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Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Christmas in the 20th Century

“Yet the twentieth century has seen the increasing dominance of a Christmas
which is essentially Anglo-Saxon, or more accurately, Anglo-American” (Golby

An Empire Christmas

Historian W. Dawson wrote in 1902, “Wherever Englishmen are on 25th December, there is Christmas. Whether it be in the icy regions of the Arctic zones, or in the sweltering heat of tropical sunshine the coming round of the great feast brings with it to every Englishman a hearty desire to celebrate it duly” (CaSH101). Christmas in the British Empire seemed to waver between melancholy remembrance and enthusiastic embrace of the new atmosphere. In 1873, the Illustrated London News wrote, “Old Father Christmas would have to put on a very different fashion of dress. A linen blouse and a light straw hat would be more comfortable we suppose” (102). In 1925, the Sydney Daily Telegraph mentioned more and more native plants were being used as decorations. By 1933, for example, in New Zealand the Pohutakawa was being used instead of a Christmas tree. The Times of India, meanwhile, in 1878 disparaged an Indian Christmas as “not cheerful . . . the occurrence of the ‘festive season’ chiefly serves to remind us that we are exiles” (105). But by 1928, a different face was put on it, “the pictures conjured up are kaleidoscopic in their variety. Calcutta devotes itself to polo, racing and cricket in the bright but not too warm winter sunshine. The restaurants and clubs give their best. Bombay, more tropically hot—the pretense of wearing European clothes to be abandoned in the middle of the day—gives itself up no less thoroughly to feast and jolliment” (112).

Comedian Spike Milligan recalled the Army and Navy Christmas catalogue which arrived 3 months ahead of time, at his father’s army cantonment in India. This 3-month vigil changed when the first delivery of Christmas airmail came in 1931 to Australia and New Zealand. By 1933, the Lord Mayor of London was urging British housewives to make “the coming Christmas an Empire Christmas” (ie, to buy products from the colonies).

The Role of Radio

The first Christmas carol heard on radio was broadcast from Reginald Fessenden’s Massachusetts radio station broadcasts to ships in 1906, and by 1923, the Illustrated London News celebrated the fact that listeners could hear carollers on the BBC for the first time. One consequence of radio (not just at Christmas!) was that the nation was centrifugally pulled into London. “We have definite knowledge that had we closed down Christmas Day,” said BBC staff in 1926, “thousands of lonely people throughout the country would have no message of cheer or Christmas greeting. That little brightness may have been brought to lives all too drab and wretched, is more than ample compensation” (135). (A typically paternalistic BBC attitude—and yet, even in 2005, 6% of people surveyed said they would spend Christmas alone—usually the oldest and poorest people in the population.)

1926 was also the beginning of the BBC tradition of Reverend Barnard Walker’s nativity play Bethlehem, which was an adaptation of a Chester miracle play. It was so popular that it was broadcast every Christmas for 9 years. Also invented on radio was the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, based on a Truro service from 1880. It was received immediately at King’s College Cambridge was an ancient custom in 1918. The BBC took it up in 1928, and it was broadcast on MBS in the US in 1938.

(This might be a relevant place to mention Amahl and the Night Visitors, which I know some of you love. I enjoyed it when seeing a live performance in Albuquerque. As the first opera written for TV, it enjoyed perennial popularity in the first years of the ‘50s after it was shown on NBC. Here is a link to the score in prose form. http://www.christophervandyck.com/o/story/amahl ] You can also find it on YouTube.

Hollywood and the Second World War

One of the few sources of constancy and comfort for Americans during the War were films. And certainly the Christmas film offered “the impossible but very potent scenario of family unit, reunited lovers, and a return to the customs and traditions of an idealized past” (Glancy 60). It is worth mentioning, too, that in the 1930s in Britain at least, cinema was a way of rewarding underprivileged children. There was a scheme that if a child had 52 marks on his cinema card (which signified 52 visits to the cinema during one year) he was entitled to attend a free Christmas show. At some cinemas doctors and nurses would be in attendance and the children were given medical examinations as they waited in line to get into the film.

