Monday, December 10, 2007

The Ghosts of Christmas Past

Central to many people's memories of their childhoods is how they celebrated the Yuletide. And I would expect that most people would have their favourite eras when they felt Christmas was at its best. In fact, I rather suspect that one could look at the history of the holiday and pick out various Golden Ages, times when Yuletide celebrations were bigger and better than they had been at any other period in history.

Indeed, as hard as it is to believe, there was a time when Christmas was not celebrated in England as it is today. The Puritans had viewed the holiday as merely an excuse for overindulgence in such things as drinking, eating, and games. No less than Oliver Cromwell himself thought of the celebration of Christmas as "heathen traditions." It should come as no surprise, then, that in 1644 the celebration of Christmas was banned by an Act of Parliament. The celebration of the holiday would return with the Restoration, although it would be far more subdued than it had been in years prior to the Puritan ban. In fact, until the Victorian Era, it was not unusual for many in England to work on the holiday.

It would be the Victorian Era that would see Christmas truly return to its prominence on the calendar. Queen Victoria would take the throne in 1837 and rule until her death in 1901. During that time a number of developments would lead to the holiday that we know today. In some respects, the process had already begun before Victoria had taken the throne. Washington Irving published his popular book The Keeping of Christmas at Bracebridge Hall in 1820. The seminal poem "A Visit from St. Nicholas," better known as "'Twas the Night Before Christmas," was first published in 1923. As early as the 1820s and 1830s sweet shops in New York City began to capitalise on the holiday. Christmas seems to have been returning to the forefront of holidays before Victoria's reign. That having been said, it was definitely during the time that Victoria was on the throne that Christmas became the Christmas most of us know.

Much of this would be due to the royal family themselves. Christmas trees had existed in Germany at least since the 16th century. In Britain the custom was unknown until George III's queen consort, Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, introduced one into the palace. It would not be until the reign of Victoria, however, that the custom would would become widespread across Britain. Prince Albert loved Christmas trees, and woodcuts of the royal family's tree would appear in the Illustrated London News in December 1848. In the U.S., Christmas trees appeared as early as the 18th century. It would be in 1851 that preacher Henry Schwan of Cleveland, Ohio became the first man to place a Christmas tree in a church, despite protests from some of the parishioners. By the end of the 19th century, it would probably be safe to say that most homes in England and United States had Christmas trees during the Yuletide.

Other Christmas traditions were being introduced in England at the same time as the Christmas tree. It was in 1843 that Sir Henry Cole commissioned the first commercial Christmas cards. By 1875 lithographer Louis Prang would introduce the Christmas card to the United States. While the British custom of the Christmas card would spread to America, the tradition of Christmas crackers would remain a particularly British custom. For those of you who don't know what a Christmas cracker is, it is a tube of generally bright coloured paper, which when pulled apart makes a loud noise or "crack." The crackers generally contain some sort of gift, such as sweets or party hats or whatever. The Christmas cracker was invented by Tom Smith as a means of promoting his bon-bons. Initially he had thought of simply wrapping his candies in bright coloured paper, although he eventually fell upon the idea of putting them in a strip of specially made paper that would make a noise. It was his son, Walter Smith, who thought of putting the various gifts in the crackers.

While various innovations were being introduced into the Yuletide celebration during the Victorian era, the mass media also embraced the celebration. Beyond the aforementioned "A Visit from St. Nicholas," perhaps the works of no other writer had as much influence on the holiday as Charles Dickens. He is perhaps best known for A Christmas Carol, first published in 1843, but Dickens would write four other works that dealt with the holiday. Throughout the years he wrote such holiday themed tales as The Chimes (1844), The Cricket on the Hearth (1845), The Battle of Life (1846), and The Haunted Man (1847). Dickens was not alone in embracing the holiday. In the United States political cartoonist Thomas Nast popularised the image of Santa Claus as a jolly old fat man. His first illustration of Old St. Nick appeared in 1963 in the pages of Harper's Weekly.

There were yet other developments during the Victorian Era that would give rise to the modern Christmas. As the 19th century passed, retailers developed more and more means of capitalising on the holiday. By 1840 many stores began to advertise themselves as Santa Claus' headquarters. Macy's was among the earliest department stores to capitalise on the holiday. In 1867 it was open until midnight on Christmas Eve for the very first time. In 1874 they set up the first of their famous window displays. It was also in that year that they had their first in store Santa Claus.

Ultimately, the Victorian Era would give shape to the modern day celebration of Christmas. It saw the custom of the Christmas tree spread throughout the English speaking world. It also saw the introduction of Christmas cards and Christmas crackers. Seminal works dealing with the holiday, such as those of Dickens and Nast, were published for the first time. And it was during that period that retailers began to capitalise on the holiday.

