Tis’ the Season… of Overconsumption: Part 3 – Christmas

By Bailey Chenevert

Christmas: Presents over Presence?

How does the conscious consumer navigate the holiday season, where the line between celebration and consumption is so blurred? This is the question that the Cluey blog endeavors to answer in a 3-part series concerning the holidays and overconsumption. Because even with today’s focus on ethical shopping and sustainable purchases, overconsumption is ingrained in modern holiday traditions. Today, in the third part of the series, we’re wrapping up with information about consumer behavior that surrounds the modern-day Christmas season so you’ll know how to partake as an informed consumer without giving up the best parts of the holiday. 

How Corporate Advertising Has Influenced Holiday Consumerism:

It’s commonplace to associate the holidays with big spending. Consumer advertising, particularly at this time of year is literally everywhere, thanks to corporations like these five retailers that each spent over a billion dollars in holiday advertising in 2019. Mass marketing has long enforced the connection between celebration and consumption during the holiday season for the better part of a century. Here are just a few examples:

  • You might not recognize Santa if you saw him before the 20th century. The standard American Santa Claus that is commonplace today was largely the result of a Coca-Cola marketing design from 1931. Illustrator Haddon Sundblom created the modern-day design – a jolly, fat man in a red suit with rosy cheeks… and a bottle of Coke in hand. Before these Coca-Cola ads, Santa’s look often varied in color, size, and demeanor, sometimes even being presented as a gaunt, old-man dressed in green. . 
  • The subsequent 20th century mass-advertising of a red-clad Santa next to a green Christmas tree is credited with why we associate red and green as the main colors of the season.  
  • While Santa’s look may not have been standardized until the 20th century, his ability to bring in shoppers was capitalized early in American consumer culture. Department store giant Macy’s claims the earliest year of introducing the “mall santa” starting in 1861. While the pandemic may have put a dent in this tradition, some retailers, like Bass Pro Shops marched on with in-person Santas, citing the need to “preserve holiday traditions”.  
  • In Japan, Christmas became intrinsically linked with Kentucky Fried Chicken thanks to an immensely successful marketing campaign by the country’s first KFC franchise in the 1970s. It was so effective that an estimated 3.6 million Japanese families eat KFC for Christmas dinner every year. 
  • The Americanized, consumer-focused version of Christmas has continued to expand its global influence so much so that countries like Bangladesh, where only 0.3% of the population practices Christianity, celebrate Christmas as a national holiday.
  • And back States-side, American Jews who don’t partake in the gift-giving of Christmas have the unique experience of gift-giving at Hanukkah, something less-commonplace for Jews elsewhere. This linking of gift-giving to the festival of lights has little to do with the holiday itself and instead points directly to American consumer culture. Historically, this holiday received little attention from Jews worldwide, but alongside the advent of 20th century consumer-focused Christmas, Hanukkah is now one of the two most widely observed holidays for Jewish Americans. 
  • And while you may think this all comes to an end after December 25th, history shows a strong link between corporations marketing to holidays year-round, encouraging overconsumption with the advent of new holidays that have little historical context or meaning

How All of That Consumption Adds Up:

  • An estimated 21 million people receive at least one unwanted gift each year and less than a quarter will keep the unwanted present, sending many straight to the landfill
  • You can probably count on one hand how many times a year you use ribbon. Still, people throw away enough of it in a year to wrap planet Earth in a pretty bow – 38,000 miles of ribbon, to be exact. Between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day, Americans will contribute an extra 25 million tons of garbage to landfills. 
  • More specifically, $11 billion of packaging material gets discarded each year around the holidays and enough aluminum to make 25,000 jetliners goes straight to the dump.

Re-Imagining Holiday Traditions for Impact:

We don’t need to reinvent the wheel to get that yuletide feeling, many traditional activities around this time of year can be sustainable and remain true to the things we really love about the holiday: spending time with loved ones

  • Make a post-holiday disposal plan for all of your decorations made from organic materials (trees, garland, wreaths, etc.) The way in which you dispose of these items can have a bigger footprint then how or where you buy them. If you want to take it a step further, consider a living tree instead of a cut-tree. And if you already own an artificial tree, using it for at least ten years will ensure its footprint is better than a real one.
  • There are valuable materials in old Christmas lights, as well as several ways to recycle and reuse them. To take it a step further, consider switching to LED lights to brighten up the holidays. LEDs are some of the most energy-efficient and long lasting lights on the market. 
  • For the practice of gift-giving, buying locally, going homemade, or shopping from marketplaces like EtsyMadeTradeSociety6, and BCorps like UncommonGoods can have a more direct positive impact than shopping with mass-retailers like Amazon or big-box stores. 
  • If you do buy from mass-retailers like AmazonBest BuyMacy’sTarget, etc., compare their environmental, social, and political impacts on the Cluey app and choose the one that most closely aligns with your values. 
  • For cards, gift tags and letters, seed paper is a great alternative to standard stationery. 
  • For homemade sweets and stocking stuffers, don’t forget to also search those brands at Some popular brands around this time of year include PillsburyHershey, and Starbucks.

Our Takeaway:

We hope to bring you closer to what really makes the holidays special for each unique person beyond consumption. You may even find that just being aware of the consumerism underlying holiday traditions helps you reconnect with what you truly cherish about this season. Check out the Cluey blog for some articles that can help get you started on more conscious holiday spending and don’t forget to create your Cluey account to compare brands and learn about the impact your purchases have on people 👥 , the planet 🌎 , and politics 🗳️.


Bailey Chenevert is a freelance journalist and guest editorial contributor for Cluey Consumer. As a current master’s student at Appalachian State University, Bailey is researching the ways media consumption impacts our psychology. Bailey is passionate about impartial reporting on consumerism and the impacts that fashion brands have on our modern world. She has more than six years of experience in journalism as a writer, editor and director.

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