- Merry Christmas!: Celebrating America’s Greatest Holiday
American Christmas is inseparable from the images and things that define the holiday. Commonly shared symbols like Santa Claus and the Christmas tree let celebrants engage in ritual practices that give meaning to notions of family, community, and nation. Karal Ann Marling’s latest book offers a sympathetic and often sentimental history of this rich visual and material culture. Moving from the modem holiday’s origins in the middle-class domestic culture of the early nineteenth century, through the waves of commercialization that continue to transform this popular celebration, Marling treats us to a wealth of details, stories, and contemporary illustrations that reveal the way people celebrated America’s “greatest holiday.”
In many ways this is a familiar history. Merry Christmas is the latest addition to a wave of work on the American holiday, which, in the last ten years alone, includes monographs by Stephen Nissenbaum, Penne Restad, and William Waits, as well as chapter-length treatments in books on holidays by Elizabeth Pleck and Eric Leigh Schmidt (not to mention any number of journal articles). These authors describe the hybrid roots of American Christmas in old-world religious, popular, and aristocratic festivities and examine the standardization of Christmas in nineteenth-century bourgeois culture. They explore the holiday’s on-going and somewhat uneasy relationship with commercialism, and underscore its importance for creating and contesting ideals of American community. The history of Santa Claus, Charles Dickens, and Christmas shopping has been told by a variety of authors. Given this prolific literature, can Marling hang anything new on the tree?
As an art historian more interested in mass culture than elite art, Marling is finely tuned to the way things sustain ideas; she makes a strong argument for their centrality to popular celebration. Descriptions of the regalia laid out around the decorated tree, displayed in department store windows, and portrayed in Rockwellesque illustrations capture the beauty and enchantment that Christmas holds for many Americans. The Christmas tree, Santa Claus, department store displays, decorations, holiday charity, cards and gifts, songs, films and television specials are examined in fresh detail. [End Page 231]
By bringing the story of Christmas through the twentieth century and into the present, Marling expands on much of the existing literature, which concentrates on origins and nineteenth-century consolidation. Other writers have shown that modern Christmas was commercialized from the beginning, but Marling shows how consumerism continues to transform popular observances. The popularization of Santa, whose image was only codified in advertisements in the 1920s and 30s—Coca-Cola and Whitman’s candy were the main players—is just one of the conjunctures of commercialism and celebration that have come to define our contemporary holiday. Like heaps of presents under the tree, the book overflows with an abundance of similar stories. Towards the end, Marling hints that in the 1950s, under the massive influence of movies and especially television, Christmas became less innocent, local, and intimate, as a postmodern emphasis on individualism diminished ideals of family and community. This argument, however, is not fully developed.
More substantial are Marling’s insights into the public appropriation of this supposedly private holiday. Again and again, Christmas was used for very public purposes, most obviously by commercial concerns, who used the holiday to pitch their wares. Christmas could be a nationalist, even chauvinist holiday. During wartime, popular media and government propagandists repeatedly tried to manipulate the most tender of family emotions, generated around the Christmas tree, to bolster support for the American military. When Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt together threw the switch that illuminated the “National Christmas Tree” set up on the White House lawn in 1941—a propaganda event that was broadcast into the homes of millions of Americans on the radio—they amply demonstrated that the semi-private rituals of Christmas have immense public resonance. The author ultimately accepts this politicization as appropriate, concluding that “Christmas speaks to the national identityto dreams that come true, to comfort, generosity, and the...