Words We're Watching

Words We're Watching: 'Christmas creep'

It shows up earlier and earlier every year.

Most people can figure out what is meant by the term Christmas creep, even if they've never heard it before—and they're pretty sure it refers neither to an unsightly rash nor an overbearing uncle. Christmas creep is the gradual lengthening of the Christmas season, with ever earlier displays of lights, wreaths, and decorated trees, insistent advertisements of holiday sales for consumerist profiteering, and the familiar sound of songs that everybody knows but should never be heard in public places during the month of October.

christmas creep slang definition

All I want for Christmas is to finish my Halloween costume first

Indeed, the commercial nature of the holiday and the presumed motivation for moving its reminders forward is underscored by the context in which the term is frequently found:

However Cyber Monday (like Black Friday) has fallen prey to the “Christmas creep”: Discounts are now being offered during much of November and December (as eBay did this year) and not just on one single day, diluting some of Cyber Monday's impact.
Fortune, 11 November 2017

It’s called the Christmas Creep and this time of year it is as revealing an indicator on the US economy as figures on housing starts, gross national product or unemployment...The Creep is more instinctual than scientific. It holds that the further forward retailers push Christmas the less confident they are of busy cash registers in December. So what's the Creep doing? It just leapfrogged over another big US selling season, Thanksgiving.
— Phillip McCarthy, The Age (Melbourne), 5 November 1991

It’s even used when discussing other seasons that are forced upon consumers too early:

Think Christmas creep, but orange: A slew of pumpkin-flavoured products inspired by fall are turning up earlier each year, arriving in July and August as a harbinger of a season that this year doesn’t officially begin until Sept. 22.
— Tiffany Hsu, The New York Times, 30 August 2017

It’s hard to know exactly when this phenomenon began (it may be connected with the invention of the shopping mall), but use of the phrase goes back to at least the 1980s:

Toward the end of each year I watch for signs, in the form of advertisements, that Christmas is approaching. Each year, the signs come earlier and earlier; I call it the Christmas Creep.
— John E. Rowan, (letter) Newsday (Long Island, NY), 26 Aug. 1981

Do the seasonal bells and whistles spur consumers to pry open their wallet early, or merely create a backlash? That’s tough to say, but, regardless of its effect, Christmas creep is fun to grouse about.
— Martha Groves, Los Angeles Times, 17 Nov. 1986

And just to prove that we weren’t just trying to be cute with the “shopping mall” reference, note that an early use of a similar phrase dates to just four years after the first mall opened in the United States:

Creeping Christmas. To the Editor of the Gazette: Merchants in our town seem to be suffering from a disease known as “creeping Christmas.” Each year, Christmas decorations appear in department store windows just a little bit earlier than the year before.
— “The Indignant Pilgrim,” (letter) The Arkansas Gazette (Little Rock, Ak), 27 Nov. 1960

An amusing earlier use shows a different sense of the noun creep used in the same phrase, but here it means “a slow movement like that of a person on hands and knees” rather than “a slow but persistent increase, elevation, or change”:

They are calling it the Christmas Creep. This is not, one must hasten to add, a new form of dance step; it is the description being applied to traffic conditions to-day in the streets of Central London.
The Irish Times (Dublin, Ir.), 23 Dec. 1958

In fact, Christmases aren’t the only intangible nouns that creep. We define mission creep as “the gradual broadening of the original objectives of a mission or organization,” a use that dates to the first Gulf War. Lifestyle creep involves developing more expensive tastes and habits as one’s income grows over time, to the detriment of retirement savings. Scope creep is what happens when too many new elements or goals prevent the success of a project. And feature creep is what happens when too many additions to a program or game end up changing something that is fun or easy to use into a chore or a confusing mess.

That could never describe Christmas, could it?

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