IN 1939, WHILE the nation’s business still suffered from the Depression, the month of November happened to have five Thursdays and Thanksgiving Day was scheduled to fall on November 30. But celebration of the holiday on the traditional last Thursday would have been unfortunate for the nation’s merchants. With business lagging, they needed every fillip they could find, and by tradition the Christmas shopping season did not begin until the day after Thanksgiving. In New York City, Detroit, and elsewhere, the opening of the season was customarily marked by a Christmas-oriented Thanksgiving Day parade. It is not surprising, then, that under the circumstances an enterprising Ohio department-store owner, Fred Lazarus, Jr., proposed that the nation move the celebration of Thanksgiving to the earlier Thursday, November 23, which would add a whole week to the “Christmas shopping” season. The Ohio State Council of Retail Merchants and the Cincinnati Enquirer endorsed the idea. In Washington, President Franklin D. Roosevelt greeted the suggestion with enthusiasm, and proclaimed that in 1939 Thanksgiving should come on November 23.
President Roosevelt’s “tampering with the calendar” (like the establishing of Standard Time a half-century before) was labeled by some as an interference with the divine order, but within a few years, all the states had fallen in line by enacting Thanksgiving as the fourth Thursday. Only a few continued to declare their independence from federal fiat by authorizing a Thanksgiving holiday on both the fourth and the last Thursday.
It was a little-known oddity of American life that the United States, unlike other nations, actually had no “national” holidays established by law. Under the federal system the legalizing of holidays had been left to the states. The President’s only power over holidays was to issue proclamations focusing national attention and to give a day off to federal employees in the District of Columbia and elsewhere. Thanksgiving had grown up simply as a national custom. President Lincoln in 1863 was the first to issue a presidential Thanksgiving proclamation, and then the legal holiday was created by separate laws in each of the states. This trivial shift in the date of President Roosevelt’s proclamation of a national Thanksgiving was significant mainly for what it revealed of the American Christmas; and for what it told of the transformation of this ancient festival into an American Festival of Consumption.
IN THE EYES of the early New England Puritans, Christmas was a menace to the pure Christian spirit. Fearing “popish” idolatry, the General Court of Massachusetts in 1659 passed an act punishing with a fine of five shillings for each offense “anybody who is found observing, by abstinence from labor, feasting, or any other way, any such days as Christmas day.” By 1681 they felt secure enough against “popery” to repeal the law, but they still feared giving the day any ritualistic significance. In his diary for 1685, Judge Samuel Sewall, for example, expressed his satisfaction that on Christmas day he saw everybody conducting business as usual. During the next two centuries, while Christmas was somehow Americanized, it still remained a simple folk holiday marked by no grand religious observance and with little commercial significance. The season is hardly recognizable, for example, in the pages of the New York Tribune for the month of December 1841, which are barren of flashy Christmas advertising and simply repeat the unchanging copy which merchants had run for months. In a few instances when gifts are mentioned, they are referred to as “Christmas and New Year’s” presents; Santa Claus has not yet entered the Christmas scene.
By the era of the Civil War the old festival, characterized by folksy conviviality, was beginning to be transformed. There were signs that the holiday was on its way to becoming a spectacular nationwide Festival of Consumption. On December 24, 1867, the first Christmas Eve when R. H. Macy’s remained open until midnight, the store set a record with one-day receipts of $6,000. In 1874 Macy’s offered its first promotional window displays to have an exclusively Christmas motif, featuring the Macy collection of dolls, and from then on the Christmas windows became an annual institution. During the next years, those Macy departments whose volume depended heavily on the Christmas trade increased their share of the store’s total sales. Other department stores, too, began the practice of staying open late during the last two weeks before Christmas. December began to become the big month for retailers, and by 1870, December sales were already double those of May, the next best month.
