Celebrations Mini-Unit

Subtopic: Consumerism and Holidays

Grade Level: 4-5

Author: Rise' Timpke


When one thinks of holidays, thoughts invariably turn to the economic aspects of those days, with consumerism being at the forefront of any celebration. As members of a materialistic society, we might assume that the specific holidays we now celebrate have become exploited by commercial interests, and that the origins of these celebrations have become obscured. This, however, is not always accurate. Indeed, the roots of many holidays we now celebrate were nurtured into maturity through merchandising and the free market.

It has been said that "...commerce and religion, celebration and consumption...mingle in a curious mix" (Schmidt, p. 3). In ancient times, as pilgrims turned out to worship their holy days, hawkers and vendors were only too happy to provision those travelers. The effect was to turn holy days into fairs, festivals, and bazaars. Holy days, or "holidays" as they are now known, became intertwined with the marketplace and its offerings.

American culture remained amazingly holiday-free until the nineteenth century. Although there were various local celebrations, there were none of major national prominence. Not until the grand success of the commercialization of St. Valentine's Day in the mid-nineteenth century did American culture embrace the market version of holidays we now take for granted.

Consumerism in general had become commonplace in the eighteenth century with the advent of industrialization of modern societies. Factories had a great impact on the economy, moving it from one based on agriculture and bartering to one based on consumer goods and cash. As more people were able to purchase ready-made goods, industry rushed forth to meet the demand. Soon, industry became a cycle of supply and demand. Advertisements promoting manufactured products became common, further expanding the consumer culture. Retailers soon realized the great potential for increased sales by offering a multitude of goods at times of celebrations.

The success of merchants boosting St. Valentine's Day into a holiday of national prominence shows the impact of markets on celebrations. In the early 1800's, St. Valentine's Day was virtually unheard of and seldom acknowledged. In the 1840's, merchants seized this Old World celebration and the link to romanticism and turned this day into an oft-celebrated one. The sale of "valentines" became prevalent. Soon, whole industries grew up around times of celebration, such as greeting cards manufacturers, candy-makers, and florists.

It came about that retailing visionaries turned street festivals into refined celebrations. There was a shift from celebrations as public, communal affairs to private, familial occasions. An emphasis was placed on gift-giving, and merchants stepped in with displays to tempt the pocketbook. Indeed, commemoration of holidays became a reason for merchandising.

By 1900, publications for retailers advised "never let a holiday escape your attention..." as it may increase the value of the merchandise and "while Easter commemorates an occasion sacred to many, there is no legitimate reason why it should not be also made an occasion for legitimate merchandising" (Schmidt, p. 18). As the marketplace became an arena of holiday preparation, consumers "bought" into the notion, embracing the holidays pushed by the merchants and helping create the now-common versions of holidays. As we look at our calendar, we see major holidays dispersed throughout the year, ready avenues of profits for merchants.

Another example of a holiday "created" by markets is Christmas. Although long traditionally celebrated, it was not of major importance. New Year's Day, however, was highly celebrated in the more traditional "street festival" way. New Year's Day was a natural time for gift-giving, and it became common to give gifts to children at this time. As many turned away from the rowdy celebration associated with New Year's Day, however, merchants were quick to advertise gifts for "the holidays," and soon Christmas Day became the more accepted "private" celebration of families.

Celebrations have a tremendous impact upon the economy and holidays are most associated with the trappings of the market. An estimated $55 billion was pumped into the economy by Christmas sales in 1994. About 97% of Americans buy presents, and holidays generate 19% of all annual retailing. The calendar and commerce have become deeply intertwined in American culture. It does seem, sometimes, that holidays exist solely to enhance the economic stability of the marketplace.


Comfort, David (1995). Just Say NOEL!. New York: Simon &;Schuster.

Schmidt, Leigh Eric (1995). Consumer Rites: The Buying and Selling of American Holidays. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Waits, William Burnell (1993). The Modern Christmas in America. New York: New York University Press.

Weightman, Gavin and Humphries, Steve (1987). Christmas Past. London: Sidgwick &;Jackson Limited.


Students will develop the skills of researching, interviewing, analyzing

graphs and charts, and interpreting news items.

Students will manipulate numbers on charts and multiply two and three

digit numbers to solve a problem.