One film from 1940 that works rather better as a screwball comedy than a Christmas heart-warmer is Remember the Night, starring Barbara Stanwyck as a woman who steals a bracelet at Christmastime. The consequences of charming the DA on the case leads her to his hometown Christmas celebrations and provides the impetus for her reform. Remember the Night extols the virtues of small-town America, while The Man Who Came to Dinner (1941) criticizes it as a narrow-minded backwater.

Holiday Inn (1942) gushes escapism; a morale-booster. “Its dream of an idyllic and old-fashioned Christmas became the cornerstone of many Christmas films that followed in its wake” (65). “White Christmas,” the smash-hit of the film, is the only song sung twice. Irving Berlin won an Oscar for it and it inspired White Christmas (1954), which ironically summons up nostalgia for wartime. “ ‘White Christmas’ has no dark side” (Restad 166). Meet Me in St Louis (1944) breaks the pattern somewhat, being set at the turn-of-the-century and having been tailored for a predominantly female audience. The male characters are notable mainly for their absence. Its lesson is that the nuclear family is sacred; the father in the story has to reject “the modern and urban world.”

I’ll Be Seeing You (1944) sounds like a rather sobering story for Christmas. It was based on a radio play in which two felons, one male and one female, are on furlough for the holiday season. There is “a sense that Mary and Zack represent the couple of the future, the postwar couple who will have to put their wartime experiences behind them and begin life anew” (71). Somewhere between the winter wonderland of Holiday Inn and the snarkiness of The Man Who Came to Dinner is Christmas in Connecticut (1945), in which the characters defy gender stereotypes. The heroine is an inept homemaker who is masquerading as a kind of proto-Martha Stewart and has to face up to this deception when she is sent to an idyllic country house for Christmas and accompanied by the hero, who turns out to be the “new man” who can take care of babies and help around the house. Their romance is the result of sharing seasonal activities.

In one sense, It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) overshadows all these films, but that was not always the case. It’s a Wonderful Life lost money at the box office and divided critical opinion upon its release. It drifted into relative obscurity until 1974, when it became part of the public domain and could be shown without royalties on TV. Munby’s contention is that people were touchy around It’s a Wonderful Life at the time because it cut too close to the bone. Only when the period it represents (1919-46) becomes myth instead of historical reality can “the more bitter elements relinquish their power over the movie’s meaning” (41). Some of the reasons Munby suggests it broke the mold have to do with its style—it can be characterized as film noir—the fact that Potter, in one sense, wins (“Potter’s crime in stealing $8,000 goes unpunished, thus violating a Production Code dictum that crime must never be seen to pay on the American screen” (47). Nevertheless, it does lurch toward a happy ending—“George escapes the reality of a Pottersville future through the deus ex machina force of Christmas” (45). In Capra’s mind, a darker vision was needed—Hollywood was looking very “same-y” by the time he worked on the film, and having made films about the war “must have tempered Capra’s traditionally affirmative vision” (49).

Blitz Spirit Christmas

Christmas during war has always endured despite a sense of deprivation. For the very poor, conditions were already tough. Fred Mills, one of twelve children of a farm laborer in Essex at the turn of the 20th century recalled he might hope to receive presents of oranges and nuts from his family. In early December 1914, Pope Benedict XV wanted all the warring armies to cease hostilities over the Christmas period—this was impractical for several reasons, one of which that not all parties could agree that Christmas was on the 25th of December—after all, Russian Orthodox Christmas takes place 13 days later. However, the “Christmas in the trenches” from 1914 is well-known. A report appeared that the Germans swapped barrels of beer for Christmas plum puddings, and a Scottish chaplain and a German divinity student held a joint burial service for the dead. However, all of this rather embarrassed the English, and by 1915, strenuous efforts were made to keep the troops so occupied they wouldn’t be tempted to fraternize with the enemy.