Still, in 1880 Christmas was so undeveloped that a manufacturer of Christmas-tree ornaments had difficulty persuading F. W. Woolworth to take $25 worth of his product. Within a few years Woolworth’s annual order of Christmas-tree ornaments from this supplier alone came to $800,000. In the next half-century, he drew on numerous suppliers and his orders totaled $25 million. “This is our harvest time,” Woolworth instructed his store managers in December 1891. “Make it pay.”
Give your store a holiday appearance. Hang up Christmas ornaments. Perhaps have a tree in the window. Make the store look different…. This is also a good time to work off “stickers” or unsalable goods, for they will sell during the excitement when you could not give them away other times. Mend all broken toys and dolls every day.
By 1899 Woolworth’s Christmas trade was reaching a half-million dollars. In order to avert a strike at that crucial time of year, Woolworth introduced a system of Christmas bonuses ($5 for each year of service, with a limit of $25).
The mail-order houses began to issue special Christmas catalogues. At the 1939 Christmas season Montgomery Ward and Company gave away 2.4 million copies of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” a versified story written by an employee in their advertising department. Gene Autry’s singing version became a runaway best-selling record.
Display type was used for Christmas advertising even before it became common for other purposes. Newspaper advertising peaked in December, and then fell off sharply after Christmas. By 1910 more than one third of the nation’s annual output of books was being delivered in the six weeks before Christmas. Before mid-century, one quarter of the whole year’s jewelry purchases were being made in December.
The Christmas Club, which first appeared in 1910, was an arrangement by which a person deposited a specified amount every week during the year, to be accumulated in a special savings account for withdrawal at Christmas time. By 1950 there were more than 10 million members of such clubs in 6,200 banks, in all states of the Union; and their deposits for the year exceeded $950 million.
With the passing decades of the twentieth century, Christmas became overwhelmingly a season of shopping. Gifts which first had the force of good manners actually acquired the force of law. The Christmas bonus (soon “expected but not appreciated”) became a part of the anticipated compensation of employees. In 1951, when a firm reduced its Christmas bonus and the union appealed to the National Labor Relations Board, the board ruled the “Christmas” bonus to be not in fact a gift at all. The employer, they said, was not free to discontinue this practice. Christmas gifts to policemen, mailmen, janitors, and others tended to become a kind of insurance against poor service during the coming year. And the “executive gift” sometimes became a convenient device for evading the laws of bribery.
ONE OF THE most distinctive features of the American Christmas was Santa Claus, who was speedily transformed out of all recognition from his Old World character. There had been a real St. Nicholas, a fourth-century bishop of Myra in Asia Minor, who became the patron saint of Russia, and of mariners, thieves, virgins, and children. According to legend, St. Nicholas had saved three poor virgins from being forced to sell their virtue, by throwing a purse of gold through their windows on three successive nights.
In the United States, St. Nicholas early became a familiar figure of folklore and pseudo-folklore. His earliest conspicuous appearance in American literature was in Washington Irving’s Knickerbocker’s History of New York (1809), where St. Nicholas traveled through the skies in a wagon, and began to acquire some of his other features. The American Santa Claus’s rotund figure, jolly mien, and white beard were conferred on him by Thomas Nast in his series of Christmas drawings for Harper’s Weekly beginning in 1863. By the late nineteenth century, “belief’ in Nast’s Santa Claus had become a symbol of childhood innocence and adult warm-heartedness.
No sooner had Santa become the patron saint of a Saturnalia for children, “bringing treasures for the little rogues,” than he was elevated to patron of a nationwide Saturnalia of consumption. The department store was the proper habitat of Santa Claus Americanus. And he above all others was responsible for moving the primary scene of the festival from the church to the department store. By 1914 a well-organized Santa Claus Association, with headquarters in New York City, had as its object “to preserve Children’s faith in Santa Claus.” The association aimed to secure from the post office the letters addressed to Santa Claus and then reply to them in the name of Santa with letters or gifts. When there was public objection, postal authorities intervened. “All I ask,” the founder of the association urged, “is that these people don’t sock it to us at this time of the year and spoil the faith of little children.”
