You hear it all the time. “Christmas is becoming more and more commercialized. Stores begin putting up
their Christmas decorations earlier and earlier every year.”
I think it’s true. It’s not hazy nostalgia leading me to think there was a time when Christmas wasn’t advertised in late September. It really wasn’t.
But thinking about the subject got me wondering what people thought about
Christmas in earlier times. Maybe Christmas really was perfect. Stores began
advertising holiday sales and putting up decorations after Thanksgiving, but
not before. Perfect, like, say when I was 5 years old, in 1963.
But looking though a newspaper from 1963, I came across a cartoon depicting a
frenzied-looking Santa Claus, carrying a sign reading “SHOP NOW,” and chasing a Thanksgiving pilgrim. The caption has the pilgrim saying “Ol Christmas ain’t as slow as it once was.”
Well, what gives? I remember 1963 as perfect, but this cartoonist, working at
the time, thought that the world was going downhill.
I started looking further back.
I found this in a 1954 edition
of Reader’s Digest: “The traffic is terrible. You can’t find a parking space …the stores are crowded … Mob scenes make shopping a nightmare.”
Hmmmmmm. Four years before I was born, the whole holiday situation was obviously
a never-ending nightmare.
How about this, from a 1948
edition of Christian Century:“….
We cannot refrain from asking whether the commercial activities connected with
Christmas are getting out of hand.”
“Once upon a time the Christmas commercial season started after Thanksgiving Day.
If the current trend persists, it won’t be many years before it will be launched right after Labor Day.”
That was written during the Truman administration, and I’ll bet you could get most people to agree with it now. (Maybe because it feels
like it’s coming true).
How far back can this go? How long ago were people saying that stores put up
decorations too early, Christmas is too commercial, and it’s not as good as it used to be?
Well, in 1891 there were no automobiles, no paved roads, nothing that we would
recognize as a shopping center, and “mall” was something that bears did to people who wandered too far from town.
But it’s still possible to find writers bemoaning the crass commercialism of Christmas
and remembering the good old days.
From Harper’s magazine, December, 1891:
“The sentimental Christmas of 30 years ago could not last; in time the
manufactured jollity got to be more tedious and a greater strain on the
feelings than anything happening to one’s neighbor.”
Did the writer really mean 30 years ago? That was written in 1891, meaning the
writer was thinking that Christmas was perfect in 1861. A little subtraction
and a rudimentary knowledge of history shows that this writer held that the
epitome of Christmas good feeling fell in the midst of the bloodiest war this
country has ever seen. Have a Fort Sumter Christmas!
Does all of this mean that those of us born after the Civil War have never known
the kind of peaceful, meaningful Christmas that was once commonplace?
Probably not. Maybe the decorations go up earlier and the advertisments begin
while it’s still baseball season, but I think the whole problem is that we grew up.
Children and adults look at Christmas differently. Children see the pretty
tree, the new toys, and funny Uncle Oscar visiting from Topeka.
Adults worry that the tree is a fire hazard. Adults worry about the damage all
those new toys inflicted on the Visa bill. Adults know that, after a couple of
parties, Uncle Oscar’s red nose will make Rudolph look like a piker.
Against all odds, across the years, we cling to our innocent, childlike images
of our younger days. We remember them as special. And, especially at
Christmastime, we want them back.