Insights into the magic and absurdity of Christmas & Christmas advertising

Too many people talk about the stress of Christmas and not the magic.

Using a combination of online discussion boards, ethnography and semiotics has given us unique insights into Christmas. Yes, Christmas is stressful, but what is really interesting is why it is stressful and why the stress is worth it.  

Have you seen the new Christmas ad from the Australian retailer Myer? It's cleverly done, but basically it is an argument between a lover of the Christmas 'sparkle' and a worry wart elf who hates to shop. 'Let’s just stick to our list and get out' , he says until he discovers how wonderful Myer will be. In this world, consumers only experience the magic when they shop.

In contrast, the UK retailer John Lewis creates optimistic ads about a ‘magical’ Christmas year after year, which are about the magic of connecting with people and the magic of imagination. 

Lynne Freeman* and I have been exploring the magic of Christmas for the last 4 years. To really come to grips with it, we have researched the academic literature on consumer behaviour, studied anthropologists like Victor Turner to understand ritual, immersed ourselves in contemporary culture, and conducted online qualitative research, and digital ethnography with men and women in the UK and Australia.  We also conducted a semiotic analysis of the December editions of the major women’s magazines in each country to identify the dominant Christmas codes. Trust me, we know Christmas!

Choosing what kind of Christmas you want to have

We all know that Christmas is stressful. Having a lot to do is obviously one cause of that stress. However there are other, less obvious, reasons. One of these reasons is that people in the UK and Australia often find themselves caught between the constraints that Christmas imposes - people feel they have to do things in a certain way - and the freedom to create Christmas the way they want it to be. The kind of Christmas we create says something to ourselves and others about the kind of people we are or want to be including - significantly - our role in both the family and in the wider community, since Christmas is about ties both domestic and communal. Waitrose's social media campaign #Makes Christmas captures this idea exactly, since it overtly suggests that 'what makes Christmas' is different from person to person.

This year’s December edition of the Australian Women’s Weekly brings the whole issue of 'what kind of Christmas do you want?' to the fore. The magazine offers seven different Christmas meals, with an implied message for readers to pick the one they want. Here are three examples:

The Suburban Idyll. As she does each year MasterChef Winner Julie (Julie and her Australian readers are on first name terms just as you would expect) shows us a classically suburban Australian family Christmas, held in what appears to be her backyard, with her smiling family sitting closely together. The meal of turkey, prawns and trifle “follows the Christmases I had as a child” says Julie.  The implied message is that Julie's recipes are for people who value closely-knit suburban family life. The plates and dishes are all piled high with food.

The Bush heritage. In the same edition as this suburban ideal are recipes for a ‘bush’ Christmas meal, with a menu based on local foods  - pork with ‘garden herbs’ and a  mango and passionfruit pavlova. This is an odd concept, since the foods in all the recipes are pretty much local everywhere, suggesting that the ‘bush Christmas’ is perhaps more of an ideological identity-based choice than one based on food provenance. Certainly, a Christmas pudding made out of macadamia nuts seems more like an attempt to create a ‘bush Christmas’ myth than an authentic Christmas meal.  Arguably, readers who feel uncomfortable subscribing to Julie's traditional  - ie British - suburban values might be drawn to this non-conformist example as a statement of identity. Interestingly, there is less food and no people in this version.

The multi-cultural version. A third interesting feature has a MasterChef runner up Poh presenting an Asian meal with pork belly and wontons and a torte. Yes that is right – a torte.  Poh said something really interesting about this cultural mix:

”As Chinese Malay migrants (to Australia) my family adopted Christmas. So our concept of it is untraditional. Growing up my memories of it are kind of hilarious – a terrific clash of cultures with the Nonya curry chicken sitting next to the ham and the left over meat and bones going into a Boxing Day rice congee.” 

One of the stresses unique to Christmas is the difficulty of getting the blending of Christmas traditions - symbolised in Poh’s meal - just right. An American-born but Sydney-based participant in one of our online discussions put it this way:

“As an adopted Australian I get sentimental for American food …  at Christmas.  I make pumpkin pie and Christmas cookies and the family recipe for turkey stuffing is always a favourite.  At this time any innovation is slight or crisis oriented.  Everyone wants the traditional foods made the same way as last years'.”

In fact, getting the balance right has been a feature of Australian Christmases since at least the 19th Century. As one writer put it: “It would long be an Australian tradition to enjoy both the heavy Christmas dinner and the absurdity of it."  

Which brings us to absurdity and magic

As the quote above says, part of celebrating Christmas in Australia is being aware of the absurdity of it, this strange practice of eating a hot meal on a hot day, especially the kind of hot meal that you would not eat the rest of the year. We know from Victor Turner's work on ritual how important it is that that the food we eat at Christmas is different from the meals we eat the rest of the time. That is what marks it out as a ritual and gives it its emotional power.

Our research suggests too that  the absurdity of an Australian Christmas adds to the enjoyment on the day. It adds a playful – carnivalesque - character to the whole experience, captured I think by this photo which was taken at the aptly-named Christmas Carnival in Alice Springs: 

”A Christmas experience in the desert with activities designed to be fun and exciting” 


Madness never seems very far away at Christmas time! We need to thank Australian Women's Weekly online for this completely mad idea:

”Tired of tired old cardboard place tags? Bring some excitement and individuality to your Christmas table with these stone settings”

Australian Woman's Weekly

The playful absurdity and madness of Christmas are what makes it magical. Our digital ethnography has shown in both the UK and Australia that the magic of Christmas comes in part at the moment when all the stress of buying the right presents and creating a meal which balances all the relevant traditions and family expectations is set aside. This is usually the moment when people put on their paper crowns.

Yes, Myer, Christmas is difficult but it is also fun and magical.  As researchers, we understood the playfulness of Christmas because we used a combination of qualitative research techniques including digital ethnography as well as rigorous academic research.

Christmas as a symbol of renewal

We all know that the Christmas event we now celebrate had its origin in pagan festivals held during the northern hemisphere’s winter solstice as people looked forward to the end of winter and the start of spring.  In contemporary Australia, the Christmas period is – surprisingly – similarly a time of renewal. The appropriately-named James Tulip described it this way:

”Christmas is a climax. It's a climax of our work year, our education year, our sporting year. And when that climax is reached we drop our bundles as it were and go off to the beach. And that's a totally different experience from the rest of the world, or at least the northern hemisphere. “

James Tulip, 2002 

One of the men in our online discussions captured this exactly:

“Christmas is that one time of year that we all drop what we're doing and celebrate being together. It's the sunny & social epicenter of our calendar year. It's a time of magic for the kiddies and a good excuse to enjoy the spoils of your labour.  If you can navigate the tidal waves of commercial bombardment, abate the anxiety of being thrust into a room with people you either rarely see or see too much of, and then survive the gambit of shopping malls, parking stations and busy crowds - you're setting yourself up for whole new year with a fresh attitude and a relaxed approach to whatever challenges life may bring. Bring on Christmas!!!”

One of the reasons why Christmas is stressful is because it has to be; we wouldn’t get the same sense of renewal and release otherwise, would we?  We wouldn’t experience the magic.



*Lynne is a lecturer in consumer and buyer behaviour at the University of Technology Sydney and our academic consultant.

Tags: Semiotics, Christmas, Rituals, Cultural insight

Print Email