This year marked the 40th anniversary of my museum’s biggest event of the year, Candlelight. As part of the anniversary, we created a small exhibit and I researched the history of the event. One thing that surprised me was how quickly the key elements of the event came together: buildings decorated by community groups, performances by community groups, and candlelit paths. The core elements of the event are pretty much unchanged since 1972–which is pretty remarkable in this day and age. And there aren’t many museum events anywhere that last for decades–events have a shelf life. Audiences change, staff change, sometimes even missions change. While finishing up this project, I realized that probably the biggest factor that’s led to the longevity of this event is the timelessness of Christmas. People crave tradition this time of year.
We had a smaller event (the reading list and post about last year’s event) this past weekend which featured Christmas chapters from books set during the museum’s time period. I read quite a few bits from the Little House books and Betsy-Tacy to guests. For some little ones, it was their first introduction to Laura and Mary. Many times during the day, I would read a passage, turn to the visitors and say “Does that sound familiar?” And they would nod eagerly, their eyes round with wonder. Though the concept of thinking a very good Christmas was a tin cup, a cake, a stick of candy and a penny is completely out of their realm of imagination, the worry about how Santa would find them is still a big concern for kids today.
Historically speaking, it amazes me how set some of our traditions have been for the past century or so. Though variations of the legend of Saint Nicholas have been around for centuries, Clement C. Moore’s famous poem, “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas,” wasn’t published until 1823. And the visual we have of Santa in a red suit with belly and beard wasn’t firmed up until Thomas Nast drew a cartoon in 1863, smack dab in the middle of the Civil War. (side note: Nast was more famous at the time for his political cartoons, which I find fascinating. Early political cartoons and Santa, all in one artist!) During the 19th century, there were enormous changes in how we celebrated Christmas (for more on this, check out Stephen Nissenbaum’s The Battle for Christmas, which I wrote about last year). But what struck me on this read-through of some old favorites is how these changes weren’t really thought of as new, but the way it’s always been.
Now, historical purists will remind me that the publication dates on these autobiographical novels don’t match the dates they were set, so it’s entirely possible that the attitudes about Christmas better reflect the 20th century than the 19th. But let’s just ignore that for right now and see what we can find that’s stayed virtually unchanged over the past century and more. I had thought about typing out some of these wonderful quote and passages for you, but decided that part of the fun is reading the whole chapter. So, my gift to you is an excuse to pull out an old favorite!
Worry about Santa finding you? Check out multiple volumes in the Little House series, including Little House on the Prairie (no snow!) and On the Banks of Plum Creek (no chimney!)
The joy of finding the perfect gift for someone? Take a look at Anne of Green Gables (puffed sleeves!) or Roller Skates (Trinket’s first Christmas tree).
The worry of not being able to give all you want to? Probably all of the Little House books and Little Women too (“Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents.”)
The importance of stockings! Again, Little House and also the later Betsy-Tacy books.
Hinting about something you want and not trusting your family to get it for you? Why, you simply must read “The Brass Bowl” in Heaven to Betsy (possibly my favorite Christmas passage in the BT books.)
Food, glorious food? Well, descriptions are all over the place, but Farmer Boy immediately leaps to mind. The description of the feast almost takes up a whole page.
The fun of shopping, even if you don’t buy? Why, go no further than Betsy and Tacy Go Downtown, which also includes one of my favorite bits about the importance of believing in Santa, even if you are grown up.
I know I’m leaving out many Christmas classics. What are some of your favorites? These stories have so much in common, even if they were written decades ago. And I think they’re going to last just fine into the future. Even as time and technology hurries forward, some things, especially emotions don’t change much.
And now I must run to do a wee bit of last minute shopping myself. Merry Christmas to you and yours. And happy reading!