The often dramatic and disruptive changes brought about by innovative technology, have been discussed in this column numerous times. Over the years and through many eras technology transformed the way how people live their day-to-day life, how they work, entertain, meet, learn and play. Increasingly we have come to realise that technology changes almost all things.
In a few days many people around the world will celebrate Christmas, begging the question if technology has also changed Christmas, a centuries’ old celebration.
Without doubt the celebration of Christmas has not been left untouched by technology advancements. Over time major technological changes also changed the way people celebrate Christmas. Many technologies played a role in these changes such as the telegraph (early 1800s), Alexander Bell’s telephone (1876), Thomas Edison’s light bulb (1880), electric Christmas lights (1882), Guglielmo Marconi’s radio (1894), Harvard University’s Mark 1 digital computer (1944), and the personal computer (1977).
However, it probably is the internet (1983), the World Wide Web (1991) and the smartphone (1992) that brought some of the biggest changes to Christmas. In 2004 Facebook and social media arrived to also become a Christmas communication game changer.
As technology became more pervasive through improved access to the internet and mobile devices, one of the important changes is the way people are shopping for gifts. Since the Covid-19 pandemic fewer people are braving the busy shopping malls while listening to Boney M’s rendition of Mary’s Boy Child. Many people, especially the wealthy and young, now prefer to shop online for gifts. According to research about 2.05 billion people, or 26% of people worldwide, shop on the internet.
Not only is it easier to find unique gifts online, but also more convenient since people can shop any time and any place, and the gifts are delivered to your door. The internet has also made it less stressful to keep up to date with the latest technology information and comparisons. And if you really miss Mary’s Boy Child or Jingle Bells you can always tune in to Spotify on the internet while shopping online.
The long-standing Christmas tradition of giving and receiving gifts has also been changed over time by technology. In the past people used to make their own unique Christmas gifts. Very few were commercially bought.
But now, commercially available, mass-produced gifts are popular, in particular technology gadgets that are the Christmas gifts most expected by adults and children alike.
Communication with family and friends over Christmas has always been important, especially when they are far away. Mobile communications due to cellphones made it easy to communicate with family and friends over Christmas time via a text message (SMS) instead of waiting for an international phone call as in the past. However, this has lately been replaced by the ever popular social media. Twitter and Facebook make it easy to send a single greeting with photos or short video clips to hundreds of people simultaneously. Christmas greetings today are therefore rarely personalised.
Another important change over Christmas time is the disappearance of physical Christmas cards that were sent via mail or even delivered by hand. Many years ago Christmas cards were handmade and decorated with dry flowers, dry leaves or drawings.
Later this was replaced by mass printed commercial cards. Currently, to let people know you think of them in the festive season, an email or digital card (e-card) suffices. And when cameras became a feature of smartphones, video Christmas greetings became widely used. The beauty is that all these digital changes reduces the wasting or recycling of paper.
Perhaps in the not-too-distant future we will even be able to send greetings as a hologram or over the metaverse via our avatar. However, it will still take a few years.
A virtual Christmas get-together will never be the same as a physical get-together with its warmth and richness of expression. However, a virtual get-together via video calling, Zoom or WhatsApp can be a good idea when it is difficult to see family and friends face to face due to distance or other reasons. Since the pandemic, an increasing number of people have started to meet loved ones virtually for important occasions such as Christmas. And in future it may just be possible that we may teleport to attend the Christmas celebration and smart robots may help to prepare the Christmas meal.
In the past Christmas trees were real and decorated with candles, candies, gingerbread, fruit, and handmade ornaments and gifts. These decorations were replaced by LED lights and commercial ornaments. The LED lights are usually controlled by a chip or even from a smartphone.
Smart home devices such as Amazon Alexa or Google Home speakers allow people to set a specific mood by customising the room lighting and background music using mere voice commands,
Unlike in the past the internet now provides us with an abundance of information about almost anything we can think of. From preparing a Christmas dinner, baking cookies and gift ideas to making your own decorations or gifts.
Reshaped celebration of Christmas
It is no secret that technology has changed the traditional Christmas celebration. It is also possible that technology may not have replaced the turkey or gammon as part of the traditional Christmas meal, but it has changed the ways in which we prepare and organise ourselves for Christmas.
Technology has shaped the way we celebrate, share and communicate during Christmas time. Everything is tweeted, recorded, Instagrammed, uploaded, shared, liked, and retweeted at a pace that unfortunately leaves little room for pondering the real meaning of Christmas.
In 20 years from now, Christmas will certainly look very different once again due to the influence of technology.
Professor Louis C H Fourie is an Extraordinary Professor at the University of the Western Cape.