An Americanized Christmas Tradition
An Americanized Christmas tradition connected Americans through shared rituals, nostalgia, and dreams of a better future.
By the 1940s, shared rituals with nineteenth-century roots defined the American Christmas tradition, but that tradition continued to evolve during the postwar decades. The inclusive message of “White Christmas” played a key role. So, too, did the economic forces that made records, radios, television sets, and other consumer goods desirable and widely available.
Department store owners already knew that Christmas was good for the bottom line. In 1939, they had persuaded President Roosevelt to set Thanksgiving on the fourth Thursday of November, ensuring a four-week shopping season.
After the war, Christmas became an economic engine. Americans spent millions on trees, decorations, cards, and wrapping paper. They also bought millions of presents — train sets, bicycles, board games, and Barbie dolls, not to mention neckties and sewing machines.
During the 1950s, Christmas shoppers sparked complaints from police officers, whose headaches from traffic snarls and shoplifters led them to dread what they began to call “Black Friday.” Shoppers also sparked a critique from Theodor “Dr. Seuss” Geisel. In 1957, his “Whos” taught the Grinch — and tried to teach his readers — that what is meaningful about Christmas “doesn’t come from a store.”
The 1950s and 1960s brought continuing Cold War investments in the American way of life — including federal home loans under the G.I. Bill, federal business loans for real-estate developers, and federal funding to construct interstate highways — all of which fueled national economic growth, rising home-ownership rates, and the rapid expansion of American suburbs.
Christmas shopping soon moved to the suburbs, and Christmas advertising followed, much of it aimed at middle-class wives and mothers. Guided by ads and advice in magazines such as Ladies’ Home Journal, suburban women created new domestic rituals — and cherished memories for their children. They decorated homes and trees, devised craft projects, baked and decorated cookies, listened to Christmas albums, read stories, prepared special dishes, and wrapped presents.
Like coonskin caps and Easy Bake Ovens, these new Christmas rituals reinforced gender roles and identities. Racial segregation, economic stratification, and other forces associated with “white flight” to the American suburbs also undercut the unifying power of Christmas.
In December 1955, the predecessor to NORAD announced that it was tracking Santa and, in a nod to the Cold War, promised to protect him “from those who do not believe in Christmas.”14 During the coming decades, the American Christmas tradition continued to reflect nostalgia for the past, but it also captured anxieties about the present and dreams of a better future.
Midcentury Christmas decorations married tradition with space-age technology — from aluminum trees to shiny glass balls, silvery tinsel, shimmering garland, strings of multi-colored lights, and molded plastic tree toppers. This was exciting, but it was also why, in 1965, Lucy Van Pelt called Christmas “a big commercial racket” and why her friend, Charlie Brown, favored a forgotten sapling that — in its authenticity and vulnerability — helped convey the true meaning of Christmas.
As millions of Americans fought for meaningful social change during the 1960s and 1970s, Christmastime continued to inspire hope for the future — just as it inspired John & Yoko to release “Happy Xmas” (1971) and to share their own dreams of peace and goodwill.
The closing decades of the twentieth century saw the holiday season become even more inclusive and thus even more of an economic engine. Black Santas proliferated in department stores, Pancho Claus became a fixture in Texas, and Shogun Santa posed for pictures in Los Angeles. Many Jewish Americans celebrated Christmas, and Adam Sandler wrote “The Hanukkah Song” (1994) for those who did not. Many African American families began to celebrate Kwanzaa as well as Christmas.
As annual holiday spending approached $40 billion during the 1990s, corporate America concluded that seasonal inclusivity (or at least the appearance of it) was good for the bottom line. Retailers redefined “Black Friday” as the day they generated enough profits to finally go “into the black.”
The Cold War had ended, but anxieties about globalization, terrorism, and demographic change fueled a new round of culture wars. In 2004, Bill O’Reilly thus noted that “90 percent of American homes celebrate Christmas,” yet he also warned that Christmas was “under siege” — from phrases like “happy holidays.”15 Megyn Kelly opened a new front in this “war on Christmas” in 2013, when she insisted that Santa Claus is white.
While many baby boomers worried about the “war on Christmas,” only one-third of Americans overall believed it was a concern. The rest focused on more positive aspects of the season, which began to include new family rituals surrounding things like miniature Christmas villages, ugly sweater parties, the “Elf on the Shelf” (2005), and the “Mensch on a Bench” (2013).
The Great Recession of 2008-09 increased economic hardships and holiday stress, especially for women and lower-income families. While corporate America continued to encourage holiday spending — and self-indulgence — some Americans discovered Bill McKibben’s book, Hundred Dollar Holiday (1998), and tried to “simplify Christmas.”
Other Americans indulged in the nostalgic consumption of Christmas entertainment. Radio stations, streaming services, and cable television often made this entertainment difficult to escape, but the deluge of new music, movies, and shows also made the older entertainment seem timeless — and many families maintained traditions of enjoying it together. As one survey respondent noted in the early 2000s, “it wouldn’t be . . . Christmas without Bing singing ‘White Christmas.’”16
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