Monday, December 19, 2011

The Christmas Experience in Song and Story


It may come as a surprise, but there are actually three Christmases. The first, treated previously, reviewed the religious celebration of Christmas as it was adapted to the needs of America in the 19th century.
The second, described here, concerns the cultural celebration of the Christmas season in art, music, books and films.
The third is the shameful consumerism that pervades the period between Thanksgiving and New Year’s.

Santa Claus
St. Nicholas was a real person about whom we know very little. He has become the most beloved nonbiblical saint in the history of the Christian religion. Noted for his generosity, he was the bishop of Myra (in present-day Turkey) in the fourth century. There is no real connection between St. Nicholas and Christmas. He died on December 6, and that date became his feast day in the Church.
It was Washington Irving, the first internationally known American author, who gave us a word-picture of St. Nicholas. Irving described him in his 1809 comic Knickerbocker’s History of New York as wearing a broad-brimmed hat, a clay pipe and a huge pair of Flemish “trunk-hose.” He also flew over trees in a horse-drawn wagon and slid down chimneys to deliver gifts. Without Washington Irving there would be no Santa Claus.
Another development in the creation of the image of Santa Claus came with the poem popularly called "The Night before Christmas" attributed to Clement Clark Moore and first published anonymously in the Troy, N.Y. Sentinel in 1823. Accounts vary about the circumstances of this publication. One claim was that someone copied the poem from Moore’s album and submitted it unsigned to the newspaper, after which it was widely reprinted.
However, the family of Revolutionary War veteran Henry Livingston, Jr., maintains that he wrote the poem. Moore never claimed authorship until nine years after Livingston’s death in 1828 (in an 1837 anthology of poems by various authors). Descendants and scholars on both sides still argue about its authorship.
Cartoonist and illustrator Thomas Nast next put his stamp on the image of Santa Claus. Nast had invented the Republican elephant and the Democratic donkey as political party symbols. He added other details to the Santa mythology, including his North Pole toy-making workshop with elves as his assistants, letters from children, massive ledgers to record children’s names and the practice of leaving snacks for Santa on Christmas Eve.

Greeting Cards
The first true commercial Christmas card did not make its appearance until 1843. Designed by John Calcott Horsley for Henry Cole, it was printed in London and hand colored by an artist named Mason. The Horsley-Cole card is considered a forerunner of modern Christmas cards in that it leaves little room for personalization by the sender. It anticipates a new commercial awareness of the commercialization of Christmas and the need to recognize a wider circle of friends and family members.
            R.H. Pease, engraver, lithographer and variety store proprietor in Albany, N.Y., distributed the first American-made Christmas card in the early 1850s, but the practice of exchanging cards did not immediately catch on in the U.S. The few cards sent usually were imported from England.
American indifference to cards was eventually overcome by Louis Prang, a German-born immigrant. The 24-year-old Prang left Germany after the 1848 revolution and established himself in Boston, setting up a lithographic business with Julius Mayer in 1856.
Prang introduced his Christmas greeting cards in 1875using well-known American painters and illustrators to produce original works of art for his cards. Prang cards were such a hit he could not keep up with the demand. He increased his work force and was soon selling more than five million cards annually.
Prang's cards sparked intense competition from British and German manufacturers. By the 1890s, German greeting cards dominated the trade, and Louis Prang withdrew from the greeting card business. Between 1900 and 1910, most of the major American greeting card companies were established. The modern American greeting card was born in the studios of Rust Craft, Hallmark, Gibson and Norcross.

Dickens’s A Christmas Carol
Although Charles Dickens included Christmas incidents in his Pickwick Papers and Sketches by Boz, nothing he wrote compared to the success of his 1843 A Christmas Carol. Dickens made two trips to the United States. On his second trip, a three-month tour in 1867, he presented dramatic readings of his classic Christmas story. In Boston, 10,000 tickets were sold weeks before his appearance, people stood in the cold all night long and in New York to buy tickets.
Dickens’s enduring novella extolled the virtues of brotherhood, kindness and generosity at Christmas, but it also reveals an illuminating picture of Christmas in England, where it was a common practice for businesses and shops to remain open on Christmas Day.

