Merry Christmas!: Celebrating America’s Greatest Holiday

Merry Christmas!: Celebrating America’s Greatest Holiday – Reviews

Joseph B. Perry

Merry Christmas!: Celebrating America’s Greatest Holiday. By Karal Ann Marling (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000. xiii plus 442 pp. $27.00/cloth $16.95/paper).

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. Karat 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.

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 modem 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 l920s 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 identity…. to dreams that come true, to comfort, generosity, and the sheltering warmth of home–to the elusive American dream” (354-5).

Marling clearly adores Christmas. As the subtitle suggests, the book celebrates the holiday, usually uncritically. This is a conscious strategy: rather than examine the material culture of Christmas through the lenses of “orthodox historical discourse,” Marling wants to “recover the truths inherent in the things themselves” (xii). She thus misses repeated opportunities to connect her vast material to the basic analytical terms of American history–class, gender, and race–and unpack holiday sentimentalism as a cultural/historical construct. This is particularly unfortunate in her discussion of images of “Black Christmas” from the 1850s to the early l900s (255-276). Marling is no doubt correct to suggest that such pictures, of slaves celebrating on the plantation or recently freed families celebrating in impoverished surroundings, are about (white) nostalgia for a “Old South” Christmas past that never existed. But she downplays the racist aspects of this series of illustrations in favor of “universal” holiday sentiments supposedly shared by blacks and whites alike (267).

Once a year, hegemonic American institutions, including church, state, the media, and commercial interests, line up to produce a seemingly inescapable discourse about what Christmas means. The Christmases that Marling reconstructs, using mass media sources like family magazines, advertising, films, recordings, and television specials, wonderfully portray this middle-class domestic norm. Yet Marling never really examines the social contests engendered by the holiday. Her frank and sometimes cloying sentimentalism de-emphasizes the way this most popular American ritual inevitably reproduced social division and hierarchy as well as solidarity. Merry Christmas rests somewhat uneasily on the border between popular and academic history. It will frustrate those who look for critical analysis but may be too detailed and insufficiently glossy to reach its target audience; after all, the author wants the book to be “a great Christmas present for your mom!” (xiii).

COPYRIGHT 2002 Journal of Social History

COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group