René and Joe Hauser’s home is decorated with not one, not two, but three Christmas trees this year—a seven-footer in the foyer covered with their children’s ornaments and ones they’ve received as gifts, a six-footer in the living room decorated with blue lights and blue and silver ornaments, and a four-foot-tall Harry Potter-themed tree in the dining room. Elsewhere are Santa Claus pictures, Christmas dishes, two Advent calendars, two Nativity sets, and holiday potholders, towels, and shower curtains. Outside their Olean, N.Y., house to delight neighbors and motorists who stop to take pictures are Santa, reindeer, a North Pole sign, a nutcracker, lighted trees, a Joy sign, and candy canes.
“We did a lot more decorating both inside and outside the house because 2020 sucked,” said René Hauser, 55. We had a lot of loss. My brother last November. In January, I broke my leg, and in March, my husband’s father died, and in April, his aunt, and in October, his brother. That on top of COVID and I’ve been working from home since January, [so] I decided we needed some cheer.”
“We Christmas-ed the shit out of it,” she added.
Hauser’s attitude is shared by millions of Americans as 2020 finally trudges to a close. They’re looking to go big in a year that has made them feel small—lots of decorations inside, splashy lawn displays, plenty of lights everywhere. The demand for Christmas trees, tchotchkes, and decor is reminiscent of the Great Toilet Paper Run of 2020 (which you can find immortalized in any number of ornaments on sale this season).
According to the market research firm Statista, Americans planned to spend an average of $60 on holiday decorations this year, up almost 50% from the $41 they used for seasonal trimmings a decade ago.
The Hausers quintupled their usual holiday budget and spent $200 this year on numerous new decorations—plus they put up every holiday decoration they own, emptying all the plastic tubs stored in their basement year round.
“We’ve spent a little extra this year, but we’re not going anywhere,” Hauser says. adding that she put up the Christmas decorations two days before Thanksgiving instead of her usual week after Thanksgiving. “We usually take them down right after New Year’s. We’ll probably leave them up longer.”
Consumer cash is green like mistletoe
The recipe for this fruit-cake of a holiday season is simple. The majority of people who would normally travel to see friends or loved ones are staying put, so they need to deck out their normally bare homes. That group includes young people who return to Mom and Dad and snowbirds who would normally be settled into warmer climates this time of year. Folks accustomed to staying home want to up their gewgaw game with new additional baubles, outdoor lightscapes, and reindeer-themed anything.
Everyone has spent less money (or no money) on restaurant meals, concerts, sporting events, and summer travel, so there’s extra cash on hand to go a little overboard on inflatable snowmen, candy-cane tea towels. and everything in between. Even those who have lost their jobs or are worried they will may feel inclined to Santa-splurge to help themselves—or their children—cheer up during the usually glittery season.
I’ve gone crazy this year and I’ve just embraced it.”
Lucy Vallana, 34, Pennsylvania
Big retailers like Overstock.com are raking it in. The Salt Lake City-based online company has seen what it calls a “huge uptick” in sales: 134% growth in holiday-season decor categories. It sold out of quite a few trees as well as some ornaments and wreathes. A nine-foot flocked tree had the largest year-over-year growth rate among seasonal products this year and a nine-foot garland was the top seller.
“The holiday comes down to what they’re going to with family or those living in their homes and what they can do to make it the best and the brightest,” says Dave Nielsen, Overstock.com’s president of retail. “What’s driven it is people are trying to make the best of a difficult situation and your home is where you spend your time.”
Throughout the pandemic, retailers have seen an increased willingness among consumers to spend more on their homes. Trapped in apartments or McMansions, people are investing in exercise equipment, comfortable office chairs, leisurewear, pools, patio furniture, Zoom school desks, plants, mattresses, and gardening equipment. Holiday décor is simply next on the list.
For a season that’s all about joy, this is the perfect way to capture it and bring it home. Literally.
“We are pleased with our Q4 performance to date and are seeing homeowners continue to engage in the home improvement category for this holiday season,” home-improvement retailer Lowe’s said in an email to Fast Company. “With more people spending the holidays at home, customers began decorating earlier and we saw increased interest in products that could be used to decorate both inside and outside of the home like string-lights, fresh-cut trees, wreaths and greenery. Some of our consumer research also indicates that consumers are planning to decorate unexpected rooms of their homes such as bedrooms, children’s play areas and office spaces.”
Fifty-one percent of consumers are more interested in holiday decorations and seasonal items, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to National Retail Federation research released earlier this month.
$10,000 for Christmas lights
Smaller players are seeing the same thing. Wayne Bronner, president and CEO of the 75-year-old Bronner’s Christmas Wonderland in Frankenmuth, Michigan, has sold out of commercial 14- and 15-foot trees and several ornaments, including a laptop, a game controller, and a glass “2020.” The store also sold out of, but was able to reorder multiple times, ornaments featuring Santa and snowman social distancing, a masked smiley face, and a toilet paper roll.
