What high-tech lives have done to holiday traditions
Though greeting cards are declining and we are importing millions of dollars worth of artificial trees, there is a trend toward giving something made with a 'personal touch'
The Grinch tried to steal it. During the 1650s, England's parliament passed legislation to make it illegal. Still, year after year, the immortal words of Dr. Seuss ring true: Somehow or other, Christmas comes just the same.
But is it the same? Where do the time-honoured traditions of the holiday season stand in this era of disruption and fast-paced change?
"There are always fads that come and go," says Gerry Bowler, a Winnipeg-based historian and author of The World Encyclopedia of Christmas, Santa Claus: A Biography and last year's Christmas in the Crosshairs: Two Thousand Years of Denouncing and Defending the World's Most Celebrated Holiday.
Even the mighty Christmas tree, he says, isn't necessarily evergreen. Aluminum trees were briefly in vogue during the 1960s, and environmentally conscious revellers continue to argue the naughty-or-nice merits of real (wasteful, but renewable) versus ersatz (reusable, but with a manufacturing footprint). "There's even a movement in Europe now to rent your tree, a living tree, then return it to be repotted after Christmas."
Though Canada exported $41.4-million worth of fresh-cut Christmas trees in 2015, according to Statistics Canada, we imported $65.2-million worth of artificial ones.
"Sending Christmas cards also waxes and wanes," he says. "They're certainly waning at the moment; it's still a massive industry, but there's been a decline in the last 10 years." Market research firms, such as Global Industry Analysts, Inc., project a global decline in the market for greeting cards. This is in great part due to the rise in technology-driven communication, the company notes. Annual growth in the Canadian greeting-card market has dropped 4.4 per cent since 2012, according to market research firm Ibisworld.
"Thanks to things like Facebook, we're in touch with more people regularly than we used to be. So more people will get a greeting from me at Christmas. But they might be getting my Christmas family letter – which is feared, like Christmas cake – by e-mail. And the generation that's coming up isn't used to writing letters and using the post."
Bowler misses seeing people's homes decorated with garlands of Christmas cards. "It was an assertion of the importance of family and your range of contacts," he says, "and a lot of the cards are lovely as art objects."
Tina Manousos, a Toronto-based etiquette educator, has noticed a trend toward less "over-the-top" holiday decorations – but believes that quality, not quantity, is the key to cultivating holiday spirit.
With many city-dwellers living in smaller spaces than previous generations, they have less square-footage in which to display holiday decorations – and less capacity to store them in the off-season. Manousos says people are also less willing to invest the time and money to trick out their homes in tinsel and lights. Instead of opting out of decorating altogether, she suggests "choosing a couple of focal points in the home to make festive. You might want to focus on a mantelpiece, or even putting a small tree in the centre of the dining-room table. We can still have the effect without all the decorating."
Another trend Manousos has noticed is "more people are trying to put their personal touch on gifts." She is seeing people decorate canning jars, then filling them with homemade body scrubs, or all the dry ingredients for making their favourite chocolate-chip cookies (and a handwritten recipe).
"There's something wonderful about giving a gift that is handmade. It means they took some time to put a gift together. And it also helps with the cost."
As with any gift-giving, Manousos reminds givers that handmade gifts "shouldn't be about 'This is what I like.' Always keep the other person in mind. I might like candles and body scrubs, but it might not be appropriate for someone else."
Propriety is extra important for office gifts, especially in conservative workplaces. Manousos recommends being aware of religious and cultural differences; a bottle of wine, even one beautifully wrapped in handmade paper, may not be appropriate for someone who does not drink alcohol. "And if you're giving a gift to your boss or a superior, don't be overly personal. You can keep it neutral, but still thoughtful. Instead of giving your boss body scrub, think about something for their family or their home."
Jennifer Lewis sees a simple reason behind the resurgence in handmade gifts: "People are teched out." Lewis is the owner of Quills, a Hamilton stationary and gift store that runs a popular series of monthly workshops in which people learn calligraphy or create their own gift tags.
"People come back after taking a workshop and tell me, 'My friends couldn't care less about the gift I got them, but they loved the card I made for them!' People appreciate things that are handmade nowadays. It just shows that they feel like they're missing out on tactile things. You can sense feeling and personality in something that's written by hand."
Lewis is optimistic that the tradition of sending snail-mail Christmas cards will make a comeback. "We certainly sell a lot of Christmas cards," she says. "People are sending them later. It's more of a Happy New Year card – but at least they're sending something."
Richard Crossman also believes that our high-tech lives are driving some people back to unplugged traditions. Crossman is the artistic director and conductor of the Baker Street Victorian Carollers, a strolling musical group that dresses in Victorian costume and performs a repertoire of songs mostly culled from that era.
Each year brings more demand for the group's old-school sounds. The group began in 2005 with four singers; Crossman now has five full quartets, plus spares, who perform for businesses, communities, service clubs, craft shows and senior's residences across southern Ontario. Their busy season is not just busier than ever, he notes, but is also starting earlier.
"We're finding that the last two weeks of November are even busier than December. The business improvement areas and retail corporate people are trying to get the shopping season going earlier, and we find that a lot of them are going back to what they're calling an old-fashioned Christmas, or Victorian Christmas, to kick off the opening of the Christmas selling season.
"Because of the origins of Santa Claus and [Charles Dickens's] A Christmas Carol, carolling is a way to get people's minds wrapped around the fact that the season is coming."
A simpler time
Crossman also thinks the popularity of old-time carolling is a response to modern life. "I think it's just one more branch of trying to grasp at something that's less complicated and less electronic."
Historian Bowler is cheered by carolling's vitality. "I would like to see door-to-door carolling in neighbourhoods come back," he says. "That's something I did with my family as a kid, paying visits to people's homes, and it was really special."
The other thing on his Christmas wish list? Smellier trees.
"The thing I love most about Christmas trees is the smell. Maybe it's my aging, but I just don't find trees smell much any more. I look at old home movies, and the trees were pretty ratty looking compared to the bushier ones of today. But the smell was there the whole season, as far as my childhood memory tells me.
So, in the absence of that nostalgic smell, he has gone the other direction and is advocating for a fake fir. But there's a problem.
"Now I'm arguing for an artificial tree, but my wife and kids are hanging on for a real one.
"Once you have kids, you're locked into the traditions that they remember," he notes with a laugh. "They're the most conservative creatures on the planet."
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