2017-07-12
Merry Christmas: Celebrating America's Greatest Holiday
By Karal Ann Marling
Harvard University Press, 464 pp. Until recently, the history of Christmas was, like other observations of the holiday, hackneyed and tinselly. Books like Leigh Schmidt's "Consumer Rites" and Stephen Nissenbaum's "The Battle for Christmas" have gone very far to make the true story of Christmas as interesting as the myth and fairy tales most Americans believe about how Christmas came to be.

Originally a pagan point in the Roman calendar of no significance for Christians, Christmas somehow became the spending and borrowing orgy that Americans all love, and love to criticize. Karal Ann Marling's "Merry Christmas" caps the recent trend of holiday history, adding enough new information to redeem Christmas not only from the Dickensian syrup of childhood sentimentality, but also from the cynical pseudo-worldliness of academic anti-commercialism.

One of America's sharpest cultural historians, Marling, an art history professor at the University of Minnesota, is the author of delightful previous books, including one about mass-production and individual creativity in the l950s, "As Seen on TV," and one about the greatest pagan shrine of the modern West, "Graceland: Going Home With Elvis." She has a gift for writing about popular rituals with critical detachment yet without condescension toward those who find meaning in them.

Marling shows that American Christmas was secular and commercial from the start--it never had a chance to be commercialized. From the mid-19th century, Christmas promoters used surviving pagan symbols (holly, ceremonial log-burning, mistletoe, wreaths), as well as immigrant Dutch (Santa Claus) and German (illuminated trees) customs to popularize the holiday. Marling is careful to search for, and frank in reporting her failure to discover, a golden age before Christmas was ruined by dollar-worshipping hucksters.

The most valuable thing about "Merry Christmas" is the way Marling's chapters all subtly but irresistibly convince the reader that commercialism, however destructive of traditions, has not eliminated sacred meaning altogether. She shows that, contrary to pervasive appearances this time of year, humanity and creativity can survive the depredations of mass-production and marketing.

For example, though merchants invented a fad of "Christmas villages" and fostered addictive behavior on the part of obsessive collectors of the miniature houses, fences, railroad junctions, and so on, Marling looks sympathetically at the buyers' efforts to "escape into a fantasy world of snug houses and pretty communities nestled peacefully in the snow with...no potholes, no taxes, no crime.... It may be that they find an unaccountable joy in tiny things, a reminder of the tenderness and fragility of life, and the swift passage of time--the fundamental mystery of Christmas itself."

Christian indignation about yuletide sacrilege is older than Christmas itself, Marling makes clear--and the indignation has been as fashionable and self-serving as the sacrilege. Puritans banned display of holiday greens in their meeting houses, believing Christmas to be a mix of heathen superstition and papist mystification. Boston's public schools required attendance on Christmas Day long after the disappearance of Puritanism (as late as l870), punishing children who stayed idolatrously home with one of the newfangled German evergreen trees.

In the progressive era, reformers deplored the sweatshops that used child labor to make gift boxes for department stores (paperboard production increased roughly threefold from l880 to l900). Progressives also tried to shame Americans into charitable acts. The great muckraker Jacob Riis helped the Red Cross establish Christmas Seals in l907. Riis' book for children, "Is There a Santa Claus?" (l904), promoted holly, evergreens, stocking-hanging, and the big fat guy in the red suit, but, Marling notes, still thought it realistic to try to keep these untainted by materialist values. He called gift-giving "a barbaric cult...a nightmare to the shopper and the clerks in the big stores."

Republican Presidents Teddy Roosevelt and Calvin Coolidge were offended by the senseless waste of trees. According to some stories, the conservationist TR forbade his children to have a Christmas tree but was talked out of it by the greater conservationist, his chief forester, Gifford Pinchot. Pinchot reputedly convinced the president that "by cutting smaller trees, Christmas tree gangs actually helped thin the forests and encourage the growth of the surviving timber." Surrounded by evergreens in his home state of Vermont, the puritanical Calvin Coolidge had never indulged in the frivolity of a Christmas tree at home, and in l923 he refused to speak at the lighting of the official American tree behind the White House, though he agreed, dyspeptically, to switch on the 3,000 electric lights on it.

By then, the trend was irreversible: By the first decade of the 20th century, one American family out of four put up a Christmas tree, "essentially wasting four million trees that might otherwise have gone to paper mills and other industrial uses." The Hallmark corporation came to life, not to answer demand for tacky cards but by creating a market for gift-wrapping paper--"or, as we called it then, 'gift dressing,'" says the chain's founder Joyce Hall. F.W. Woolworth also laid the cornerstone of one of the great American fortunes on the importation (again from Germany) of tree ornaments.

Higher education, true to form, followed the lead of big business and helped to clean up its image. Professor Charles Howard founded the first Santa Claus School in l937, providing a week-long curriculum of makeup, child psychology, economics of the toy industry, and showmanship, and awarding a B.S.C, or Bachelor of Santa Claus, to successful candidates.

A former department-store Santa himself, Howard knew how to sell a program. He bombarded stores with solicitations, asking "Is Your Santa Claus Delivering l00 Per Cent Value?" Howard's greatest concern was the declining moral reputation of Santas, thanks to all "the bums, ham actors, and thousands of odd-job men" who plied the trade. Academic credentials, as in so many other realms of modern life, helped make Santas respectable again.

"Christmas is a time when utter perfection seems within human reach,"

Marling notes with characteristic perception and sympathy. She might have added more commentary--perhaps in her chapter on "The Christmas Business"--about the well-known other side of the hopes and reassurances. Drug sales (legal and illegal) follow the Christmas boom, as does spending on psychological services, not to mention suicide prevention and clean-up. Expectations of perfection on earth can yield crippling disappointments.

Many excellent reasons remain to rein in Christmas celebrations. But Marling finds a great deal of charm and unselfishness in the public's seemingly eternal return to them every year. It is a bracing (and, for the cynic, humbling) experience to read her thorough research, reported with clarity and wit.



more from beliefnet and our partners