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  • The Christmas cracker has gotten an upgrade
  • The Christmas cracker has gotten an upgrade
    Henry Bloomfield, Creative Commons (2015) ©

How are Christmas traditions changing?

ASOS launched its first ever advent calendar in 2016, promptly setting the web ablaze. But rather than having chocolates or religious imagery behind each window, it instead houses little gifts for beauty buffs. From jumpers to festive decorations, how else are Christmas traditions changing?

Location United Kingdom

Christmas boasts numerous traditions and rituals, some of them centuries old. Yet it’s a season in flux as people often feel compelled to compare the modern holiday with yesteryear nostalgia. Complaints about how consumer-driven it has become and how marketing has put its stamp on the festive period have been voiced for decades. “There are a series of traditional criticisms, but all of them seem hackneyed and exhausted," writes Mike Bulajewski, a Seattle-based user experience designer. “Consumerism? Greed? Forced jolliness? These critiques have become clichés, almost becoming integrated into the rituals of the holiday.” [1]

So are old Christmas traditions disappearing? Or are they simply acquiring new flavours? Research from PwC showed that Brits were the most generous Christmas shoppers among the world’s major economies in 2014, shelling out nearly £700 each over the holidays. [2] Yet despite criticism of the season’s consumerism, people may be spending that sum in smarter ways than imagined. Christmas staples – like advent calendars, crackers and jumpers – are evolving, rather than simply vanishing.


The new advent calendars
The advent calendar originated in the 18th century and the basic concept has survived to date – a box with windows concealing festive images. Along the way, chocolate was added to the mix, eventually becoming the familiar version most people now recognise. But a further evolution has taken place in the last few years.

The first beauty advent calendar was brought to market in 2010 by Selfridges in collaboration with L’Oréal, retaining the formula but drastically changing the contents. The small windows were stuffed with luxurious products from brands including Lancôme and Armani. [3] The idea was quickly adopted by the industry; the Selfridges calendar is still going strong, but it now faces stiff competition from beauty brands and retailers within the UK market. While Marks & Spencer’s offering is priced at a relatively low £35, the advent calendars created by Jo Malone (£280), Diptyque (£250) and Liberty (£149) are on the premium end of the spectrum. [4]

“With the popularity of beauty as a whole, they are just such a fun way to count down to Christmas with a new product each day,” says Paula Holmes, creator of beauty and fashion blog The LND Diaries. “I think the main appeal is that you can make a rather large saving. For example, one calendar this year is £250 worth of products for just £35. Everyone loves a bargain, and with beauty advent calendars you really do get a good deal.” [5]

Each window on a beauty advent calendar offers a new way to pamper yourself Each window on a beauty advent calendar offers a new way to pamper yourself
London Beauty Queen (2015) ©

Beauty crackers and baubles
The Christmas cracker is another tradition that has seen changes. Invented in Victorian London, it’s a staple on festive family tables in the UK, Ireland, Australia and many other English-speaking countries. The traditional paper crowns inside are accompanied by jokes or riddles, and despite the existence of luxury variants (Harrods, Selfridges and Liberty all produce them), the items within remain rather generic, including pens, mini kitchen utensils and compasses. [6]

The beauty industry has struck here as well, with budget and luxurious versions produced by a wide range of brands. Beauty crackers come in the traditional candy wrap box, but are usually sold individually rather than in sets – and there is no paper crown in sight. Consequently, they seem designed to end up under the Christmas tree rather than on the table, but the still rare boxes – like the set of six offered by Molton Brown – may be appropriate and welcome among a party of adults.