“People are decorating quite substantially. They’re trapped at home and looking for an outlet to spread a little joy and Christmas spirit,” he says, adding that the popularity of COVID-related decorations threw him. “I was a little surprised, but 2020 is a very unusual year.”
It’s not just retailers who are seeing green amid all the green and red decorations this time of year. Professional holiday decorators are cleaning up, too.
Joe Soccodato of JVS Christmas Lighting, which services clients in Bergen County, New Jersey, and Rockland County, New York, has signed up 148 new accounts, more than he’s had in his 15 years in business. His crew are working longer hours to keep up with demand.
People are trying to make the best of a difficult situation and your home is where you spend your time.”
Dave Nielsen, Overstock.com
“People are so fed up up with politics, the virus, and social distancing, they’re going all out. They want to experience the tradition and lights bring happiness and joy to everyone,” he says. “I have never seen the level of phone calls, new work, and the amount people want to spend.”
Soccodato’s minimum is $1,000 for residential jobs and $2,000 for commercial ones. One client, for example, who usually pays $4,000-$5,000 for outside holiday decorations doled out close to $10,000.
“In January 2020, I placed orders with all my vendors based on my expectation we would have better year. We’ve sold out almost everything. We’ve had to place three orders. Our shelves are bare, like Mother Hubbard,” he explains. “Right around Labor Day, I started to hear that buzz and that buzz went berserk.”
The why behind all this ramped-up holiday splendor goes to the very essence of what makes this pandemic so hard for humans. When we feel our lives are out of control, such as whether we’ll catch COVID-19 or whether we’ll lose our jobs, we want to regain control as best as we can. If the outside world has gone haywire, we do what we can to reinstate calm.
“A lot of times, consumers do this through consumption,” explains Kristina Durante, a Rutgers University social psychologist. “It gives you more piece of mind and allaying feelings of internal conflict. Consumer products that we buy make us feel good. They make us feel good, because at least, I can make some sort of decision about where my life is headed. It’s some sense of autonomy. I’ll buy a new tree or some decoration for outside. It restores a sense of peace, because it restores control sense of control.”
Runs on Christmas trees
National retailers were expected to sell out of artificial trees by the weekend before Christmas, though some had bare shelves earlier due to high demand, according to Mac Harman, director of the American Christmas Tree Association and founder of the tree manufacturing company Balsam Hill. (Balsam also sells ornaments and tree accessories, like tree skirts. Sales are up 50% and they’re basically sold out.)
“We’re seeing unprecedented demand,” he says. “Everyone will find a tree this year, but you may have to look a bit harder. The supply is not shorter. The demand is stronger.”
The farm-grown tree community also is working to meet this year’s retail—and emotional—needs, which are greater than in the past. Still, the supply will hold out, according to National Christmas Tree Association spokesman Doug Hundley.
“People are coming on tree lots and saying, ‘I haven’t had a tree in 10 years, but I want one this year. I want an old-fashioned Christmas. I need a mood improvement,’” he explains. “We think it’s a reaction that helps people mitigate the COVID blues they’ve had and we’re glad to be part of it. This nation needs a pick-me-up for sure.”
Decorating as seasonal ritual is as old as humanity, whether a solstice, harvest, or birthday; it’s a way to mark the passage of time, according to Dimitris Xygalatas, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Connecticut and an expert on rituals. The meaning is both personal and fostering a sense of belonging, as particularly with outdoor displays, which sends a we’re-in-this-together vibe. Ritual draws its authority from the weight of tradition.
For the first time in 17 years of marriage, Xygalatas has bought a Christmas tree and has gone, in his words, “full on with decorations,” including his first-ever outside lights. Unlike in the past, he’s not traveling back to Greece or his wife’s native Spain. His indoor and outdoor flourishes cost $500, but pale in comparison to a neighbor’s amateur light show, synchronized to music on a radio frequency shared with motorist who are asked to tune in on their car radios.
It’s some sense of autonomy. I’ll buy a new tree or some decoration for outside. It restores a sense of peace.”
Kristina Durante, social psychologist, Rutgers University
“During the pandemic, because people are missing those cyclical celebrations, a lot of time it feels like time is drifting away, like we’ve missed a year,” Xygalatas says. “That’s why people crave ceremonies during these times. [Pagenatry] signals to our brain, ‘This is something big and important to you personally.’ They become part of our narrative self.”
Lucy Vallana, a 34-year-old benefit specialist for a health insurance company, bought a five-foot-tall tree, ornaments, garlands lights, tree window decals, and even holiday-themed apothecary jars, plus she commissioned a local artist to make her a “Our First Pandemic 2020” ornament. Her parents visited her Ross Township, Pennsylvania, ranch house to check out her decorating choices and she’s posted everything on Instagram and Facebook to enable her friends to see, too.
“This one is a special year. Everything’s different. Everyone’s cooped up in their house. I figured Christmas is my favorite time of the year . . . I might as well splurge. Since I’m stuck in the house, I might as well have something nice to look at,” Vallana says. “I’ve gone crazy this year and I’ve just embraced it.”