This custom continued into WWII. A regiment in Burma in 1944 celebrated Christmas on the 28th, but dinner was delivered by airdrop (pork, goose, duck, chicken, plum pudding and beer) plus there were soccer games. Christmas parties at American air and army bases in Britain were popular with children who were on rationing. British forces in Europe were also unceasingly generous with treating the children there to Christmas parties.

On the homefront, Christmas fare was scarce. In 1943, one diarist noted that mutton was the best they could hope for. Blackout shopping conditions made things difficult.


• The poinsettia’s name comes from Dr Joel Roberts Poinsett, US ambassador to Mexico, where it goes by the name of the Flower of the Holy Night. In Mexico it was once the tradition to place gifts for Jesus on church altars on Christmas Eve. One poor boy had nothing to give and knelt outside the church window and prayed and up sprang the poinsettia. Encinitas, CA is the poinsettia capital of the world.
• Over twice the quantity of wines and spirits are bought in Britain between October and December than any other quarter.
• The mathematical formula for the total number of gifts given in “The Twelve Days of Christmas” (as they are cumulative) on any one day when N is a particular day out of the 12, the total number of gifts given on that day= N(N+1)(N+2)/6 Since 1984, the PNC Wealth Management has maintained the Christmas Price Index, which gives the price of each year’s partridge in a pear tree, et al.
• The first Advent calendars were from the 19th century, roughly the 1850s. Before that, the German Lutherans lit a new candle each day of Advent or hung up a new religious image, or even marked a line in chalk on the door of the house. If candles were used, they were mounted on a device called the Advent clock. The first printed calendars came from Hamburg, from 1902 or 1903, by a printer named Gerhard Lang. During the Second World War, the manufacture of Advent calendars ceased as cardboard was rationed. After the war they regained popularity. Chocolate-filled ones were available by 1958.


“Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” was a poem written in 1939 for Montgomery Ward stores in Chicago, a creation of copywriter Robert L. May. In 1949, it was set to music and recorded by Gene Autry. “As a story of an outcast youngster and written during the Great Depression, Rudolph’s adventure ratified the American dream in terms of merit and acceptance rather than money” (Restad 165).

The reindeer is the only deer that can be domesticated. The Finns once measured distance in terms of how far a reindeer could run without having to stop to pee. A Poronkusema is a measurement between 7-10 km. Female reindeer are only females of any species of deer that have horns. One reindeer can pull twice its body weight up to 40 miles. Vegetarians by choice, they will eat anything from eggs to shed antlers. Male reindeer lose antlers in the winter, only females and castrated males keep them. Oh dear . . .

“The Christmas Song”

I love the story behind one of my favorite secular Christmas songs. According to Mel Tormé, one hot July 1946 day in California, he drove to the house of his friend Robert Wells. He could not find Wells as he entered but went to wait by the piano, where a pad was lying open with the first four lines of a poem which went,
Chestnuts roasting on an open fire
Jack frost nipping at your nose
Yuletide carols being sung by a choir
And folks dressed up like Eskimos.

When Tormé asked him about it, Wells said he had been so hot he wanted to write something to cool himself down. Together they saw the merit in the song so far and wrote it at the piano in 45 minutes. They waited a year for Nat King Cole to record it, but the rest, as they say, is history. It was near the beginning of a successful career for both songsters. As Anderson says, “is as fine an impression of the positive nature, friendliness, and spirituality of Christmas ever managed by an entirely secular song.”

“Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree”

Like a number of Christmas songs, I first heard this in the movie Home Alone. Anderson has nothing but praise for this rock carol by Johnny Marks, recorded by Brenda Lee in 1958, for his contributions of songs such as “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” “Silver and Gold,” “The Most Wonderful Day of the Year” (both from 1964), and “A-Caroling We Go” (1966). He suggests that Marks might even surpass Irving Berlin—he of “White Christmas” and “Happy Holiday” fame. Anderson also points out that it’s one of a handful of songs that celebrates the centrality of the Christmas tree. He lists a few others: “Du gronne, flitrende tre, god-dag!” (“You Green and Glittering Tree, Good Day!”) from Denmark, “Am Weihnachtsbaum die Lichter brennen” (“The Christmas Tree with Its Candles Gleaming") from Germany, and “Christopher the Christmas Tree,” “Do You Know How Christmas Trees are Grown?”, and “Gather Around the Christmas Tree” from the US.