People seem to like things with clever twists. It allows them to combine something new with something old and comfortable

Robyn LeBoeuf, assistant professor of marketing at Washington University

Baubles have similarly turned from objects of simple fun to desirable, high-end adornments. As Cosmopolitan suggests: “Christmas trees deserve a makeover too.” Some beauty baubles (like ones from Ted Baker or Melvita) are beautiful decorations that can be opened on Christmas Day to reveal small gifts. Most are sold individually, but Mad Beauty is ahead of the curve, producing sets of lip gloss or bath bombs in bauble form, ready to be hung on the tree. [7]

Outside of beauty, Lego now produces baubles and an advent calendar. And there are also more grown-up flavours for festive products. The Chase Distillery has crafted a calendar with 5ml mini-bottles of its spirits, while Drinks By The Dram has produced a range of boozy calendars and crackers. “I think these crackers might just become a yearly tradition,” writes Laura Shabbir of the latter brand’s offering in an Amazon review. “Far better to receive a tipple in your cracker than a note clip or fortune telling fish.” [8] Beer calendars also exist, produced by online sellers such as Beer Hawk and Honest Brew, demonstrating that the goodies needn’t come from a single brand, but can easily be assembled by a related, knowledgeable company.

Kids aren’t the only ones getting a kick out of crackers Kids aren’t the only ones getting a kick out of crackers
Phil Rogers, Creative Commons (2013) ©

The Christmas jumper craze
Reinterpreting a festive favourite doesn’t ensure long-lasting success, as the Christmas jumper demonstrates. This tradition is relatively modern, as they only became a thing in the 1980s when talk show hosts started wearing them in the run-up to the holiday season to add to the jolly atmosphere.

Once received with mixed feelings of fondness and embarrassment, and typically given by older family members with a talent for knitting, Christmas jumpers now dominate the shelves of high street retailers ahead of the occasion, often embracing loud, cringeworthy and exaggerated designs. People have taken to the ritual of donning an ugly festive sweater with fervour, and Save The Children's Christmas Jumper Day is now observed as a fun competition in many offices. [9] “Don't be the office spoilsport. Don a funky festive knit for Christmas Jumper Day,” writes Molly Haylor for Glamour, driving home the message that these garments are more casual Friday than Christmas dinner. [10]

After a few years of high sales, however, 2015 saw a drastic fall in demand for high street Christmas jumpers, suggesting they’ve already peaked and are now spiralling. That year, retailers stocked 10% fewer jumpers and many were selling them for half price two weeks before Christmas. At Asda, demand for these jumpers increased 450% in 2013, 50% in 2014, but just 6% in 2015. Do these figures suggest a return to the versions knitted by our grannies? “The best-selling style [in 2015] has been the fair isle rather than our novelty styles,” notes Rachel Bennett, women’s knitwear buyer at ASOS. This shift is also highlighted by Gareth Jones, group deputy CEO and COO at Shop Direct, who says: “We are seeing a definite move away from the true novelty style of Christmas jumper, in favour of more tasteful knitwear such as fair isles and embellishment.” [11]

People want a jumper that’s nice, not naff People want a jumper that’s nice, not naff
UK in Austria, Creative Commons (2015) ©

Is the meaning of Christmas changing?
According to Robyn LeBoeuf, assistant professor of marketing at Washington University in St. Louis, “people seem to like things with clever twists. It allows them to combine something new with something old and comfortable. Giving something creative, like these items, may allow gift-givers to show (and feel) that they went the extra mile. They did not just give the traditional ‘obvious’ gift, but instead they put special thought into the gift, and came up with something clever and suited to the recipient.” [12] The high street wave of Christmas jumpers may have allowed people to put a spin on sugary Christmas and indulge in office banter, but the novelty has already worn off, leading them to once again seek something new, with elements that are old and comfortable.

Is Christmas becoming a canvas on which to play with different themes? For instance, could advent calendars with a set of weight-loss tools or sexy Christmas jumper collections be successful? LeBoeuf believes that departing from the norm is acceptable only if it makes the Christmas experience more tailored to gift-givers and receivers. “People put a high premium on giving gifts that seem thoughtful,” she says. “I would rather give a friend something that I picked out just for her than something that may be more appealing but may be less customised for her taste. Similarly, giving a gift that is highly specialised (like an advent calendar with weight loss tools) may be a way of showing how well you know the recipient’s tastes and, thus, how much thought you put into the gift.” [12] Indeed, the rise of novelty crackers seems driven by the desire to gift something more tailored to people’s real wishes.

