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 book. 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.
About the Author
Karal Ann Marling is Professor of Art History at the University of Minnesota.
Read an Excerpt
This book about the visual and material culture of Christmas in America began at a pre-Christmas cut-and-color session with Stan, my hairdresser. Gossip exhausted and the crumbling marriages of the stars thoroughly dissected, the conversation turned to shopping and presents. His worst Christmas as a child, Stan said, came the year he bought his mother the syrup pitcherone of those little glass pitchers with the screw-on plastic tops and a metal slide built into the handle to dispense one perfect, continuous dribble of maple syrup, with no mess whatsoever. Restaurants used to have them but ordinary home kitchens did not. And they were very cool.
So Stan contrived to buy one for his Mom. He saved nickels out of his allowance and did extra chores. He found a pitcher for sale in a downtown store. And he wrapped it up and waited for Christmas, envisioning the family's pride in owning such a slick item and his mother's gratitude to the loving son who bought it. Imagine little Stan's horror, then, when he came home from school one day that December, just before Christmas vacation, to find his Mom admiring a new syrup pitcher (just like the one stashed upstairs, under his bed!), a corporate holiday gift from the man in the gray uniform who delivered the home heating oil.
There has been no shortage of books on Christmas. Historians have been especially active: Stephen Nissenbaum's The Battle for Christmas and Penne Restad's Christmas in America. Theologians, too: Leigh Eric Schmidt's Consumer Rites: The Buying and Selling of American Holidays.And American Studies with The Modern Christmas in America by William Waits. Admirable books, all of themand I am much indebted to these and a host of older works on aspects of the history of Christmas, as the following chapters will show. But somehow, these books have left out Stan and his mother, and the aspect of Christmas that I wanted to talk about.
Last year I found myself in eastern Poland in the springtime, separated from my boxes of Christmas stuff by a large ocean, and desperate for something to read in English. A friend at the U.S. Embassy in Warsaw kindly sent me a bunch of new books from Amazon.com: novels, best-sellers, some scholarly offerings. And a few ratty paperbacks from her bathroom bookshelf. Now I'm sure I was unnaturally fixated on tinsel and holly at the time, but every single one of those books contained a major Christmas riff. Jane Tomkins, a prominent professor of American literature, remembered her father reading A Christmas Carol aloud and making up a serial adventure called "How I Used to Work for Santa Claus." Rick Bragg, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for the New York Times, wrote about getting a warm coat, a pair of shoes, a football, and a transistor radio when, as a boy of twelve, he was one of the charity cases entertained by a college fraternity under the biggest Christmas tree he had ever seen. Suzanne Strempek Shea, in a novel about the trials of a Polish-American girlhood, told the story of her fictional self, designing homemade Christmas cards so beautiful that her seventh grade teacher sent them off to the Hallmark people in Kansas City.
And so it went. Hard-boiled detective yarns, a history of the trial of an anarchist for a 1905 bombing in Idaho, John Updike and Ed McBain without their covers: not a book without a telling Christmas aside. Not a single life without Santa Clauses, toy-store windows, strings of colored lights, trees, carols, snow (or snow-in-a-can), Christmas cards, Charles Dickens, holly, popcorn chains, and decorations made out of red-and-green crepe paper. The European edition of Time for April 13, 1998, when I found a dog-eared copy at a newsstand in a former Intourist hotel, contained a short article on the late Eva Peron of Argentina. "As First Lady," Time noted, "Evita was revered for her glamour and largesse. On Christmas in 1947, she gave away 5 million toys."
Coincidence? Pine-scented serendipity?. I think not. Christmas is the universal memory, one of the few rituals on the calendar of life that virtually everybody has played a part in. Weddings, funerals, First Communions, Bar Mitzvahs, and Labor Day picnics can all be avoided without much trouble. But not Christmas. In America, Christmas is everywhere. At the mall. On TV. In the closets and under the beds. In the cupboard, where Stan's mother's syrup pitcher still lurks in shame, behind a pile of chipped dinner plates.