Widespread demand led to the founding of “schools” for “real” Santa Clauses. The curriculum of the first such school (in Albion, New York) included indoctrination in the history of Santa Claus, dressing for the role, wearing beards, handling children, and other special techniques. A firm called Santa’s Helpers rented out trained Santas for special occasions. In 1948 the City Council of Boston, acting on the complaint of a council member that “there is a Santa on every corner and children are beginning to wonder,” formally requested the mayor to “permit only one Santa in the city in 1949 and to station him on the historic Boston Common.” A bill in the California Senate in 1939 (required, a senator explained, by the sight of Santas “selling everything from bottled beer to automobiles”) aimed legally to restrict the use of Santa’s image.
“Belief” in Santa Claus was widely defended. A sentimental editorial, “Yes, Virginia, There Is a Santa Claus!,” became the classic declaration of faith for agnostic Americans. When a savings bank in Muskegon, Michigan, displayed a sign in 1949 declaring “There Is No Santa Claus—Work—Earn—Save,” local parents protested. And when the sign was removed, the bank president wryly commented, “The myth of Santa Claus is far-reaching and implies a nation of people who seem to accept a Santa Claus with headquarters at Washington.” Judges issued facetious opinions from the bench (ex parte Santa Claus) to defend Santa, and held in contempt of court those who impugned him.
A few dared to put Santa Claus in the tradition of the great American hoaxes. But psychiatrists, the new authorities on national myths, could not take him so lightly. One solemnly declared that “any child who believes in Santa Claus has had his ability to think permanently injured.” Others diagnosed the Santa myth as a symptom of parental insecurity, although some, including the influential Dr. Arnold Gesell, were not unduly alarmed.
THE CHRISTMAS TREE, too, acquired a special American character, and with its numerous accessories it became a significant seasonal industry. One story is that trimmed trees were first introduced to the United States during the Revolution by Hessian soldiers trying to recreate here the holiday of their homeland. In the nineteenth century the Christmas-tree custom was widespread in northern Europe. But the elaboration and electrification, and finally the syntheticizing of the Christmas tree, were reserved for the United States. By 1948 about 28 million Christmas trees were being distributed annually in the United States. The 100,000 acres devoted to Christmas trees were producing a crop valued at $50 million annually. At least after Woolworth began featuring Christmas-tree decorations in the 1880’s, the business of decorations, ornaments and accessories flourished. The Christmas tree was officially recognized in 1923 when the President began the practice of lighting a tree on the White House lawn. Raising trees became more profitable with the development of the ingenious technique of “stump-culture” (by which the tree was severed above live-branch whorls, leaving a pruned number of these to grow, in turn, into trees for the next season). But the rising prices of trees, together with fire hazards and a growing interest in forest conservation, combined to create a new market for synthetic, plastic reusable Christmas trees.
Another thriving American industry—greeting cards—was a byproduct of the American Christmas. Louis Prang, a sixteen-year-old refugee from the German revolutions, came to New York in 1850, acquired a reputation as a lithographer, and pioneered in making colored lithographs of famous works of art (he christened them “chromos” and the name stuck) which he sold for $6 apiece. In 1875 he applied his techniques to producing colorful cards for Christmas, and these came to be esteemed as works of art. Prang’s elegant eight-color chromos of the Nativity, of children, young women, flowers, birds, and butterflies (a few, too, of Santa Claus) gave a certain tone to the practice of sending greeting cards at Christmas and dominated the market until about 1890. When the Christmas card was democratized by the import of cheaper cards from Germany, Prang retired from the business, but even less expensive cards of American make recaptured the market within another twenty years. By the early twentieth century the practice of sending Christmas cards, and then other greeting cards, had become widespread. By mid-century, about 1.5 billion Christmas greeting cards were being sold each season.
