One feature of American life during my half-century in it has been the annual complaints about commercialization of holidays. The primary subject is Christmas, of course. Christmas gift buying is such a key part of our economy that devout believers have given up trying to keep the focus of the holiday on its religious or even cultural role. Buying stuff is now the whole point of Christmas: not just gifts, either, but giant home decorations, antlers for your minivan, holiday cards, seasonal clothing, candy, travel — almost anything you can buy will have a Christmas-theme version. (I don't know about industrial supplies or pharmaceuticals, but I wouldn't be in the least bit surprised if Kobe Steel tried a special "rolled sheet metal for the holidays" promotion.)
But never mind about Christmas. What about other holidays? Some have been successfully commercialized, but others resist. I've identified four main criteria for commercializing a holiday.
- Booze. You have to be able to sell liquor, especially at lame "parties" at bars and nightclubs. (Christmas is an oddity here: there are plenty of Christmas parties, but they're all privately-hosted. Christmas in a bar is the grimmest thing you've ever seen.)
- Candy. You have to be able to sell candy, preferably candy shaped or colored for the occasion, so people have to throw it away afterwards. Other seasonal foods are nice, but since groceries are a low-margin business, selling some extra hams or turkeys isn't enough to warrant commercializing a holiday. People will eat food no matter what day it is.
- Decorations. It's not a big-league holiday if you don't decorate your house. Christmas is the clear winner here, but Halloween has been gaining steadily, to the point where they are nearly neck-and-neck. The other holidays are way, way behind those two.
- Dressing Up. Not as in "dressing nicely" but as in "wearing special clothes or disguises." The opportunity to temporarily take on a new identity is a powerful draw for kids and adults. This is Halloween's strong suit, although Valentine's Day now features a lot of special "sexy" outfits, some of which are literally Halloween costumes in different packaging. Christmas has Santa hats and ugly sweaters, but I think there's still plenty of untapped potential for "sexy elf" outfits.
So how do the others rate?
Halloween has come to rival Christmas. It has all four categories locked down. I have a roleplaying game supplement, Warehouse 23, by S. John Ross, which is a compendium of weird and paranormal items found in that legendary Big Secret Warehouse where all the weird and paranormal stuff is hidden. One item in a table of random "throwaway weirdness" is an object from some parallel reality: Halloween house lights which play cheesy seasonal music, just like Christmas decorations in the real world. Yesterday I saw those lights (they were purple and orange) in one of those pop-up Halloween stores, down on Route 9.
Apparently we have shifted into an alternate reality since that book came out.
Halloween now includes candy (which appears in the supermarket in August!), costumes (including the whole panoply of costumes for grown-ups — and the inevitable line of "naughty" adult costumes), home decorations rivaling Disney's Haunted Mansion ride, Halloween-themed booze for your party, bars and restaurants holding Halloween "parties," Halloween cruises and vacation packages, Haunted Houses, and almost certainly some things I'm afraid to Google.
It's a far cry from the days when my grandfather celebrated Halloween by dismantling someone's buggy and reassembling it on the barn roof.
Valentine's Day is now almost a mirror-image of Halloween. It has a solid lock on three of the four categories. Tons of candy, costumes, and depressing "parties" at nightclubs have surged. Decorations seem to be limited to a few cardboard hearts. And what used to be the core of the entire holiday, the Valentine's Day card, is sliding into obscurity as people have shifted away from mailing things.
Easter has never really gotten beyond chocolate bunnies and candy. People did once "dress up" in the nice-clothing sense, but with the decline in annual clothes-buying, the old tradition of a fancy new outfit for Easter has disappeared. A few years ago I did see some ambitious candy-maker trying to repurpose the Hanukkah-gelt production machinery to make Easter-themed "Bunny Money" — but I only saw it once. I guess someone pointed out that you really don't want to be giving your kids thirty pieces of silver for Easter, even if they are filled with delicious chocolate.
There are some Easter house decorations, but they're relatively restrained, and it's been ages since I've seen really elaborate candy eggs. Apparently Christians have been able to reclaim Easter so the marketers are wary.
Saint Patrick's Day has some minor house decorations — the odd shamrock for the door or Irish flag — and it's way ahead in the booze department, but I can't think of any St. Paddy's Day candy, and dressing up is limited to the odd green bowler or boutonniere.
Thanksgiving is all about the food. It's a grocery holiday, and not much more. That may be why it seems the least tainted by commercialism. I know some restaurants have Thanksgiving dinners for people who can't get home (or have no family), and there are probably some sports bars open, but those are definitely substitutes for the "real thing" and everyone knows it.
July 4 has decorations and fireworks, and a certain amount of beer is consumed, but marketers haven't been able to come up with any "signature product" which people are expected to buy. Seems as if the candy companies are missing an opportunity here. It's in the middle of summer, so the only dressing up most people do is to put on swimsuits.
New Year's has booze.
Memorial Day is like a dry run for July 4: summer, patriotic theme, emphasis on barbecues and outdoor activities. But other than the inevitable radio station "Top 500 countdown" (spoiler: it's gonna be "Stairway to Heaven" again) there isn't much in the way of observances.
My conclusion: if you want to make a ton of money, start making candy and costumes for July 4 and St. Patrick's Day, or Valentine house decorations. The market is waiting.
Halloween is coming! The perfect opportunity to give someone my new ebook Monster Island Tales.