I went to an antiquarian book fair recently, on a cold, snowy day in the dead of a Minnesota winter. In a booth devoted to children's literature, I opened the cover of one much-abused Golden Book only to have a faded green Christmas tree pop up from the endpapers. It was my Proustian Christmas moment. I had owned that book when I was a little girlwith sweet herald angels in pink shifts trimming the three-dimensional tree that blossomed whenever the cover was lifted. The Golden Christmas Book, published in 1947: I must have found my copy under the tree that very year. Without turning a page, I could still see the recipes for stuffed dates and popcorn balls, the instructions for making paper chains and cutting five-pointed Christmas stars. And a little Christmas tree fashioned from two sheets of construction paper, that could stand up all by itself. Ornaments rolled out from lumps of pink and green wallpaper cleaner (does anybody still sell wallpaper cleaner?). The story of old Granny Glittens, who dyed her yarn with lemon drops and chocolate bars and candy canes, and made Christmas mittens that you could actually eat! Already, at age four or five, I had learned that Christmas was something you made, something painstakingly created out of scissors and paste and sheets of red paper.
I bought The Golden Christmas Book that day for a princely sum. And when I got it home, I began to look at the literary selections with a critical, grownup eye: the Cratchits' dinner scene from Dickens's A Christmas Carol; "A Visit from St. Nicholas," subtitled "the poem by Clement Moore which you already know"; topical verse by Eugene Field; carols; a flatfooted retelling of the Bethlehem story, purged of biblical language; and "The Peterkins' Christmas Tree" by Lucretia P. Hale, sister of Edward Everett Hale, the famous nineteenth-century Unitarian minister and author of The Man Without a Country. Lucretia Hale's short story, which involved the Christmas preparations of a family so clueless that they had to cut a hole in the floor of an upstairs bedroom to accommodate a much-too-big tree, had not been one of my childhood favorites. In my family, we knew how to gauge the height of Christmas trees! But I had just found the Hale story in an 1876 issue of St. Nicholas Magazine and was stunned to discover how much at home it was in a 1947 anthology that stressed how to make a proper Christmaswhat supplies were needed, what skills, what advance planning. The Peterkins were eternally funny because they were inept, because they didn't know how to cut five-pointed stars out of cardboard and tinfoil.
I remember how my grandmothers made Christmas. Creamed onions. Oyster stew. Tins of salted nuts, without peanuts. Ribbon candy. Packages wrapped in white tissue paper, with our names written right on the wrappings in a delicate, Palmer-method hand. One grandmother, a widow who lived in an apartment building, hung red collapsible bells made of folded tissue paper in every doorway and got out her Christmas records: a white album with Bing Crosby on the cover, his smiling face stuck through a Christmas wreath, and a green one on which Eartha Kitt purred the contents of her wish list to "Santa Baby." My other grandma, until she moved into a house that had a real one, always hung up a crepe-paper chimney for our stockings; in private, my brothers and I speculated on how Santa managed to enter her living room through what was, after all, a picture of a fireplace. But when I see Christmas in my mind's eye, it is as a series of pictures. The Three Wise Men on the side of the box of hard candy each of us got at school, the day before the Christmas holidays began. The pictures on the Christmas cards that we counted and played with and reread and finally cut up to make tags and five-pointed stars and pretty paper baskets. The lighting of the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree on TV. My grandmother's fireplace, which was only a picture of one, but no less real because of it.
This book is about pictures and syrup pitchers and all the other things that make Christmas Christmas. It's about images and the feelings they arousethe shining ribbons of hope and memory that connect people to themselves, their families, and their sense of nationhood through the ornament chest in the attic, a collection of Christmas village houses, or a green-frosted cookie shaped like Dr. Seuss's Grinch. And it's about grandmothers and mothers. Several years ago, when I had just finished a book on the visual culture of the 1950sa book that looked at clothes, hairstyles, body language, and the preferred colors for household appliancesone reviewer allowed as how he didn't think much of the project but that his Mom would probably like it. Well, this is another one for the Moms! Although I have looked at a great deal of textual evidence, the material culture of Christmas (or what Moms generally do while the rest of us watch It's a Wonderful Life) is the heart and soul of this book and of the holiday it examines.
As a writer who prides herself on having no particular ideological axes to grind, I was startled to discover how few students of the phenomenon have openly acknowledged the creative role of women in inventing, sustaining, and ultimately changing Christmas. Studying Christmas would turn anyone into a card-carrying feminist! Popular culturethe movies, TVis heavily invested in denying that women and Christmas have any special relationship at all. Jimmy Stewart and the Grinch are the Christmas heroes; Mrs. Santa is relegated to the photo booth in the department-store Toyland. When the manipulation of "stuff" takes precedence over the use of words and documents, when traditional women's skills at shopping or cooking or home decorating take center stage, then the whole subject falls off the radar screen of "important" scholarship. Christmas is OK in its waythe stuff of memoirs, but not of serious research. At best, it is politically incorrect, a pleasant diversion for the few remaining stay-at-home Moms. At worst, it is mere trivia.
