A couple of weeks ago, Christmas was unleashed on the home of Wayne Smith and his family. The tub of chocolates has been opened, Home Alone has been watched and the first Tia Maria and Coke of the season has been poured. The tree is up along with retro foil decorations and lights. This year, the outside of their house in Kent – usually adorned with just a few lights – is covered in multicoloured flashing ones. Then there is the Christmas tree in the garden, the Santa in the window and a projector flashing festive images across the exterior. “I thought it would be a bit more fun,” he says. “It’s been a really horrible year, so we thought we’d try and get in the spirit early. The children are loving it and, because the children are happy, we’re happy, so it’s definitely lifted the mood.”
Across the country, artificial trees are being brought down from lofts, and tinsel and lights are being untangled. “We decided to start now. Let’s bring in that magic, that joy, that hope into the house as early as possible,” says Natalie Miller-Snell, a personal and business coach, whose house now has two trees, as well as other decorations, including stockings by the fireplace and a festive display in the bathroom. She says they decided to “just go all-out really, because it’s been quite a challenging year”. In a normal year, they do not put up the decorations until mid-December, but with her family getting over Covid infections, on top of other stresses, such as falling through the self-employed furlough net, last weekend seemed like the right time to unleash Christmas.
“This year, the vacuum of time that’s been 2020, hasn’t really been normal. So it feels really right to put decorations up now.” She says her two sons, aged nine and six, “absolutely love it. Children all have had to sacrifice seeing their friends this year and being able to be children. Keeping the magic alive is so important.” She says they are all determined “to see out this year in a really positive way, and look forward to 2021 with a view that things are going to be much better”.
Take a walk after dark, and you will see Christmas trees and lights in people’s houses. A snoop on social media will reveal people proudly sporting Christmas pyjamas and cracking open the Baileys. Restaurants started getting festive early, too – most spectacularly, 34 Mayfair in London installed thousands of baubles in October.
Two weeks ago, the BBC reported that people were buying and streaming Christmas songs earlier than ever. Mariah Carey’s All I Want for Christmas Is You returned to Spotify’s top 40 nine days earlier than it did last year, and yesterday had reached No 20. Christmas Tree World, which sell artificial trees online, has announced its sales are 140% higher than this time last year. Squires, a garden centre chain, says it has sold nearly a third more potted trees than at this time last year. “The demand for Christmas trees looks likely to be very high this year, and people are definitely buying early,” says Sarah Squire, chair of the company. “I think people want to bring Christmas cheer to their homes as soon as possible.”
It seems that there has been a flurry of present-buying, too, with September’s retail sales 5.6% higher than a year ago. Helen Dickinson, chief executive of the British Retail Consortium, said this showed “signs that consumers are starting their Christmas shopping earlier this year”. Celebrities, with their large social media followings, have been encouraging an early start: Carey fired the starting gun by unveiling her Christmas tree on Instagram on 1 November. A week later, Joan Collins put hers up. “So what else should one do during lockdown in November?” she wrote.
Nicola, a solicitor from Cumbria, has had her Christmas lights up and a poinsettia in the window for a couple of weeks. “A lot of other people in my street have, too, so I wasn’t the first,” she says. “It’s been so miserable and the lights make me feel better. I come home from work in the dark and the Christmas lights are on.” She volunteers for the charity Boxes of Hope Cumbria, which sends shoeboxes of donated toys and gifts to underprivileged children in eastern Europe, so she usually starts to think about Christmas in August or September. “That gets me in the Christmas mood, then the Christmas socks come out in October.” Her Christmas duvet cover went on the bed at the beginning of November. “I love this time of year, and I like the build-up more than the day itself.”
For Wayne Smith, like many of us, there is comfort in the nostalgia of decorating. His three sons, Sam, aged eight, Ben, six, and 14-month-old Olly, now help decorate the tree, just as he did when he was a child. “I want them to experience the same thing,” he says. Will starting Christmas early become a new tradition? “It’s possible,” he says. “If we’re quite upbeat and start to see developments [in ending the pandemic] then maybe not, but this year everything is so bad and horrible.”
A recent UK survey found that almost two-thirds of those asked still thought November was too early for Christmas decorations. But this year there is a feeling that the rules don’t apply. And it is not just the UK. “Saw a Christmas tree up in the neighborhood BEFORE Halloween,” tweeted the US Democratic congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez at the beginning of this month. “Normally, I’d bust someone’s chops about it, but you know what? Do what makes you happy. Especially this year.”
