Alpana Parida: Christmas: The Festival of Opportunity

21 Dec,2016

By Alpana Parida


Suddenly, TV, print and outdoor media is full of Christmas cheer in India. Families wearing Santa hats, visuals of snow flakes, candy canes and mistletoe motifs are ubiquitous – particularly in malls; and Christmas deals invite the Indian consumer to buy.


Christmas has long been celebrated in India – via the British and the small Christian population, it became a tradition in elitist India. The celebration was typically a Christmas Eve dance night and special dinner in clubs and hotels in India. It has grown since and has captured the fancy of many Indians particularly in malls across India.  Kids are growing up seeing Santa’s and singing Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, and offices are holding Secret Santa gift swapping.


But like all adopted behaviours, this is a superficial adoption of some rituals. The festival has no real significance for Indians (non-Christian that is). In the US, the spirit of Christmas that stands for the spreading of goodwill and cheer has been reinterpreted commercially to create a massive gifting tradition – a tradition that has become an economic engine for the economy. Christmas sales account for almost 20% of total retail sales and marketers and retailers have made the most of this gifting tradition through a well-defined set of rituals.


Decoding Christmas we can see the encoded rituals of the festival. Catchy Christmas carols play in every store and street corner. The stores are warm and cozy havens in the cold and dark winter months; with the smell of pine and cinnamon, adorned in colour coded Christmas festivities. They become places of celebration the very act of shopping is an important ritual of the festival. Christmas has distinctive colours, sounds, smells and tastes. There is a strong sensorial cohesion in how it is branded across the world.


The spirit of Christmas is encapsulated in phrases such as “spreading goodwill and cheer” or it” being the season to be jolly “. These are all uplifting manifestations of Christmas. The Christmas tree, the chimney and stockings and the plate of cookies and a glass of milk for the weary Santa are myths and rituals perpetuated by conspiring parents and happy kids.  The many motifs of Christmas such as the mistletoe, the snowflakes, the tree, the candy canes and the stars – result in a clear delineation of the codes and rituals of Christmas. Hollywood complies, with at least one Christmas film every year, keeping the codes of Christmas alive continually across generations.


Apart from the design codes of Christmas that create a wealth of Christmas specific merchandise, the gifting ritual creates a huge market as well. The idea of gifting at Christmas is strengthened in popular culture – cinema and TV, and supported by retailers through a host of initiatives. The art of gifting is cracked to a science.Christmas works as an enormous economic engine and the already existing tradition of spreading goodwill was tapped to create the gifting tradition with Hollywood and popular culture abetting the same idea.


In India, no such belief exists. Christmas is simply a foreign festival with distinct visual motifs. If at all the Indian consumer is buying during Christmas, it is not because they are emulating the gifting tradition – but because they are making the most of sales and discounts. (Secret Santa is an emerging ritual – but typically the gifts are under Rs. 200 in most offices). Christmas celebrations in India are non-contextual and can never become the economic engine they are in the US or elsewhere in the world.


Similarly, Halloween and Black Friday are becoming sale days. There is no meaning imbued in them – they are simply western imports and the only impetus to buy is a deal. It is only when the festival has a cultural context and the meaning behind the festival is reinterpreted with a modern consumption ritual can it shape new behaviours.


There are many cultural triggers that can be unlocked to create a market force. A good example of this, in recent times, is  Akshay Trittiya – a day celebrated in a handful of states as an auspicious day to start new things such that it that heralds luck. Gold buying was a small Akshay Trittiya traditionin a few parts of these communities,in a few states. The World Gold Council and some jewelers made this festival pan Indian, by simply tapping into this latent belief about the auspiciousness of the day and how good luck is best found upon buying gold on this day. In less than a decade, this day has become the second highest day for gold sales. This has happened as a pre-existing belief has been layered with a shopping ritual that is in sync with the tradition.


Christmas, Halloween and Thanksgiving have no pre-existing belief in India, and thus remain just a superficial set of visual motifs that have no real significance to be able to create new behaviours.


If Indian marketers and retailers tapped into existing beliefs and created new rituals of shopping around those, they will see the Akshay Trittiya phenomenon recur time and again. For example, Karva Chauth – the north Indian festival when married women fast for their husbands has been romanticised by Bollywood and evangelised it to other communities and even to unmarried women. This could be the ultimate Indian Valentine’s day and gifting to the significant other could become a new tradition rapidly.


Days like Dassera or Vishwakarma Pooja has Indians worshipping their vehicles/ tools. Appliance / vehicle shopping on that day could be a natural corollary. Holi, the harbinger of spring could become the biggest fashion day and Navaratri/Durga Puja could become the equivalent of Mother’s Day – with gifting to women becoming a tradition.


Each festival can become a brand – but for this to happen, the story behind the festival and creation of a tradition and its rituals must be related. It must have its own myths and visual motifs – rather like the ones for Halloween, Christmas and Valentine’s Day.


Only when India creates its own calendar of traditional festivals reimagined for a modern India, will these become true economic engines.


Till then, Merry Christmas.


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One response to “Alpana Parida: Christmas: The Festival of Opportunity”

  1. Prabhakar Mundkur says:

    I think Christmas stopped being a religious festival a long time ago. Today its a Carnival. But I find the typical prejudiced Indian lens of it is not relevant to non-Christians etc. Christmas is celebrated as much by atheists and other religions as it is by Christians. In China which has no religion because of Communism, Christmas has grown as a Carnival over the last 10 years. Bakeries make special products. Restaurants serve Christmassy foods. Shopping shows a upward blip. All this in a country where everyone grew up without the concept of a God or religion.

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