If there is another Golden Age for Christmas celebrations, it may well be the post war years, following World War II. Although it was not quite a period of innovation in the same way as the Victorian Era, it also gave shape to the modern day Yuletide celebration. In fact, it was during this period that electric Christmas lights grew in prominence. During the Victorian era and before, it was customary to decorate Christmas trees with candles. Naturally, this was dangerous and, as might be expected, there were a few fires resulting from candles on Tannenbaums. The introduction of electric lights was then a welcome innovation. It was not one, however, that was embraced immediately. In 1882 Edward H. Johnson, then vice president of Edison Electric Light Company, became the first man to decorate a Christmas tree with electric lights. In 1890 he would introduced the first mass produced string of Christmas lights. By 1900 stores would begin using Christmas lights for their displays. One more innovation would be made in 1917. The early Christmas lights were not quite as dangerous as the candles before them, but they were hardly safe. It would be Albert Sadacca who would invent the first safe Christmas lights. His family manufactured novelty ornaments, among which were novelty lights. Sadacca adapted these novelty lights into a string of Christmas lights. In their first year the sales of the lights were very poor, but the next year Sadacca introduced coloured lights and sales soared. Albert Sadacca and his brothers would found NOMA Electric Company, the biggest manufacturer of Christmas lights until the Sixties.

With Sadacca's invention, Christmas lights grew increasingly more common throughout the Twenties and Thirties. It was during this period that many families took to decorating their tree with lights. It was also during this period that cities and communities began creating outdoor displays with lights. At the time, however, it was cost prohibitive for private individuals to decorate their homes with lights. The advent of World War II would not help matters. Most industries shifted to producing goods for the war and materials, particularly metal, was in short supply. As long as the war lasted, no new strings of Christmas lights were produced. This is not to say that innovations were not made in Christmas lights during this period. It was in 1939 that bubble lights were first developed. They would not go not onto the market until after the war, but when they did they became an outright fad. Bubble lights were popular for many years before falling out of favour with the public.

Indeed, the post war period saw Christmas lights soar in sales. In 1947 alone General Electric could not keep up with the demand for lights. The late Forties would see community light displays become even more common. And by the Fifties lights had dropped in price to where the average person could afford to decorate his home with lights.

While Christmas lights also became more common in the post war period, both during and after the war would see the introduction of some of the most beloved Yuletide carols. The movie Holiday Inn would introduce "White Christmas," still the biggest selling song of all time, in 1942. The film Meet Me in St. Louis would introduce the song "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" in 1944. The post war period would be a particularly productive time for Christmas carols, with such classics as "Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!" (1945), "The Christmas Song (Merry Christmas to You)" (1946), "Here Comes Santa Claus (Right Down Santa Claus Lane)" (1947), "Sleigh Ride" (1948), and "It's Beginning To Look A Lot Like Christmas" (1951) all released during that time period. One classic song released during the period, "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer," actually has its roots before the war. The character of Rudolph was created by Robert L. May in 1939 as part of a Montgomery War advertising campaign. The tale of Rudolph would be adapted as a theatrical cartoon in 1944. Eventually Johnny Marks, May's brother in law, would adapt Rudolph's story as a song, although changing it considerably. Recorded by Gene Autry in 1949, it became a smash hit. Indeed, it must be pointed out that "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer" represents the first major addition to the mythos of Santa Claus since the 19th century.

The post war period as not only a good time for Christmas carols, but it could well have been the Golden Age of Yuletide movies. Of course, it could be argued that this Golden Age started before the war was even over. Nineteen forty four saw the release of both The Bells of St. Mary's and Meet Me in St. Louis. That having been said, it was after the war that the true classics of the holiday were released. No less than It's a Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street were released following World War II--the former in 1946 and the latter in 1947. The next several years would see the release of several holiday classics, among them The Bishop's Wife (1947), Holiday Affair (1949), A Christmas Carol (1951), and The Lemon Drop Kid.

While the Victorian Era and the post war years saw some innovation in Christmas celebrations, the Sixties can be considered a Golden Age for Yuletide celebrations simply because it was a time when everything that had gone before coalesced into our modern day Yuletide festivities. By the Sixties most home owners decorated both their trees and houses in lights for the holidays. In those days before the Energy Crisis of the Seventies, towns and communities could still afford lavish Christmas light displays, as could the various retail outlets. This is not to say that the Sixties did not see at least one innovation in the holiday, albeit one that would not be well loved over the years. Artificial trees had been made as early as the 19th century. It was in the Thirties that the Addis Brush Company introduced the first artificial brush trees. It was in 1959 that Aluminum Specialty Company introduced the first aluminium Christmas trees. Because they were made of aluminium, it was not particularly safe to decorate them with electric lights. For this reason the trees were illuminated by multicoloured, rotating floodlights, better known as colour wheels. Sales for the trees were initially very good, although they gradually fell into disrepute as the Sixties wore on. In fact, on A Charlie Brown the aluminium Christmas tree was attacked as a representation of crass commercialism. By the end of the Sixties, the age of aluminium Christmas tree was pretty much over. While there are those who are nostalgic for the aluminium trees, I though they were ugly even as a child, alhough I admit that the colour wheels were very pretty.