As the custom became more widespread, cards tended to become less and less religious in motif. The message, even in Prang’s first de luxe items, had never been predominantly religious. The friendly secularized texts became acceptable to Jews and others who did not subscribe to such theological message as still remained in the American Christmas.
Americans found other ingenious ways to elide religious issues in order to share in the national Festival of Consumption. While the Rabbinical Assembly of America in 1946 protested the school practice of singing Christmas carols as an infringement of freedom of religion, the Jews themselves helped “solve” the problem. They promoted Chanukah, historically only a minor Jewish festival, into a kind of Jewish Christmas, with eight gift-giving days. More than one Jewish child probably asked, “Mother, dear, are we having Chanukah for Christmas this year?”
IN A NATION of consumption communities, there was a tendency for all festivals somehow to become Festivals of Consumption. Mother’s Day was an example.
Something like a Mother’s Day—the fourth Sunday before Easter, a day to honor Mary, the mother of Jesus—had been observed in European countries. “Mothering Sunday” was when servants and apprentices were given a day off to “go a-mothering,” to go visit their mothers. Sometimes the eldest son would bring his mother a “mothering cake,” which was then shared by the family. There appears to be no evidence that Mother’s Day was an American holiday before 1907. In that year an enterprising young lady from West Virginia, Anna Jarvis, much attached to her mother who had died two years before, consulted the Philadelphia merchant John Wanamaker about a suitable way to honor the nation’s mothers. He advised her to campaign for a national observance. Helped by evangelists, newspaper editors, and politicians, the campaign for a nationwide Mother’s Day quickly succeeded. The governor of West Virginia issued the first Mother’s Day proclamation in 1912, and the Mother’s Day International Association was founded. On May 9, 1914, pursuant to a Congressional Resolution, President Wilson issued the first presidential Mother’s Day proclamation urging that the flag be flown on that day.
The simple old “mothering cake” was transmuted into a whole range of Mother’s Day gift merchandise. The practice of noting the day by going to church (wearing a red carnation for a living mother or a white carnation for one deceased) blossomed into a bonanza for telegraph and telephone companies, candy shops, florists, jewelers, and cosmetic manufacturers. Like other American festivals which had originated in church, Mother’s Day too ended in the department store.
In 1934, when retailers needed every possible stimulus to business, Postmaster General James A. Farley ordered a Mother’s Day stamp showing Whistler’s “Mother.” The stamp, said to have been personally designed by President Roosevelt, actually offered a cropped and barely recognizable version of Whistler’s well-known painting, which had been improved for the purpose by a vase of carnations prominently added in the lower left-hand corner. While the American Artists’ Professional League objected to this “mutilation” of Whistler’s painting, Anna Jarvis, the mother of Mother’s Day, went personally to the Postmaster General to protest the transformation of her holiday into an advertisement for the florists’ trade. She finally secured an apology. On the occasion of Mother’s Day 1961 (according to a retail association estimate), more than 55 million families bought Mother’s Day gifts for a total of some $875 million.
It is not surprising, then, that there was also to be a Father’s Day, and the authorship of this idea was claimed by many. In 1910 a lady in Spokane, Washington, supported by William Jennings Bryan, began to campaign for a Father’s Day; in 1916 President Wilson pressed a button in Washington to open the Spokane celebration. In June 1921 the governor of Virginia was persuaded to proclaim a Father’s Day by a young lady who in 1932 registered the name “National Father’s Day Association” with the United States Patent Office. Then, in 1935, a National Father’s Day Committee was established “dedicated to building a democratic world through wholesome child upbringing.” The prime mover for this holiday, Mrs. John Bruce Dodd, unlike the founder of Mother’s Day, was not troubled by the danger of commercialization or the practice of making the day a time for gifts. “After all,” she observed, “why should the greatest giver of gifts not be on the receiving end at least once a year?” The gift idea, she explained, was “a sacred part of the holiday, as the giver is spiritually enriched in the tribute paid his father.”