It is worth remembering that all this is only true for people who enjoy Christmas. For many, Christmas is a difficult time and this year may be harder than most. People have lost friends or family members, loneliness has increased, and, for some, severe financial stresses make this expensive time of year even tougher. The ideal of Christmas is largely a marketing myth. But if you are a festive fan, is there any benefit to starting early? There is no good evidence either way, but one study, albeit more than 30 years old, did find that people in the US who put Christmas decorations outside their houses were seen as more “sociable”, and it suggested that people could use decorations to integrate into their neighbourhood.
“I think it cheers everybody up,” says Hazel, a mother of three, who lives in Kent, and whose two Christmas trees went up a couple of weeks ago. “It makes you feel more festive and makes you not worry so much. We don’t know if we’re going to see family this year, so I think it distracts you a little bit. I know it sounds really corny, but this year has been so tough and it makes you appreciate your family and your life so much more.”
The rituals around Christmas, now largely a secular tradition, play an important role, says Dimitris Xygalatas, assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Connecticut, who studies the impact of rituals. He says that he has discovered over two decades of research that rituals have two benefits: “They help us alleviate anxiety and they help to increase social connection. And in the current context, we’re really missing both of those things.” With much of this year spent in lockdown, and days all bleeding into one without the usual markers or events to differentiate them, our sense of time drifts. “This is why I think people crave more than ever to get started with these big celebrations,” says Xygalatas. It is something of an anchor – that even in this extraordinary and uncertain period, and whatever it looks like this time – Christmas is still going to happen, as it does every year.
Does taking part in a ritual earlier than normal increase our enjoyment? “Research shows that when we spend money on experiences, rather than material stuff, we feel happier,” he says. “The reason behind this is that we enjoy the experience, and afterwards we enjoy the memories of it, but we also enjoy the anticipation. I think this is the part that applies to holiday rituals. Given this situation of increased anxiety, this feeling of anticipation and all the preparations give us something to do which is meaningful.”
Nick Carroll, an associate director at the market research company Mintel, says there is a feeling that people are more determined to celebrate this year. Almost 80% of grocery shoppers who took part in a recent Mintel survey said it was important to have a “good Christmas” after the stresses of 2020. “If ever a time of celebration to spend with the family was needed, it’s after the events of this year,” Carroll says. “On the other side of that, you do have the economic realities that Covid-19 has brought and the impact that has had on many households’ finances.”
Christmas has been getting earlier for some years – the so-called Christmas creep – with mince pies appearing before summer is over and decorations on sale from September. Did Christmas really come earlier this year? Carroll thinks so. “[Online] searches around Christmas and gifts have come even earlier – people potentially have more time on their hands to plan gifting and also it is that forward-looking mentality to something that we hope we can enjoy as a break from the trials and tribulations of the year.” Research by Mintel in October found that “42% of people said they planned to start their Christmas shopping earlier than usual”. Retailers have also pushed it, he says. “We’ve seen an earlier and more intense period of discounting.”
Avi Shankar, professor of consumer research at the University of Bath, thinks Christmas started getting earlier about 10 years ago, when British retailers began to adopt the US tradition of the Black Friday sale, held the day after Thanksgiving in late November. It encourages people to start their Christmas shopping, and think about Christmas, earlier. “I think some structural changes occurred in the marketplace – Black Friday is probably the main one,” says Shankar.
“Then there are some practical logistical issues.” With pandemic-related supply issues, as well as lockdowns forcing many shops to close, “retailers and especially the online retailers are trying to manage demand by spreading it out. They want us to shop early.” And, he adds: “As Christmas is the big sales spike for most retailers, they want to start it as soon as they can and get in before their competitors, so it gets earlier and earlier.” With so much uncertainty, especially around seeing family, and Christmas events cancelled, he believes some people are engaging in “some kind of compensatory behaviour” by making more of an effort at home, and doing it earlier.
“I have children who always get very excited about Christmas, but normally we do hold off until the beginning of December, at least,” says Hazel. “I think this year, it’s been such a hard year, it was having an effect on my children.” They asked if they could put the Christmas tree up. “I just thought, why not? Let them enjoy it for as long as possible.” The family have an artificial tree, as well as a real tree growing in a pot and other festive touches around the house. She will have had her decorations up for nearly two months by the time Christmas Day comes. Might she get a bit tired of them? She laughs. “I think there’s a possibility that on Boxing Day, I might be prepared to rip them down, yes.”