Merry Christmas!: Celebrating America's Greatest Holiday

Overview

It wouldn't be Christmas without the "things." How they came to mean so much, and to play such a prominent role in America's central holiday, is the tale told in this delightful and edifying book. In a style characteristically engaging and erudite, Karal Ann Marling, one of our most trenchant observers of American culture, describes the outsize spectacle that Christmas has become, showing us the provenance and significance of each of its essential parts: the decorated trees and holiday lights, the cards and gifts...

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Overview

It wouldn't be Christmas without the "things." How they came to mean so much, and to play such a prominent role in America's central holiday, is the tale told in this delightful and edifying book. In a style characteristically engaging and erudite, Karal Ann Marling, one of our most trenchant observers of American culture, describes the outsize spectacle that Christmas has become, showing us the provenance and significance of each of its essential parts: the decorated trees and holiday lights, the cards and gifts and wrapping papers, the toy villages and store displays and Macy's holiday parade, Bing Crosby and Santa Claus.

Viewing Christmas through the media of mass culture—engravings and lithographs, magazine fiction, pictorial ads, news photos, cards, and movies—Marling tells us how the beloved Christmas tree grew out of a much-reprinted image of Queen Victoria and her family gathered around a decorated fir; how Santa Claus lost his provincial Dutch character and turned into the jolly old soul we know; how Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol borrowed from Washington Irving's imaginings of what Christmas must have been like in Merrie Olde England; and how the holiday, balancing between the private and public realms, conferred a central and defining role on women.

A celebration of the visual culture of the season, Merry Christmas! offers captivating evidence that Christmas in America is primarily a secular celebration of abundance, goodwill, and familial identity, expressed in a multitude of material ways.