The original advent calendar displayed religious images, but we couldn’t be further away from that today. It may not seem significant, but it highlights a shift in attitudes to festive traditions. A Pew survey conducted in 2015 found that 90% of American Gen Yers celebrate Christmas, but only 40% see it primarily as a religious occasion. Instead, 43% of them see it mostly as a cultural holiday, compared to 26% of Boomers and 17% of Seniors. Yet some traditions remain solid, as they’re considered part of the festive atmosphere; among all generations, 85-90% of people say they’ll attend a gathering with extended family or friends, over three-quarters will put up a tree, and 91% of Yers will buy gifts – a higher percentage than any other age group. [13]

Calendars and crackers may change, but Christmas remains a time for family Calendars and crackers may change, but Christmas remains a time for family
Yelp Inc, Creative Commons (2012) ©

Insights and opportunities
With price tags peaking above £200 and averaging at £80, beauty calendars are too precious to be handed out like their chocolate cousins, and since they make sense only if gifted before December 1st, they are an unlikely present to be sitting under the tree. “Most people actually buy them for themselves,” explains Holmes. “I know a few that may buy to gift to a family member before Christmas as a surprise, but the majority are buying to treat themselves.” [5] The same could be said about the Christmas jumper, as it is made virtually irrelevant for another year if received on Christmas day.

According to LeBoeuf, we may be moving to a pre-Christmas spending season, when consumers buy early presents for themselves. As one Reddit user comments: “Every time I go Christmas shopping, I struggle not to buy myself something. One for him, one for me, one for her, six for me.” Reasons for this vary, just like the gifts, which range from designer handbags to a plush Hello Kitty. “I'm a mom and my Christmas is heavy on gifts made out of popsicle sticks. Sometimes you just want to receive something that's really beautiful,” notes another Reddit user. [14] As Holmes points out, the pre-gifting season is strictly limited to self-presents; “Definitely with beauty advent calendars, but I don’t see this with gifts for others. I think Christmas will always be the main gifting time for most.” [5]

An understanding of how and when to break with traditions can help brands navigate the holidays. The key points seem to be deflecting boredom, tailoring Christmas to the family, paying attention to the adults, and self-gifting. As the affiliation with religion diminishes and we start to move away from traditions we don’t feel represent us that well anymore, focusing on the self-gifting and tailored aspects of gift-giving will become particularly important. This manifests itself into customising the holidays to the wishes of loved ones, giving adults the same importance as children, bending traditions to the advantage of the family, or rewarding ourselves for the hard work done during the year and in anticipation of the stress of the season.

Tacita Vero’ is a journalist, maker and recent graduate from the London Consortium. Her main research interests are cycling culture, underground phenomena and alternative travelling, which have brought her to Abkhazia, Nagorno-Karabakh and Chernobyl.

1. 'Christmas is the season of joy & cultural criticism', Meta Reader (December 2012)
2. 'Welcome to Britain: the most generous Christmas shoppers in the world', The Telegraph (December 2014)
3. 'L’Oréal designs luxury advent calendar for Selfridges', Cosmetics Business (October 2010)
4. 'The ultimate guide to beauty advent calendars Christmas 2016', The LDN Diaries (September 2016)
5. Interview with Paula Holmes conducted by author
6. 'Christmas Crackers: An Illustrated History', Peter Kimpton (November 2004)
7. 'The ultimate Christmas beauty baubles for 2015', Cosmopolitan (December 2015)
8. 'Drinks by the Dram Christmas Crackers (6 x 3cl)', Amazon
9. 'How Christmas jumpers came in from the cold', The Telegraph (December 2012)
10. 'Women's Christmas jumpers for 2016: our edit', Glamour (November 2016)
11. 'You better watch out, you better not cry, Christmas jumpers are on the decline', The Guardian (December 2015)
12. Interview with Robyn LeBoeuf conducted by author
13. 'Many Millennials see Christmas as more cultural than religious holiday', Pew Research Center (December 2015)
14. 'Do you buy yourself a gift for Christmas? What are you buying yourself this year?', Reddit (December 2015)


Tacita Vero is a journalist, maker and graduate from the London Consortium. Her main research interests are cycling culture, underground phenomena and alternative travelling, which have brought her to Abkhazia, Nagorno-Karabakh and Chernobyl.