Students will explore the free enterprise system and the role that buying

and selling of holiday goods have upon the economy.

Students will learn the history of holidays and how the celebration of

them is expressed through the market system.

Students will recognize and demonstrate that advertising design

influences one's life.

Students will expand vocabulary and oral language skills as they

participate in discussions and make verbal presentations.

Time Allotment:

2 weeks, covering about one or two activities per day. Although some activities can be finished in one class session, many will take at least two days.


Resources Needed:


A. Brainstorm

Have the students identify celebrations that they associate with consumer goods. List them on the board.


B. Guided Discussion

Discuss with the students the ties between celebrations and money. Lead the students to understand that our economy is driven by sales of consumer goods and that celebrations contribute heavily to demand of consumer goods.


C. History Mini-Lecture

Explain that holidays had their roots in "holy days" and that they were usually celebrated locally. Holidays and economics became enmeshed when vendors met the demand of people traveling during the holy days. Festivals, fairs, and bazaars became part of holy days. Later, merchants began campaigns to encourage spending by the people. They promoted specific holidays and prepared goods for sale. They used advertisements to create a demand for products. Soon, many holidays became nationally prominent and celebrated on a lavish, wide-scale basis. Check for understanding by asking questions and reviewing as needed. Have each student draw a series of three pictures illustrating how holidays have evolved over time.


D. Creative Thinking

Students will work in groups of four or five to create a new holiday. They will generate a date, icons, food items, colors, activities, etc., that they will associate with the holiday. They must present a rationale for each item and why they would celebrate their holiday on the day they chose. They will then present their holiday to the class. The class will decide by secret ballot which two holidays they would choose to adopt if they were merchants.


E. Investigation

Assign each student to watch television and record the types of commercials they see or to read a newspaper including weekly ads. They are to specifically examine ten ads. Decide what the purpose of the ad is, who the targeted consumer is, and whether the ad has any ties to a holiday (implied or explicit). Discuss the need for consumers to view ads objectively and to think of the purpose behind them. Write a short paper discussing how advertisers use language and visual arts in the media to sell their products.


F. Integrating Art and Language Arts

Each student will design an advertisement promoting a holiday item. They will use the techniques they observed in the television and newspaper ads to persuade the consumer to buy their product. The advertisements will be carefully written and illustrated, using good language arts and visual arts skills, and displayed throughout the classroom.


G. Integrating Mathematics and Music

Gifts can cost a great deal. Relate the song "The Twelve Days of Christmas" and have the students figure out how much it would cost to send their true love the gifts mentioned in the song. (Worksheet in appendix.)

H. Interviews

Students will be paired off at random and together will interview a merchant and ask about their sales in relation to holidays. I will contact each merchant in advance and ask their cooperation. Each student pair will then be assigned a merchant and together will determine what questions to ask. As a class, we will discuss beforehand what kinds of questions we would like addressed such as, "Which holiday generates the most sales? When do you have to order merchandise to have it in time for a holiday? Why do you put out holiday displays so far before the actual holiday? How do you determine what items to sell?" The students will write a brief synopsis of their interview and present it orally to the class. We will compare the sales of different types of merchandise at different holidays by the different merchants.


Assess the following activities:



The Twelve Days of Christmas

The song goes, "On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me, a partridge in a pear tree." On consecutive days, items received were:

Second day

two turtle doves

Third day

three French hens

Fourth day

four calling birds

Fifth day

five golden rings

Sixth day

six geese-a-laying

Seventh day

seven swans-a-swimming

Eighth day

eight maids-a-milking

Ninth day

nine ladies dancing

Tenth day

ten lords-a-leaping

Eleventh day

eleven pipers piping

Twelfth day

twelve drummers drumming

The cost of those items is listed below. How much did my true love spend on my Christmas gift?

Cost Each

Cost for All


$ 20.00

Turtle Dove

$ 25.00

French Hen

$ 15.00

Calling Bird

$ 4.00

Golden Ring



$ 17.00


$ 50.00


$ 10.00 per hour

Lady Dancing

$ 15.00 per hour


$ 13.00 per hour

Piper Piping

$ 24.00 per hour

Drummer Drumming

$ 26.00 per hour


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