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Editorial Reviews

Beth Kephart
An unexpected trill of a book...Merry Christmas! Celebrating America's Greatest Holiday is jammed with fabulous facts about toy villages, holiday lights, wrapping papers, window whopping, gifts, stocking stuffers, cards and just about every other external something historically associated with Christmas. And maybe all that doesn't suggest a provocative, memorable narrative, but once one cracks Merry Christmas! open and starts to read, one discovers that Marling has turned the trappings of Christmas into a story all their own, shooting the whole thing through with such drama, sizzle and charm that it takes off like fable, like something her readers will find themselves inspired to repeat while stuffing stockings or stoking fires or settling down to Christmas turkeys...Marling's infectious enthusiasm for the stuff of Christmas helps to fill the many hollows of our shallow consumer culture—reasserts the beauty of boxes and trim, stuffing and stuffers, glitter and glass, and gives a lovely, historic glamour to it all.
Baltimore Sun
Charles Taylor
Marling sets out to define the ways in which we have turned to things to define Christmas. It is not, thank God, an anti-materialist rant...Marling's book is a celebration of plenty, which needn't mean self-satisfied or vulgar. She's an authentic American author—one who loves stuff and puts it lovingly in its place.
Newsday
Chris Rasmussen
According to Karal Ann Marling, 'Christmas is the universal memory' for contemporary Americans (whether they're Christian or not), an event in which 'virtually everybody has played a part.' By telling the story of Americans' celebration of Christmas, she promises to uncover a surprisingly neglected piece of not only our national past, but our collective wishes and psyche...Marling has a keen eye for offbeat topics, arresting detail and original interpretation...Her goal is to unwrap the hidden meaning of quotidian, but telling, objects and practices to reveal the holiday's deeper significance.
In These Times
Elizabeth Millard
[Marling] is an extremely adept cultural critic who dives below the wrapping paper and blinking lights to examine America's central, overwhelming holiday...Viewing Christmas mainly through the media of mass culture, Marling examines engravings, news photos, fiction, and greeting cards and paints a compelling portrait of how Christmas has been presented and shared. She shows that although the holiday is often associated with material gain, often there's genuine goodwill, warmth, and familial tenderness behind the glitzy trappings...No Scrooge herself, the author is usually cheery and loving in her discussions, balancing articulation and intelligence with a wry, casual tone that would make her a wonderful head of the table at any Christmas dinner."
ForeWord Magazine
Gerald Toner
For those interested in the evolution of Christmas and its traditions over the past two centuries, Merry Christmas! by Karal Ann Marling is an absolute must. With excruciating attention to detail and impeccable research, this book covers a broad survey of what makes Christmas the 'universal memory.' Yet this is not some academic treatise. It is readable, engrossing and literate—high praise for any book...Marling thematically develops her subject and does it justice...Take a breather, absorb the extent of Marling's treatment and go bake some cookies.
Louisville Courier-Journal [Kentucky]
Glenn Giffin
In nine chapters, Marling dissects the holiday, its history, meanings and practices ranging from wrapping paper to the rampant mythology of merrie olde Englyshe celebrations (Victorian, actually), window shopping, The Tree and the enduring allure of a 'White Christmas.' Her postscript is 'A Meditation on Christmas Cookies'...[Merry Christmas!] is lively reading and apt to chase the holiday blues.
Denver Post
Holly Finn
Could there be just a tiny clove of Grinchly garlic in our author's soul? Yes, as there is in yours and mine. Every virtue needs its vice, every Christmas its moody kitchen moments, embarrassment of riches, and stack of disingenuous greeting cards...While Marling is carefully unwrapping the facts of this 'more secular than sacred' holiday in America, she looks up to remind us that there is jaw-dropping delight to be plucked from the package.
Financial Times
Jarrett Smith
Like a parent faced with a holiday toy in 100 pieces and a sheet of instructions in faulty English, Karal Ann Marling, in Merry Christmas! Celebrating America's Greatest Holiday, has deconstructed the holiday and reassembled it in interesting and unexpected ways...[It] is a book full of surprises...By cleverly taking apart and analyzing our modern holiday customs, Marling tells us a lot about who we are.
Minneapolis Star Tribune
Jeanine Basinger
Marling...[is] a keen-eyed critic of American popular culture...Merry Christmas is an inspired idea of the sort that academics seldom have: consider the obvious, because no one else has, and treat it with respect. Marling's chapter topics read like a classic 'What to Do for Christmas' list—the tree, Santa, wrapping paper, shopping, cards and gifts, cookies and decorations. She also throws in movies, music and advertising. Showing the zeal of an archaeologist, Marling has dug through magazines and newspapers, photograph files, shoeboxes full of old cards, records of department-store windows and parades, and every possible kind of ephemera. The result is a collection of unrecorded histories, the visual and material culture of the American Christmas holiday...Combining imagination with solid historical grounding, Marling's analysis is both erudite and delightful...For all her scholarship and research, Marling is still tuned directly into [our] primary needs to right the wrongs of Christmas Past. She understands our national effort to keep trying to get it right next time...Reading her intelligent and entertaining book just might be a way to get through that familiar mixture of joy and dread that hits...when the Santas and the holly berries first appear in our land.
New York Times Book Review
Jonathan Yardley
Marling deserves credit, and perhaps even a measure of gratitude, for bringing together in one book a vast amount of information about American Christmases past and how they evolved into Christmas as we know it today...Give Marling credit, too, for being unsentimental about the true nature of the American Christmas. By contrast with innumerable others who have complained, over the years, that a pure religious holiday has been 'corrupted' and 'commercialized' by the American marketplace...Marling notes at the outset that 'the American Christmas has always been more secular than sacred.'
Washington Post Book World
Norman Anderson
This book may be the definitive study of secular Christmas traditions in the United States. Though she acknowledges the genuine glow of family and religion in Christian observances, Marling...makes it clear that her story centers on the materialism of Christmas.
Christian Science Monitor
Scott Alarik
Cultural historian Karal Ann Marling traces the history of our modern Christmas in the zestful, often endearingly gabby Merry Christmas! It is, like the holiday itself, a story of American families and business, stuffed like a red stocking with glittery details, vivid episodes, and eccentric side-trips.
Boston Globe
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Imaginatively researched and strewn with surprising details, this engaging cultural history traces the rise of the consumerism that has become as integral to the celebration of Christmas in the United States as tinsel is to tree trimming. In it, Marling (As Seen on TV) examines every ancillary form of buying, from Christmas gift wrap (which didn't exist before decorated boxes appeared in the late 1870s, followed by mass production of brightly printed paper sheets in the 1920s) to the commercialization of winter greenery in the home (which began in the late 19th century). With a keen eye for cultural diversity (her sections on the construction of African-American Christmas festivities and consumer habits are especially illuminating) and a ready sense of irony, she pierces the sentimental myths surrounding this cultural institution. Ranging from articles in the 19th century magazine Godey's Ladies Book to a statistical analysis of who buys Christmas wrap and a look at the impact of Bing Crosby's recording of "White Christmas" on holiday celebrations, her study, well timed for the coming holidays, will satisfy academic readers as well as general ones. (Dec. 25; on sale date Oct. 20) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
From The Critics
No matter what one's religion might be, no matter if one is in Portland, Peoria, or Phoenix, it's difficult to escape Christmas when the calendar begins flipping toward December. Images of Santa Claus, brightly wrapped presents, evergreens decked with tinsel, and steaming yuletide feasts fill magazines, television, movies, and store windows. Marling, professor of Art History at the University of Minnesota and author of As Seen on TV and Graceland: Going Home with Elvis, is an extremely adept cultural critic who dives below the wrapping paper and blinking lights to examine America's central, overwhelming holiday. Viewing Christmas mainly through the media of mass culture, Marling examines engravings, news photos, fiction, and greeting cards and paints a compelling portrait of how Christmas has been presented and shared. She shows that although the holiday is often associated with material gain, often there's genuine goodwill, warmth, and familial tenderness behind the glitzy trappings. She writes, "Americans are sometimes accused of forgetting history, but when we honor Christmas we honor a kind of personal history compounded of images that may or may not belong to ourselves alone. American images. Bing and Elvis. Mother--a mother, any mother, a Norman Rockwell mother bearing a turkey on a big white platter." One of the book's most fascinating contributions to the holiday is the sheer amount of explanation of why things are as they are. For example, Marling tells how the Christmas tree came from an oft-reprinted image of Queen Victoria and her family gathered around a decorated fir tree. She also breathes new life into discussions of usual holiday favorites, like A Christmas Carol,which she dissects expertly to get at its core social message. No Scrooge herself, the author is usually cheery and loving in her discussions, balancing articulation and intelligence with a wry, casual tone that would make her a wonderful head of the table at any Christmas dinner. (December)
Jeanine Basinger
Merry Christmas! is an inspired idea of the sort that academics seldom have: consider the obvious, because no one else has, and treat it with respect. Combining imagination with solid historical grounding, Marling's analysis is both erudite and delightful...Reading her intelligent and entertaining book just might be a way to get through that familiar mixture of joy and dread that hits every October, just before Halloween, when the Santas and the holly berries first appear in our land.
New York Times Book Review
Norman Anderson
Marling's style is witty and anecdotal, but steadfastly objective and nonjudgemental...
Christian Science Monitor
Kirkus Reviews
Like an agreeably stuffed literary Christmas stocking, Marling's entertaining history of how Christmas became America's top holiday is generously filled with interesting facts, anecdotes, and period illustrations. Marling (Art History/Univ. of Minnesota) offers some profound analyses of such customs as gift-wrapping and -giving, but mostly she is intent on giving a lively but informative history of the holiday. She traces the evolution of the Christmas tree from a small tabletop decoration trimmed with handmade ornaments to the hundred-foot illuminated behemoths that are now annual fixtures on the Ellipse in Washington and Rockefeller Center in New York. She notes how gifts, originally for children, were at first placed, unwrapped, into stockings, but by the late 1800s were wrapped in white tissue, decorated with holly sprigs, and increasingly piled up under trees. By WWI, the future founder of Hallmark Cards—a stationer—changed wrapping habits even further when he ran out of tissue paper and sold fancy patterned paper instead. The author describes how Santa became a national icon; the changing attitudes to giving to the poor; the origin and growth of Christmas cards; and the impact of popular Christmas songs, movies, and television broadcasts. Despite all the extravagance, the frantic sales pitches (a 1912 marketing report called Santa Claus"our biggest captain of industry"), and the pressure on women to buy, bake, and wrap, Christmas has always been the one holiday that wistfully looks backward,"toward how things used to be or should have been." A special holiday treat to be savored while nibbling Christmas cookies and admiring thewell-dressedtree.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674003187
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press
  • Publication date: 12/28/2000
  • Series: Festival Series
  • Pages: 464
  • Product dimensions: 6.67 (w) x 9.46 (h) x 1.38 (d)