Christmas Music
Music heard at Christmas time can be divided into three categories: The first includes traditional hymns, many composed in medieval times. A second group includes Christmas carols. Among the popular carol favorites are such standbys as "Joy to the World," "O Little Town of Bethlehem," "It Came upon a Midnight Clear” and "Silent Night."
Three days before Christmas in 1952 playwright George S. Kaufman learned a bitter lesson from an injudicious comment about a Christmas carol. He opened the panel show “This is Show Business" by suggesting, "Let's make this one program on which nobody sings 'Silent Night.'" The CBS switchboard quickly lit up with hundreds of calls protesting his “irreligious remark.” The sponsor, the American Tobacco Company, fired Kaufman.
The third kind of Christmas music developed more recently includes songs by popular artists that usually focus on the cultural aspects of Christmas. In the latter category, two songs stand out: “White Christmas” and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”
Irving Berlin was an established composer of hits, 23 of which were included in 20th Century-Fox’s 1938 hit Alexander's Ragtime band. In 1942 Paramount decided to do a similar film. Because Berlin had written many songs about holidays, he came up with the idea for Holiday Inn, a movie featuring the song and dance team of Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire. Berlin, a Russian-born Jew, composed the ubiquitous "White Christmas" especially for this film.
Capturing the images of an idealized, snowy Christmas, the song became popular with servicemen during World War II and on the home front. Bing Crosby would sing "White Christmas" again in the 1946 movie Blue Skies and a third time in the 1954 film White Christmas. His original recording of the song for Decca sold more than 31 million copies. Sales of "White Christmas" in its many versions totaled more than 125 million copies.
The song “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” appeared initially as a poem, two and a half million copies of which were given away in 1939 by retailer Montgomery Ward. In 1946 the company printed it and distributed it again; this time the total was three and a half-million copies.
Montgomery Ward then generously reverted the rights to the author of the poem, Robert May. May's brother-in-law, Johnny Marks, turned the story into a song. Bing Crosby, Dinah Shore and other singers declined to record it, but singing cowboy Gene Autry saw its possibilities. The rest, as saying has it, is history. It sold two million records in 1949 alone.
Other well-remembered Christmas songs include Crosby's poignant "I'll Be Home for Christmas," a wartime promise by a lonely G.I. to the folks back home, "The Christmas Song" ("Chestnuts roasting on an open fire"), introduced by Mel Tormé but popularized by Nat King Cole, and "Home for the Holidays" ("Oh, there's no place like home for the holidays") a Perry Como favorite toward the end of the Korean War..
Sung by Judy Garland, the song "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" figures prominently in the 1944 musical Meet Me in St. Louis. In his film The Victors, director Carl Foreman used Frank Sinatra’s version of the song as background music to a gripping scene in which Sgt. Eli Wallach’s infantry squad is plucked from combat to witness the execution of an American deserter.

Christmas Movies
Everyone seems to have their own favorites, ranging from musicals to comedies. Christmas movies have been made during the entire history of cinema; three movies stand out: It's a Wonderful Life (1946), Miracle on
34th Street (1947), and A Christmas Story (1983).
It's a Wonderful Life was a disappointment at the box office when first released. Frequent playing by television stations over the years developed a wide, devoted audience, making it the classic American Christmas movie. This touching story tells how a man (Jimmy Stewart) who regards himself as a failure and is contemplating suicide is saved by family, friends and an inept, bumbling angel. Lionel Barrymore played a hard-hearted Scrooge-like banker.
.Miracle on 34th Street includes a character, Kris Kringle (played by veteran actor Edmund Gwenn), who actually thinks he is Santa Claus. At one point, he reveals the true spirit of Christmas, saying, “Oh, Christmas isn’t just a day--it’s a frame of mind.” Praised for its balance of whimsy and emotion, this movie, a joyously moving tale about goodness, faith and the human need for fantasy, won three Academy Awards. It also highlights a child’s desire for a family and a home; the child was played by eight-year-old Natalie Wood.
. A Christmas Story is a hilarious family comedy about a boy, Ralphie Parker, obsessed with getting an air rifle Christmas--an Original Red Ryder Carbine-Action 200-Shot Lightning Loader Range Model with a Shock-Proof High Adventure Combination Trail Compass and Sundial set in the stock. The delightful story was written by Jean Shepherd, longtime late-night monologist and storyteller on WOR radio.
Other films are seen less frequently at Christmas time but all have their fans. These include Amahl and the Night Visitors (1951), a TV opera by Gian Carlo Menotti; The Bishop’s Wife (1947) with Cary Grant as a dapper celestial visitor; A Christmas Carol (1938) in a Hollywood version as bright and cheerful as a Christmas card; Christmas in Connecticut (1945), with an improbable scenario in which Barbara Stanwyck, a high-powered magazine editor, entertains a wounded sailor in rural Connecticut; Come to the Stable (1949), in which two French nuns travel to Pennsylvania to build a charity hospital; and How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966), based on the popular children's book by Dr. Seuss..
It is interesting to note that the books, cards, music and films described here were all commodities produced for the Christmas season. Such examples of the popular culture reflect Christmas in a society growing more multicultural every day. With few of its former references to religious doctrine, Christmas has become a virtual winter festival in which consumerism has triumphed, and shopping and gift-giving are central to the Christmas experience.

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