Sunday, January 03, 2010

126-128 (2010 #1-#3): Three American Christmas Cultural History Books

A house in my small neighborhood was on the holiday Candlelight Tour of Homes this year. Other houses in the neighborhood were asked to go all out with outdoor decorations, as the tour has Saturday evening hours the first weekend of December. Given that our planned unit development of 20-odd lots is supposed to have homes that "reflect the styles of single family homes typically constructed in the United States in the years from 1910 through the 1940s (since we are adjacent to our city's historic district), I thought I would research to find out what kinds of outdoor decorations were being used during that period. I requested five books through interlibrary loan.

Unfortunately, due to being ill and requesting the books too late to get them before Thanksgiving, I wasn't able to use them for this purpose this year, but decided to read them anyway. Here are reviews of the first three (since they are due tomorrow!):
A quick preview of Merry Christmas! Celebrating America's Greatest Holiday by Karal Ann Marling made me think that this was someone's dissertation. The book has 442 pages (which includes 67 pages of endnotes, a six-page index, and four pages of acknowledgements) and few illustrations, all of which are in black-and-white. It was published by Harvard University Press. It turns out I wasn't too far from the truth. Marling is currently a professor in both art history and American studies at the University of Minnesota, and a "well-known specialist in American culture."

In her preface, Marling states that the book is "about the visual and material culture of Christmas in America." In nine (long) chapters, Marling discusses various aspects of the American Christmas such as gift wrap, decorations (greenery, lights, ornaments, toy villages), trees, Santa Claus, and retail (window displays, parades, and store Santas), and their evolution over time.

She uses period illustrations from magazines and advertisements to illustrate many of her points. Some of these are included in the book, but many are not; they are only described. This was a weakness of the book, in my opinion, as I really wanted to "see" what she was talking about. None of the included illustrations are in color (even though, for example, Norman Rockwell's famous Saturday Evening Post covers were done in color).

At times the writing feels forced and dry, as if Marling was trying to include every bit of research she did in the book, and more illustrations would have helped relieve this (plus made some of her points better). However, I suppose including more illustrations would have made the book even longer than it is. I particularly liked the last two chapters, on greeting cards and gifts and on Christmas songs, movies, and television specials.

Susan Waggoner's It's A Wonderful Christmas: The Best of the Holidays 1940-1965 is organized similarly to Marling's book, with chapters on trees and ornaments, indoor and outdoor decorations, greeting cards and gift wrap, shopping and retail practices, gifts for adults, toys, Santa, and holiday travel and food. This book would have been particularly helpful in sparking memories for participants (like me) in the 2009 Geneabloggers Advent Calendar of Christmas Memories.

The book is 104 pages long and profusely illustrated with period images (many from advertisements or catalogs). In fact, in this case, I would have liked MORE information about the sources for the illustrations. Of particular interest to me were sections detailing the types of greeting cards sent in the 40s, 50s, and 60s; a list of new holiday songs published from 1942 to 1963; gift shopping lists (with prices) for each decade, and a chronology of the introduction of various popular toys from 1942 through 1965.

The third book was the best one. Also by Waggoner, Christmas Memories: Gifts, Activities, Fads, and Fancies, 1920s-1960s was just published in October 2009. It has a chapter devoted to each of these decades, addressing most of the same topics as in her other book. Each chapter features a "cost of Christmas" list of popular gifts and holiday supplies, with their prices at that time and in today's dollars. She also includes some quotations and short narratives of personal experiences of herself and others, often accompanying photographs; as well as "must-have" toy lists for each year from 1950 through 1968.

This 127-page book is illustrated like Waggoner's other, and again, my only complaint is that I would have liked more details on the sources and years for each illustration (even if presented as notes at the end of the book rather than in captions). This book got passed around among my parents and aunt (born 1928-1930), spouse (born 1941), and siblings and in-laws (born 1956-1964) during the holidays, and elicited a lot of comments and memories.

[These three books were all obtained via interlibrary loan from various libraries around the country, and are being returned to them tomorrow.]

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