The semiotics of Christmas

Lynne Freeman and I have embarked on a never-ending journey of understanding the semiotics of Christmas, starting with a social semiotic analysis of the depictions of Christmas food in UK and Australian Magazines. Since, then understanding what Christmas 'means' has become something of a preoccupation.
Some of the things we have learned:

Christmas evolves but stays the same
All rituals evolve, but if they are to remain meaningful, they must evolve slowly and only on the fringes.  Our families need to know that this Christmas is going to be pretty similar to last Christmas (unless something bad happened!). Christmas is one of the most nostalgic links to childhood that we have, so 'messing with' Christmas can bring you into dangerous emotional territory. There is also some evidence that men hold onto the Christmas food rituals longer than women.

Cultural differences
Many of us would assume that 'Christmas is Christmas' no matter where you go, with some obvious exceptions. If you can imagine being transplanted half way across the world to a family of strangers who speak your language, you might expect their Christmas tradition to be reassuringly familiar.

Yet the differences between similar cultures can be astounding! For example, Laura Oswald in her book 'Marketing Semiotics: Signs, Strategies and Brand Value' mentions Coca Cola as a brand which is integral to Christmas in the US, but as  far as I know it has no place in the Christmases of the two cultures I have lived in (UK and Australia).

This is important because brands need to speak the symbolic language of the local culture, as well as the natural language (such as English).

What can we learn from qual research about Christmas?
If you get a group of Australian consumers together to talk about Christmas, this is what you will probably talk about:

  1. Christmas meals have evolved - to more seafood and less turkey, in Sydney at least.
  2. Christmas is over-commercialised (but we have records of people saying that around the time of Federation...)
  3. The Christmas experience is different because of our cultural mix.  I have conducted focus groups about weekday meals, with the sample including women from a broad range of cultures -  Anglo, Asian, and Arabic - including intermarriages. One memorable cultural mix was a Danish migrant married to a guy who was half Aussie and half Lebanese.
  4. Christmas emotions. For example, Australians use Christmas because it 'brings families together', but the cliche hides how difficult that is for migrants, and after divorce (for example), and when families have dispersed across the country.

Conversational and ethnographic qualitative research can therefore give us great insights into consumers' emotional experiences of rituals like Christmas. However, this kind of research can only go so far. We need semiotics to help us understand cultural differences and cultural change.

What we can learn from semiotics about Christmas?
Semiotics is way too big a subject to be summed up in one blog post, so I am just going to describe how we would use our en symbol technique to understand Christmas from a brand perspective.

  1. First, we would focus on only one part of the ritual, as relevant to the brand - whether that is Christmas food, street decorations, home decor, or ..
  2. We would probably want to compare three or more similar cultures  - the country of the brand owner (such as the US), or an export market, for example.
  3. To understand the 'Christmas' nature of the ritual, we would compare it to other rituals for example Easter, Thanksgiving, Halloween, or Lent.
  4. We need a cross section of contemporary and historical 'texts' to analyse. These can be ads, packs, events, or cultural material like books and movies.
  5. And then, we need to link the findings to documented cultural trends, such as the role of women in the workforce, or adoption of technology, as relevant.

You can do this yourself  - but if you want us to do it for you, we can :)

You can read the paper that Lynne and I wrote in the (peer-reviewed no less)  journal Qualitative Market Research: an international journal.