With the help of these companies, people were introduced to eCommerce and online shopping. And since then, online shopping has been growing at an accelerated speed. As of 2021, over 2.14 billion people are shopping online. That’s more than 30% of the world population!

As for the most popular category for Christmas gifts, the electronics trend that started at the end of the 1990s continued onwards in the 2000s: Xbox 360 (2005), Playstation 3 (2006), iPad Touch (2007), Nintendo Wii (2008), Nook (2009), and iPad (2010) were some of the most popular Christmas gifts in early 2000s.

Christmas 2020: Defined by the Pandemic

The 2020 holiday shopping season was the biggest one for eCommerce stores, with a 50% increase compared to 2019. In 2020, eCommerce stores started their holiday shopping campaigns in October to not overwork the retail workers. But even then, the majority of the holiday shopping was done in the usual timeframe that starts with Black Friday.

Mobile channels were a huge hit among consumers in 2020 when it came to picking out Christmas gifts for their relatives and friends. Consumers used their smartphones mainly to look at gift guides and read online reviews to find the best possible gift without restricting themselves to a location.

The most significant advantage for an eCommerce store in such a period would be to work with Segmentify, a personalisation platform that is excellent at learning and developing the tastes of eCommerce customers. Holiday shopping is about finding that perfect gift for multiple people. The average UK household spends an additional £740 (around $1,021) each December. If you can manage to recommend personalised products and do that in real-time, imagine how easy and comfortable people would find your eCommerce store! You’d become the go-to option for finding the perfect gift for someone’s mom, dad, sister, aunt, partner, etc.

Christmases of Yet to Come

Christmas 2021: Are We Out of the Woods Yet?

First and foremost, consumers are more than likely to continue their holiday shopping online. The primary reason for this is that online shopping is more convenient, and eCommerce stores generally offer more selections. Another reason for opting to do holiday shopping online is that many consumers are still anxious about spending too much time in places that are too crowded.

Most people had hoped Christmas this year would be a little less bleak than last year, especially since COVID-19 vaccinations are more widespread now. But, unfortunately, sad news about Christmas came from Germany first: The State of Bavaria cancelled Christmas markets this year due to rising COVID-19 cases. It’s unknown at this point whether other states and countries will do the same or not.

Starting one’s holiday shopping early is a tradition that dates back to the beginning of the 20th century. According to a survey done by NFR, 66% of consumers intend to start their holiday shopping as early as Thanksgiving this year. Moreover, they are expecting the number of shoppers to increase by around 2 million compared to 2020.

The most popular categories for Christmas gifts are clothing items, Christmas cards, toys, books/music/films/video games, and food/candy. Items like Playstation, Xbox or Apple products have not lost their charm since the beginning of the century; electronics are still among the most popular Christmas gifts.

What Does the Future Hold for Christmas Shopping and eCommerce?

Of course, people still love the social aspects of going out shopping. It’s a beloved activity and a tradition for some. Nevertheless, online shopping is expected to get more prominent and widespread in the years to come. Let’s not forget that more than 60% of consumers prefer to buy their holiday gifts online in the US.

In addition to that, Christmas is no longer a Western holiday. Non-Christian countries celebrate Christmas in their own way, too 𑁋 with decorations, gifts, and everything else. So it is safe to say that Christmas is more commercialised than ever.

These points mean one thing: The market is more extensive than before, both an opportunity and a challenge. A bigger market means doing business internationally, reaching out to more people and enriching your customer base. But, of course, a bigger market also means more competition. 

How Can an eCommerce Store Get Ready for Christmas?

Always be on the lookout for new trends, whatever your eCommerce store is selling. Nowadays, consumer tastes and habits change almost in the blink of an eye. So be as knowledgeable as you can. Keep an eye out for the new technological developments as well. Technology has been shaping both in-store and online shopping since the late 20th century.

However, the most important advice we can give is this: Never underestimate the power of personalisation. 50% of customers are more likely to return to your eCommerce store if you provide product recommendations. Christmas is a time where this matters more than ever! Consumers tend to get overwhelmed with the options offered by eCommerce websites and leave quickly without purchasing anything.

To prevent this, make them offers they cannot refuse. For example, it’s possible to entice your customers by analysing their actions on your website to learn what they like, and in turn, recommend personalised products based on these data. Or you could use personalised push notifications to remind them about special offers, coupons, etc. You could also prepare unique landing pages for special categories as “Christmas gifts for mom/dad/children/etc.”.

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