Colchester: Essex Business School professor unwraps business of a dream Christmas

Last minute Christmas rush in Ipswich Town centre

Last minute Christmas rush in Ipswich Town centre - Credit: Archant

The organisational efforts behind Christmas outstrip those of any other annual event worldwide, requiring “a vast amount of energy, time and resource”, a business expert says.

Professor Philip Hancock of Essex Business School.

Professor Philip Hancock of Essex Business School. - Credit: Archant

Essex Business School’s Professor Philip Hancock, who specialises in work and organisation, will be talking to shoppers, visitors and businesses about the festival. He points out that it has very ancient roots in mid-winter revelries and a long association with commerce and the exchange of gifts, and while it’s associated with kicking back, family time and escape, it is conversely very work-heavy.

As part of his research, Professor Hancock, who is writing a book on the subject with the working title Organising Christmas, has researched the festival’s history, as well as the cultural, retail and commercial side of the celebration, and interviewed shop Santas with heavy workloads in the run-up to the event.

He is set to unwrap his findings on the business of preparing for the Yuletide celebrations at a special festive talk at Colchester Castle Museum at 2pm on Saturday, November 8, as part of the national Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) Festival of Social Science.

“My interest in Christmas really stems form a number of perspectives but predominantly work and organisation. I’m interested in organisation in the broadest sense from domestic organisations to commercial,” he said.

“I see it as a positive, but Christmas is like a mirror in some ways. It reflects what’s good and bad in our society.”

Christmas comes out of a tradition which has elements including gift giving, the inversion of the social order and revelries and excess and has always been touched by business and the demands of organisation, he said.

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Mid-winter festivals have a long association with people engaging in life-affirming activities to ward off the dark, he pointed out, and central to that is consumption. “Many people can’t relate to that celebration or life affirmation without buying things,” he said.

However, ‘Christmas’ is now a truly global phenomenon.

Professor Hancock will examine its political and economic organisation of the ancient and medieval worlds, through the rediscovery of Christmas by the Victorian middle classes, up to and including the celebrations of the present day, from sweating Santas in British department stores to Kentucky Fried Chicken Christmas dinners in Japan.

Despite its relationship to Christianity, he will highlight how Christmas is a festival that has an appeal and presence which now cuts through cultural boundaries. In China, for example, more is now spent at Christmas than during the traditional Duanwu and Mid-Autumn Festival.

“Organising Christmas is one of the most pressurised activities of the entire year,” he said. “Worldwide, the greatest organisational efforts of the year are focused on Christmas Day.”

By the 18th century, Christmas was almost in danger of dying out, but a domesticated version of it was “exported” as the British empire expanded, he said

Among the interviews the professor has conducted is one with a major London retailer, who revealed that they have Chinese buyers who buy tens of thousands of pounds worth of decorations from them to take back to China, where they were made.

For retailers, Christmas starts in January as they start to source goods for the lucrative Christmas trade. It’s a key season, with typically around a fifth annual sales depending on it, and around £70billion spent on it in the UK.

“Across the globe, people are involved in a frenzy of organisation in pursuit of the seamless, utterly effortless Christmas of our dreams. For an event that involves so much global and organisational activity, the simple truth is that people find it extremely difficult to take Christmas seriously as an event of organisational or even, in some quarters, economic significance,” he said.