The rise and fall of holiday traditions

A star hangs near a Christmas tree during Christmas shopping season in a shopping mall on December 8, 2012 in Berlin, Germany.

This particular holiday story begins sometime after 2008, at a time when America’s workers were most in need of holiday cheer. Pink slips were falling like flurries of December snow, and amidst all this gloom, bosses around country announced that there would be no holiday work party.

“And lo and behold there was a revolt,” says BizBash Media CEO David Adler. “Not surprisingly after the recession people were saying, 'where can we cut our budget?'

"And people cut the holiday party because they didn’t think it was that important.”

Adler collected survey results from companies that had cancelled their holiday work parties and found that only six percent of employees were okay with canceling the holiday party.

"People felt that it was a symbolic thing that a company did that shows how the company feels about the people," Adler says.

Some of the people surveyed said that they saw the party cancellation as a sign that their job was at risk and they felt disconnected from each other.

And this is the part of our holiday tale where we meet an adorable furry little creature: The prairie vole.

Sue Carter studies psychiatry at the University of Illinois, Chicago. She pioneered the use of prairie voles to study the physiology of Oxytocin, a hormone that, among other things, allows humans to be social.

“It allows us to look other people in the eye. It allows us to tolerate being close to people. It’s a very important, natural, central component of how the body decides whether it’s safe to be social or not,” says Carter.

She hasn’t seen a study that looked specifically at holiday parties but she says it makes sense that people revolted when their work party was cancelled  because humans do very poorly under conditions of isolation, “and a lot of things that go on in modern life are actually isolating, things like using a computer, working in a cubicle rather than a social group. So any opportunity for to be social is generally good for us."

As of last year, more holiday work parties are returning to the workplace. In a study, recruiting firm Battalia Winston reported that 91 percent of companies polled were having a holiday party, the highest percentage since the recession. But not all business cut back on spending during the recession. Some holiday traditions were actually born.

Eleven years ago Adam Williams was trying to make it in Los Angeles as a magician. One day he approached the owner of a shopping center and said, 'I’d like to do a Christmas magic show here, and for my finale I will make it snow.'

The owner passed on the magic act but loved the snow idea. Williams agreed to make it snow even though he had no idea how to do that.

Williams contacted a chemist friend and developed a formula for synthetic snow that vanishes on contact and is safe enough to land on a child’s tongue. And it worked, that first gig at the shopping center was the beginning of Williams’ new career.  He gave up the magic act but now runs a multi-million dollar company called Magic Snow.

During the recession Williams started getting calls from shopping centers in the places with high foreclosure rates.

“Phoenix; Nevada ... where you had huge developments built around residential complexes,” says Williams.

These also happen to be places where it never snows. So these commercial property owners hired Williams to work his magic, in the hopes of attracting customers.  

On a recent night Williams invited me to The Grove, the Los Angeles shopping center where he did his first snow show. Now he’s paid six figures to make it snow twice a day from November 18 through Christmas.

“The show here is choreographed to a small Bellagio style fountain that plays Christmas music every night,” says Williams, the sound of water splashing in the background.

Williams ducked behind a giant planter where a control board was hidden. He adjusted a few knobs and suddenly the music coming from the fountain stopped and it started snowing.

A teenage couple slow-danced in front of the Apple store and kids all around start freaking out. 

Williams says that reaction, and competition from online shopping, is what's driving the demand for malls to hire him and his snow shows.

About the author

David Weinberg is a general assignment reporter at Marketplace.

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