Meet the Author

Karal Ann Marling is Professor of Art History at the University of Minnesota.

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Read an Excerpt

No matter what one's religion might be, no matter if one is in Portland, Peoria, or Phoenix, it's difficult to escape Christmas when the calendar begins flipping toward December. Images of Santa Claus, brightly wrapped presents, evergreens decked with tinsel, and steaming yuletide feasts fill magazines, television, movies, and store windows. Marling, professor of Art History at the University of Minnesota and author of As Seen on TV and Graceland: Going Home with Elvis, is an extremely adept cultural critic who dives below the wrapping paper and blinking lights to examine America's central, overwhelming holiday.

Viewing Christmas mainly through the media of mass culture, Marling examines engravings, news photos, fiction, and greeting cards and paints a compelling portrait of how Christmas has been presented and shared. She shows that although the holiday is often associated with material gain, often there's genuine goodwill, warmth, and familial tenderness behind the glitzy trappings. She writes, "Americans are sometimes accused of forgetting history, but when we honor Christmas we honor a kind of personal history compounded of images that may or may not belong to ourselves alone. American images. Bing and Elvis. Mother a mother, any mother, a Norman Rockwell mother bearing a turkey on a big white platter.

One of the book's most fascinating contributions to the holiday is the sheer amount of explanation of why things are as they are. For example, Marling tells how the Christmas tree came from an oft-reprinted image of Queen Victoria and her family gathered around a decorated fir tree. She also breathes new life into discussions of usual holiday favorites, like A Christmas Carol, which she dissects expertly to get at its core social message. No Scrooge herself, the author is usually cheery and loving in her discussions, balancing articulation and intelligence with a wry, casual tone that would make her a wonderful head of the table at any Christmas dinner. (December)

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Table of Contents

Preface vii
1 Wrapping Paper Unwrapped: Holly Boxes, Tissue Paper, and Bows 1
2 The Christmas Business: Greenery, Lights, Ornaments, Toy Villages 43
3 Window Shopping: Department Store Displays, Santalands, and Macy's Big Parade 82
4 Olde Christmas: Dickens, Irving, and Christmas Charity 121
5 O Tannenbaum: Indoor and Outdoor Christmas Tree Spectacles 160
6 Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town: Store Santas, Kettle Santas, Coca-Cola Santas 197
7 Somebody Else's Christmas: Hot Christmas, Black Christmas, Faraway Christmas 243
8 Thinking of You at Christmas: Cards or Gifts? 284
9 Dreaming of a White Christmas: How Bing Crosby and the Grinch Almost Stole Christmas 321
Postscript: A Meditation on Christmas Cookies 359
Notes 365
Acknowledgments 433
Index 437
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