While the Sixties was the era of the aluminium Christmas tree, it was also a good era for holiday music. In fact, it was in 1963 that A Christmas Gift for You From Phil Spector was released. The album mostly consisted of Spector's artists performing such standards as "Sleigh Ride" and "Parade of the Wooden Soldiers" done with Spector's "Wall of Sound" production. Its one original song, however, would turn out to be the greatest holiday rock song of all time--"Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home)," performed by Darlene Love. Aside from the songs on Spector's classic rock album, many other classic holiday songs came out during the period: "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" (1960), "It's The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year" (1963), "Holly Jolly Christmas" (from Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer), and "Little Saint Nick" by The Beach Boys (1964).

The Sixties did not produce much in the way of classic holiday movies (unless one counts Scrooge from 1970), but it was the Golden Age of holiday specials. Starting as early as as the late Forties and early Fifties, many celebrities hosted their own holiday specials. Jack Benny, Perry Como, Bing Crosby, Judy Garland, Bob Hope, Frank Sinatra, and Andy Williams all had their own specials during the holidays. Indeed, Como, Crosby, Hope, and Williams would make their Christmas specials an annual event. By 1963 celebrity Christmas specials were so prevalent on television that they were parodied in an episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show called "The Alan Brady Show Presents."

Of course, for most members of Generation X it was not the celebrity Christmas specials to watch in the Sixties, but the animated ones. In 1962 Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol inaugurated the tradition of the animated Christmas special. That tradition was cemented in 1964 with the success of Rankin/Bass's Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. Shot in stop motion animation, the special proved a huge hit and has aired every year ever since on network television. It began a Golden Age of animated specials, with the classics being released over the next few years: A Charlie Brown Christmas in 1965, How the Grinch Stole Christmas in 1966, The Cricket on the Hearth in 1967, The Little Drummer Boy in 1968, and Frosty the Snowman in 1969. Many of these specials were produced by Rankin/Bass an animation company best known for their work in a stop motion process called "Animagic (although Frosty the Snowman was made using cel animation)." Their output of holiday specials was actually greater in the Seventies, but arguably their best work was done in the Sixties. Indeed, their first holiday special, Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer was arguably the greatest work they ever did.

The Seventies saw the advent of the Energy Crisis, during which time many communities either cut back on their Christmas light displays or did away with them entirely. Many private individuals simply made due with lighting their trees while not bothering to decorate their houses in lights. For whatever reason, Christmas songs became fewer in number. When they were released at all, they generally did poorly on the charts. As to television, as the Seventies wore on Christmas specials numbered fewer and fewer on the small screen. By the Eighties only the perennials (Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, A Charlie Brown Christmas, Frosty the Snowman, and How the Grinch Stole Christmas) remained. Personally, I think it was the lowest point the Christmas celebration has seen in the past 150 years.

Of course, it must be kept in mind that my earliest childhood was spent in the Sixties, when the celebration of Christmas was still at its most extravagant. I remember each year we would go to the woods and cut down a tree, then bring it into the house to decorate it with ornaments and lights. Dad would decorate the outside of the house with lights as well, with the classic C-7 candelabra bulbs. The local towns would all be decorated with lights as well, with lights even strung along the power lines crossing their downtown streets. I remember one of the highlights of my Yuletide as a child was the trip to see an enormous Christmas light display, I think in New Franklin (although I can't be sure). Sadly, that ended with the energy crisis. Of course, the radio was filled with holiday songs, from the classic "White Christmas" to the not so classic "All I Want for Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth." And, of course, every year I could expect to see Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, A Charlie Brown Christmas, and Bob Hope's latest Yuletide special on TV. Locally, carolling was still a common event during the holidays then.

Since the Eighties I think the celebration of Christmas has improved. Gradually towns and communities have reintroduced Christmas light displays, even if they are a bit more subdued than they were in the Sixties. People started decorating their homes with lights again. And in the Naughts Christmas specials returned to the small screen, first on cable and now on the networks. This is the first year in ages I can remember seeing How the Grinch Stole Christmas on a major network. Of course, only time will tell if any of this will result in another Golden Age of Christmas celebration, one to match those of the Victorian Era, the Post War years, and the Sixties.

1 comment:

Lisa Wines said...

I found you through BlogRush and I really enjoyed this post. Reading the history of Christmas puts me in the mood of Christmas, and makes me want to go download all of those films. Thanks for taking the time to write this!