How China Revamped National Singles' Day into The World's Biggest Consumer Holiday - Atlas Obscura
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How China Revamped National Singles’ Day into The World’s Biggest Consumer Holiday

Your only responsibility to celebrate is to online shop. (Photo: Pixabay/Public Domain)

A holiday named “Bare Sticks” may not sound very celebratory, but it might be the most important day in the year for shoppers in the world’s most populated country. Known in English as “Singles’ Day” (in Chinese, literally “bare sticks”), November 11th in China has become the greatest commercial success ever witnessed—or manufactured. 

Singles’ Day falls on 11/11 (single-single-single-single), and in 2014, it brought in $9.34 billion in a 24-hour period of online sales for Alibaba, a Chinese company similar to eBay and Amazon founded in 1999. That is more than three times the 2014 Cyber Monday sales revenue for all U.S. merchants combined, and this year, Alibaba is gearing up for yet another record-breaking e-commerce carnival. The company’s chairman, Jack Ma, now says that he wants “Double 11”—a new term trademarked by Alibaba in 2012—to become a global holiday. 

In the hours leading up to “Singles’ Day,” or “Double 11,” web-savvy Chinese, no matter what their marital status, load up their virtual shopping carts and wait until midnight to snatch deals and steals. But back in the early 1990s when the “holiday” first took shape, Singles’ Day was very much an offline solace for actual single people. A small group of students at Nanjing University are said to have chosen 11/11 as a day that singles could do activities like karaoke together. By the late 2000s, Singles’ Day was widely known, sometimes called Bachelors’ Day, either because its initial creators were men or because of China’s massive gender imbalance. Yet it wasn’t until 2009 that Alibaba revamped 11/11 into today’s wild shopping spree, cleverly capitalizing on the holiday lull between China’s National Day in September and Spring Festival in February.  

An online shop storage and transportation center in China.

Where dreams come true: an online shop storage and transportation center in China. (Photo: junrong/shutterstock.com)

Some singles see the day as an opportunity to pamper themselves (since no one else is doing it for them); others see it as a time to hang out with friends; and yet others see it as a chance to bring an end to their solo status, through speed dating or gift giving. Yet singlehood is more often stigmatized than celebrated, which is one reason that Alibaba coined the neutral “Double 11” label. Of course, the online giant, which runs the popular shopping sites Tmall and Taobao, is also trying to monopolize Double 11 revenue by leveraging the new trademark to make legal threats. We’re looking at the world’s biggest population of online shoppers (193 million), still only a fraction of China’s current internet users (538 million), which is just a sliver of China’s total population (over 1.4 billion). Alibaba wants to reel in and rule them all.

But can Singles’ Day, or Double 11, really go global? And is it possible to construct a holiday practically from scratch?

More and more Chinese with expendable income + the internet = e-commerce bonanza. (Photo: chillchill_lanla/shutterstock)

“The history of holidays that started that recently is quite limited,” says John Deighton of Harvard Business School, who specializes in consumer behavior and digital marketing. “I would say that holidays are very tough to build from scratch. They’re part of long histories deeply woven into the culture of communities.” Deighton mentions Kwanzaa and Hanukkah as newer holidays that exist in relation to other things within a shifting landscape of social relations. “Most things don’t simply come into being because somebody in a boardroom decided it would happen; it’s usually a case of putting a spark into something already flammable,” he says.

Even Hallmark can’t create its own holidays, something they clarify on their page, “‘Hallmark Holidays’: Not Invented Here!” The greeting card company explains: “Hallmark must respond to what people want, not the other way around… Congressional resolutions, proclamations, religious observances, cultural traditions and grassroots leadership by ordinary people create holidays.”

Singles’ Day is founded upon none of these things. It was a half-born caterpillar when Alibaba transformed it into a massive money-making butterfly, and it sort of seems that some chums in a boardroom did just get together and decide to fabricate a holiday.

But Deighton doesn’t think Double 11 will catch on elsewhere. “I think it would be monumental and really surprising if anyone could create a Singles’ Day event in U.S. culture,” he tells me. It certainly doesn’t help that November 11 is Veteran’s Day, when holiday season is already in swing. “My argument isn’t completely intact—it’s hard to predict something for which there’s so little to go on, “ he says. “But boy would that be remarkable.”

Remarkable, indeed—and turns out some people already on it. Inspired by China’s Singles’ Day success, a group in West Hollywood, California has launched an American version of the event, a day that says, “Hey, all you single people—we love you!” Their inaugural celebration took place on January 11, 2014, and they believe Singles’ Day is something that people are more than ready for. They’re aiming to make 1/11 an official American holiday, “a day of recognition for those who find themselves on the other side of the couple’s fence—by happenstance or by choice, temporarily or for life.” Their website points out that the U.S. is more single now than ever, with the number of unmarried Americans at a record high. So far they haven’t gained much traction, but who knows? Maybe Target will come to the rescue and take it over.

So, is a holiday really all that hard to create? It depends, perhaps, on what counts as a holiday. There are plenty of sort-of-holidays like Mothers and Fathers day and pseudo-holidays like National Donut Day and National Dress Up Your Pet Day, but no one considers those—or Black Friday and Cyber Monday—true holidays.

What about if Amazon declared, for instance, May 27 as “You Do You Day”? A holiday of sales and self-appreciation that Walt Whitman could really get behind—its slogan could be “I celebrate myself, and sing myself, and buy things for myself!” Finally, an excuse to indulge and pamper yourself rather than spend money on others, et voilà—suddenly we’ve got a new holiday.