But Christmas is not just a Moms' festival. It is a domestic one. Christmas reminds everybody of home truths, of the particular sense of comfort and joy that Christmas cards represent with their pictures of ornaments and presents and snug little houses nestled in the snow, a curl of smoke arising from the chimney. It is the one occasion in the fitful progress of the year that calls upon us to consider domesticity and continuity seriously, to ponder the good in the goods arrayed beneath the Christmas tree. If home is less important than the workplace, then Christmas isn't very interesting. If the items in the glossy holiday catalogs are viewed as so many examples of consumerism run amok, then Christmas is a pig's feast of capitalist greed. To look seriously at Christmas is to embrace the possibility that quotidian realities, like pleasure and purchase, might be defensible aspects of the human condition. The syrup pitcher in Mom's kitchen cupboard is a text, a memory, a lesson, and a part of the essence of Christmas for as long as you and Stan and I continue to tell the story.
It is difficult to get a fair hearing for pictorial and artifactual evidence if one's attention is elsewhere. By that I mean that the objects of this study have their own stories to tell, within the contexts in which they were made. The picture on a Christmas card, for example. is not simply an illustration of some abstract point, a confirmation of an insight derived from other sources. The products of popular culture have their own histories, which are often wretchedly difficult to reconstruct. This book is less an effort to plug the contents of the national Christmas stocking into the socket of orthodox historical discourse than it is an attempt to recover the truths inherent in the things themselves. That, surely, is one worthy task of the cultural historian: to find "lost" objects and to submit them for eventual inclusion in the ongoing saga of American life.
I have occasionally been baffled by the scraps of Christmas detritus turned up in the course of my search: in the late nineteenth century, for instance, white, middle-class households apparently enjoyed looking at popular images of poor Southern blacks celebrating the holiday in ways that were meant to amuse their magazine-reading betters. Why this kind of picture? Or all the dancing polar bears carrying Christmas trees and plum puddings? Why were these pictures funny and particularly well suited to the season? Why was a syrup pitcher the ideal Christmas present for a kid to give his mother, circa 1956? Was the "Tickle Me Elmo" doll just a fad, the greatest advertising success story of the 1990s, or was there something else about that furry red doll that set off the biggest-ever stampede of Christmas shoppers? Where feelings are involved, definitive answers are hard to come by. And Christmas is about feelings.
I had a Christmas vision once, when I was eleven years oldtoo old to believe in Santa Claus and reindeer any longer. I woke up on Christmas Eve in the middle of the night and heard a strange little sound, a kind of faint tinkling noise downstairs. "I sprang from my bed," just as Clement Moore recommended, tiptoed to the top of the staircase, and peered down at the shadowy outline of the Christmas tree below. Just then, it happened againthe tinklingand it came from the tree! Startled, I looked up and saw a shower of tiny silver snowflakes, dancing in the air all around me. Thrilled and terrified (lest Santa be scared off by an impious agnostic), I raced back to my room, pulled the covers over my head, and, while waiting for morning to come, fell fast asleep again.
It must have been the furnace. The heat cycled on, the warm air stirred the tree branches, and the old glass bellsancestral ornaments from Germany, brought out every year with great solemnity and unveiled from their shrouds of ancient tissue paper like relics of the True Crossrang out again. The air sent a flurry of dust motes skittering up the stairwell: my magic indoor snowflakes. But it felt just like a miracle, and it still does. Miracles are made of warm air on a chilly night, trees that tinkle, cards that glitter, boxes that rattle, mysterious lumps under the bed, dancing mechanical bears in a store window. That's all part of Christmas.
Incidentally, this book would make a great Christmas present for your Mom!
Table of Contents
|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|
What People are Saying About This
What makes this book valuable for historians, whether or not they have a special interest in Christmas, is that the analysis of Christmas is unfailingly put into the broad context of social mores that have defined American popular life, most notably the roles of women and children--topics either neglected in historical analysis or segregated from traditional history. Christmas is the biggest of American holidays; and, therefore, to understand its meaning is to understand significant aspects of America's character at home as well as in the marketplace. Marling's analysis of material things is particularly strong because it focuses so rigorously on connotation and significance, thus making the point that material culture is a reflection of prevailing political, social, and spiritual values.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Thoroughly engaging account of how the religious holiday was secularized. If you want to know the origins of the way Americans gift-wrap, decorate trees, etc. for the holiday, this is your book.