Like an agreeably stuffed literary Christmas stocking, Marling’s entertaining history of how Christmas became America’s top holiday is generously filled with interesting facts, anecdotes, and period illustrations.
Marling (Art History/Univ. of Minnesota) offers some profound analyses of such customs as gift-wrapping and -giving, but mostly she is intent on giving a lively but informative history of the holiday. She traces the evolution of the Christmas tree from a small tabletop decoration trimmed with handmade ornaments to the hundred-foot illuminated behemoths that are now annual fixtures on the Ellipse in Washington and Rockefeller Center in New York. She notes how gifts, originally for children, were at first placed, unwrapped, into stockings, but by the late 1800s were wrapped in white tissue, decorated with holly sprigs, and increasingly piled up under trees. By WWI, the future founder of Hallmark Cards—a stationer—changed wrapping habits even further when he ran out of tissue paper and sold fancy patterned paper instead. The author describes how Santa became a national icon; the changing attitudes to giving to the poor; the origin and growth of Christmas cards; and the impact of popular Christmas songs, movies, and television broadcasts. Despite all the extravagance, the frantic sales pitches (a 1912 marketing report called Santa Claus “our biggest captain of industry”), and the pressure on women to buy, bake, and wrap, Christmas has always been the one holiday that wistfully looks backward, “toward how things used to be or should have been.”
A special holiday treat to be savored while nibbling Christmas cookies and admiring the well-dressed tree.