Christmas at the End of the Century

In the 20th century, developments toward a smaller family, single-parent families, and serial marriages have changed the way Christmas has been celebrated. So, too, has Christmas become increasingly child-centered. “All children, it is felt, have a right to a rewarding visit from Santa,” whether or not they have actually been good (Golby 88). A “real” Santa has been a fixture of department stores in the US since the 1920s. Judge John H. Hatcher of the West Virginia Supreme Court decided in 1927 that “Ex parte Santa Claus,” as years before, Frank Church had declared, “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.”

Norman Rockwell’s art and J.C. Leyendecker’s drawings for the covers of the Saturday Evening Post were very influential and always tended to be Victorian or medieval scenes, hearkening back to a Christmas nostalgia. “It has been suggested that the family is celebrated so earnestly at Christmas precisely because it is under threat” is one opinion (Golby 94). Christmas journalism in the UK still focuses on the Royal Family. We have little idea how the majority of people in Britain were spending their time at 8 pm in 1884, but at the same time 100 years later, over 70% of the population were watching TV, and almost 40% were watching Raiders of the Lost Ark. However, let us not be too quick to judge ourselves: there is little public transport in Britain or public places that are open, so there is little reason to go outside. 1912 was the last year in which newspapers were published on Christmas Day, and the majority of the outdoor communal sporting events that used to be a big fixture of Christmas past in the UK do not exist.

Rowana Agajanian examined Hollywood Christmas films from the 1980s and 1990s. According to this scholar, A Christmas Story (1983), with its infinitesimal degree of religious sentiment, demonstrated that this era’s films had their own “musical iconography.” Lethal Weapon (1987) “wastes no time in suggesting something sinister is afoot, for even before the opening credits roll we see the reflection of Christmas lights appear in the cocaine mirror of the first victim” (156). She sees Die Hard (1987) as pro-family and pro-Christian, as it’s about “wish fulfillment [and] being given a chance to prove one’s worth” (157). Of Home Alone she says that although the violence was critiqued by critics, the film also “critiques the American way of life particularly in its promotion of affluence and material goods” (150). Jingle All the Way (1996) is criticized for, well, everything.

In 2010, the Evangelical Alliance (in the UK) reported predictions of Christmas sales forecast to hit £68.7 billion, compared to £67.84 billion in 2009, a year-on-year increase of £860 million. They also found that the Royal Mail had expected to handle 700 million Christmas cards and 40 million parcels from Internet shoppers. In its research, it found that 41% of toys and presents given to children at Christmas would be broken by March. 90% of parents in 2007 expected to spend £500 on their children that year! Also, according to its findings, almost 90% of children under 18 would be willing to receive fewer presents if it decreased the financial strain on their parents. Almost 2/3 of children polled saved an average of £34 in pocket money in order to buy gifts for their family. Of children polled, 89% were excited about the impending season, 79% were happy about the holiday period, but one in six said they felt sad, nervous or left out at Christmas. 54% of adults surveyed said they felt Christmas was overrated.

According to the (US) National Mail Order Association, 20 billion was the number of letters, packages and cards the U.S. Postal Service expected to deliver between Thanksgiving and Christmas 2006. The busiest mailing day that year was expected to be December 18th. 44% of Britain’s online adult population upped their online spending last Christmas compared to 2009, according to Econsultancy: Digital Marketers United. On December 26th, eBay and Amazon were the most visited e-commerce sites, with 9.96% and 7.02% of visits respectively. In the US, online retail spending for the entire November to December 2010 holiday season reached $32.6bn, the highest ever.

Christmas: A Social History.
Evangelical Alliance.
National Mail Order Association.
Weston Thomas.

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