Boomers Helped to Alter the Christmas Shopping Countdown

Boomers were born into the beginnings of the Consumer Age, when “buying more” equaled “progress.” Now that the Christmas shopping season is here once again, it’s time for Mister Boomer — an aging boomer Scrooge himself — to rant about how in our day it was “To everything … there is a season,” but now it’s “All about the Benjamins.”

In the boomer era the Christmas season, in most small to middle-sized towns, wasn’t “officially” started until the lighting of the community Christmas tree. The tree could be a naturally-growing one in a city park, or a twenty-to-thirty foot tall evergreen erected for the season in a town square or shopping district. In any case, it was decorated with lights and sometimes large ornaments that were wired to the branches to thwart wind gusts and mischievous hands. It was a citywide event when it came time to turn on the lights. Very often a local celebrity or political figure “flipped the switch” to illuminate the tree. Hundreds of people would brave the inevitable cold (and sometimes, snow) to come out for the tree lighting, in anticipation of the festive season’s arrival. Some Christmas carols might be sung by school kids, or, the crowd that gathered joined in singing. Local TV would be sure to get some footage for the evening news.

The thing is, the annual tree lighting was never in November; it was always held within the first two weeks or weekends of December. President Franklin Roosevelt had the Thanksgiving holiday pushed back one week in 1941 in an effort to give retail merchants a longer Christmas shopping season. The intent was to offer an economic boost to help get the country out of the Great Depression. Nonetheless, Black Friday shopping was barely a blip in most areas after the War, as the Thanksgiving holiday weekend was yet to be fully exploited the way other holidays had been (with the exception of professional football on TV, that is).

Christmas as a religious holiday always had an uneasy connection to capitalistic commerce through Santa Claus, who was depicted both as a religious figure and the bearer of toys to delight girls and boys. Santa’s arrival was often timed to coincide with the tree lighting. As befitting a prominent figure, the man in the red suit could arrive to the tree lighting by firetruck or, in some cases, helicopter. Some towns had Christmas parades planned around the event.

Our parents, a generation that grew up in the worst economic depression the country had ever seen — which was then followed by a World War — wanted very much to give their children as much as they possibly could, literally and figuratively. Consequently, the optimistic atmosphere of post-war America turned the holiday, with each passing year, into a season of want that continues to expand. As Baby Boomers we only knew the world we lived in, and not the one that came before, so more toys and gifts than our parents received as kids was only natural to us. The new national medium of TV did a lot to instill within us the desire to bug our parents for advertised products, and they obliged whenever they could. It looks like we did the same thing to our children, and they to theirs.

It seemed the more people bought in those boomer days, the hungrier merchants got, so the shopping season kick off of Black Friday gained in importance by the mid-60s. By the time the 1970s rolled around, a lot of cities abandoned the tree lighting ceremonies for several reasons, including protests over the separation of church and state, financial considerations of local governments and, in the case of Mister Boomer’s area as well as a host of others, the rise of local indoor malls, which took over the duties of creating tree lighting ceremonies of their own.

While Mister B has noticed a steady increase in the intensity of early holiday shopping through the years, he decries the frenzy foisted upon the populace by corporate-owned stores that he has witnessed over the past few years. Baby Boomers grew up in an age where by mid-afternoon on Thanksgiving Day Uncle Ned had unbuckled his belt and half the family was asleep in front of the TV football game. Now some families are piling into the SUV and headed for the mall.

We aren’t going back to the Mayberry days of our youth, to be sure, but shouldn’t we have one silent night before the onslaught of a month of blaring Silent Nights?

What do you think, boomers? When should the floodgates be opened for Christmas shopping?

How Did Boomer Families Carry Home Groceries?

It’s estimated that more than 1 trillion plastic bags are thrown away each year worldwide, amounting to billions of pounds of plastic landfill in the U.S. alone. But it wasn’t always this way, and we boomers recall a time when there wasn’t a single plastic bag to be had in a grocery store that wasn’t on a pre-packaged product. In fact, there was only one way to carry home groceries, and pieces of produce as well: paper bags.

Machines that made paper bag production possible were invented during the Industrial Revolution of the late 1800s. Before that time, cloth bags, wooden boxes and plant-based woven baskets were the carrying containers of their day.

“Plastics,” as a character prophetically stated in The Graduate (1967), was the future, and that future began arriving in the mid-’60s. Plastic produce bags on a roll were first seen in 1966. Nonetheless, it took another decade before it became the norm for supermarkets to substitute plastic for paper in the produce aisle.

It was eleven years later — in 1977 — when the now ubiquitous “t-shirt” plastic bag was introduced to the supermarket industry. Again, it took almost a decade for the complete transition to occur for consumers to switch from paper to plastic for carrying groceries, and ultimately, everything purchased at a store.

Mister Boomer recalls shopping with his parents at both local grocery stores and national supermarket chain stores. The produce aisles of each may have differed in size and selection, but along the expanse of counters in every grocery store were stacks of paper bags in different sizes. Picking up some tomatoes? There was a smaller size available. A dozen apples? Choose a medium size. Selecting from a bin of loose potatoes? A larger sack would be in order. Need two lemons? No bag would be necessary at all and the lemons could just be placed into the shopping cart.

When it came time to check out, heavy-duty paper bags — or paper bags doubled — could be packed with all your produce and groceries for the trek home. Some stores offered paper bags with handles, while others required a supporting arm beneath the sack for transport.

So what changed? For one thing, we have always been a people who wanted to embrace new technology. We like creating things that make us feel modern. But one of the biggest factors was probably cost: plastic bags could be bought by the stores cheaper than paper at that time.

During the transition period of the 1970s, many stores asked you which you preferred, paper or plastic. Our parents’ generation was used to scrimping, saving and repurposing, first through the Depression and then through a World War. So even when plastic was their choice, it meant that each bag would be reused for all sorts of purposes, from storage to garbage. In the years before plastic sandwich bags became the norm, Mister B remembers his grandmother saving plastic bread wrappers. At that time — the early 1960s — bread began being wrapped in plastic instead of waxed paper. She kept a stack of clean plastic bread wrappers in her pantry to use for sandwiches, leftovers, cheese wedges and more.

Our society has accepted much more of a throwaway mindset since our early boomer days, but there are indications that things may be changing. Some municipalities are looking at taxing plastic bag use, or eliminating them altogether in an effort to address the environmental impact. Other stores are offering incentives to use reusable sacks for carrying home groceries. The produce aisle may not be far behind as cloth and mesh produce bags are readily available online.

The Boomer Generation has always shown itself to be far from monolithic in thought, but Mister B wonders whether the generation that was the first to push forward an environmental awareness agenda couldn’t have a greater influence on the societal direction of things like the use of plastic produce and grocery bags. If it was the natural order of things when we were young, why would it be so much of an inconvenience today? Maybe it’s time we took a look at our shared history and remind ourselves that we are stardust, we are golden. And maybe it’s time to get ourselves back to the Garden.

Do you remember shopping in the pre-plastic bag era, boomers?