How has technology shaped Christmas?
By Peter Marron, on 20 December 2022
Christmas, a beloved tradition for many families around the world, which has held a special place in the hearts of Christian families since the 9th Century, has now become a universal tradition, allowing different cultures to adopt the holiday and shape it as per their wishes. However, with the advent of the industrial revolution and its associated technologies, it has evolved into an increasingly non-denominational event with a decidedly commercial nature, thanks to advances in manufacturing, shipping logistics, and marketing, all brought by technological change.
The mass production of consumer goods has forever changed the tradition of gift-giving on Christmas (and other holidays or festive occasions such as birthdays, anniversaries, Bat Mitzvahs, etc.).
Gone are the hand-crafted trinkets and ornaments of the past – the modern Christmas relies on a steady flow of commodities from manufacturer to consumer, making products that were once expensive and rare cheaper and more widely available than ever before. For instance, in the past, there was a practice among the wealthy to give citrus fruits on the holidays. It was a symbol of status – citrus fruits are out of season in the winter, and must be imported to a rainy, cool place like Britain. It was a sign that the giver of such a gift had the means to afford such a luxury. However, when considered in our modern context, this practice seems quaint. In fact, it is quite easy to picture a child’s face, full of disappointment while receiving a citrus fruit when all they really wanted was a PlayStation.
Furthermore, the wide availability of these commodities is facilitated by the vast, somewhat reliable network of modern shipping and logistics. Planes, trains, trucks, and powered boats have made access to merchandise much quicker and less expensive. These advances in manufacturing and distribution enabled by technology have led to cheaper, more plentiful consumer goods, and modern Christmas is changed because of it. In some sense, it is a positive change – revolutions in these sectors have made it easier and cheaper to bring joy to a loved one, awarding it with inclusivity. However, the other side of the coin is the negative effects these technologies bring – the rapid increase of pollution and global warming due to the methods in which mass production of goods is executed, amongst other undesirable effects.
The current state of Christmas is inextricable from the technology it is built upon – it would look foreign to us without the mass production of consumer goods, the vehicles and manpower used to distribute them, and the platforms on which they are sold to us. Even the inability to track Santa Claus’ journey across the globe seems rather antiquated. This demonstrates the inevitable social shaping of technology and how technology has reshaped Christmas (along with perhaps every other tradition known to the human being).
Written by: Andréa Lekare, UCL Science & Technology Studies