The early Christians knew a thing or two about marketing.
The Gospels do not give the actual date of Jesus’ birth. However, anyone living in an economy dominated by pastoral agriculture would take Luke’s mention of shepherds watching their flocks by night as a definite reference to spring or summer, when sheep were out in the pasture. Most of the astronomical theories about the Star of Bethlehem point in the same direction.
However, the primitive Church used the absence of a specific date as a pretext to rebrand pagan mid-winter festivals as Jesus’ “official birthday”, so that converts would not have to give up a popular holiday.
So complaints about the “commercialisation” of Christmas rather miss the point.
Those who seek a purely Christian festival have usually valued Easter and Pentecost more than Christmas, which has always been more about conspicuous consumption to cheer everyone up during the very darkest days of winter. This was followed soon enough by a period of fasting – Lent making a virtue of necessity as winter food stocks ran out.
The modern equivalent is the splurge on the credit card in December followed by belt-tightening in the New Year. Scientists have shown how a decrease in sunlight causes depression, but consumption releases chemicals that can counter that depression – so Christmas may be part of our biology.
The precise pattern may be changing. Many in the UK are worried that the devastation of the retail sector by snow in the week before Christmas may have a disproportionate effect on national economic growth for the whole year. This effect may be magnified by a rise in sales tax, called Value Added Tax in Britain, coming into force just in time to negate the usual post-Christmas discount sales.
These worries are probably overstated. While overall economic conditions mean this year is unlikely to be outstanding, the probability is that Christmas has been postponed rather than cancelled. That biological cycle is still at work, and a little snow and a small tax rise are unlikely to make that much difference.
So it will probably be a Merry Christmas after all – eventually.