Statistically, Christmas really does start earlier every year

We know the gripe – we’ve all made it or, at least, someone in our family has. “I can’t believe they’re selling selection boxes already!, or, “It’s not even Halloween yet!”, or, “I swear, Christmas starts earlier every year!”. Well it turns out that, according to a study from the Royal Statistical Society, it does.

The matter was on my mind first and fore-mostly because I adore the commercial exploitation of Christmas and am not in the least bit ashamed. That was some of the haul from my December 1st shopping up there or, as I called it when joyously conversing with my professor that day who was playing Christmas music before the lecture and hence seemed one of only a few people adequately enthused about the season, Christmas 1st. I was bedecked in a festive jumper and my big Christmas tree earrings while I bought my first seasonal overpriced coffee and gleefully Instagramm-ed it. Gal pals and I stopped for mulled wine on the way home, and the flatmates and I heated up some mulled cider the other day – before it was even December (though in my defence, mince pies are sacred and are only consumed within the December 1st through 31st window).

But though I revel in every tinsel trimmed moment, even I must admit that Christmas seems like it’s already been going on for months. Particularly this year – I decided to investigate.

Nathan Cunningham of the Royal Statistical Society seemed to think so too, and decided to use freely available web search data to test the clichéd saying.

Figure 1 – Relative search frequency for ‘Christmas’.

He analysed the data using a constrained model-based clustering algorithm, which assumes that the data for search terms arises from statistical distributions with differing mean and variance values. You would expect increased mean search volume of Christmas-y terms as an uninterrupted, truly festive season begins, as people start searching for decorations, gifts, films and other entertainment. He tested the regularity of users searching for seven search terms predominantly associated with the festive season – ‘Christmas’, ‘cards’, ‘elf’, ‘Home Alone’, ‘Scrooge’, ‘presents’ and ‘toy shop’.

The cluster analysis produced a value of probability, of each week’s worth of search terms belonging to both Christmas and the non-Christmas periods – the beginning of the Christmas period in each year was designated as the earliest week that was more likely to belong to the Christmas period than not.

Cunngingham’s data really does show some pretty fantastic trends. Calculated for every intervening year, from a seemingly appropriately late beginning of November 11th in 2007, we have begun turning our minds to thoughts of the festive season progressively ealier. The earliest calculated was the week commencing August 19th in 2012, with last year’s the only marginally more acceptable week beginning August 25 in 2013.

Figure 2 – The statistical beginning of the festive period for 2007-2013, with the dashed line showing linear regression – Nathan Cunningham.

So statistically speaking, Christmas really does come earlier each year.

(As an aside, in my searching I also stumbled across examples of the Royal Statistical Society’s annual Christmas quizzes, which are terrifying.)

Selfridges opened its Christmas display in August this year, whenabouts Clinton’s also expanded its range to include Christmas cards and gifts. Most shops had likely only begun taking down their summer holiday displays, and while the seasonal aisle of my local Sainsburys was largely full of Halloween products, as early autumn progressed the supermarket’s selection of Christmas products began growing in the aisle like red and green bacteria on a petri dish.

I do think that these findings can be partly attributed not only to the increased, but also to the significantly more casual, way we use the internet now compared to how we did back in 2007. We carry around with us pretty much every second of every day devices with the potential to access the human race’s collectively amassed intelligence – in 2007, I didn’t have a phone that could do anything more extravagant than let me play Snake. We probably think far less about a Google search, and its terms, than we would have all those years ago.

Given that just seven observations were tested here, it is difficult to confirm whether this trend reflects a true, progressively earlier arrival of Christmas. And, as Cunningham acknowledged, search terms have applications greater than simply the festive – he highlighted that searches for ‘elf’ were likely higher across the whole of 2012-2013 period for The Hobbit related reasons.

That said; indulge in your shameless seasonal capitalism. Statistically, everyone else seems to have been doing it for a couple of months now.


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