Selling Christmas - Part 2
inDecember 20, 2011 - 12:52pm
The next turning point in the evolution of an American Christmas came in 1822 when professor Clement Clarke Moore wrote "An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas" for his 3 young daughters. "'Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house" began this timeless poem that is largely responsible for the concept of Santa Claus today. In the poem, the "jolly old elf" travels around the world in his miniature eight reindeer-pulled sleigh and can magically drop down chimneys with a nod of his head.
Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol in 1843 which not only emphasized goodwill but the blessings of family as well. Coupled with this was an emerging awareness of a childhood stage and greater interest in child welfare. Suddenly, Christmas was seen as a family holiday based on old traditions that embraced childhood. The young nation was rich in spirit but had little in the way of "old" traditions so it looked to other countries and adopted ideas like sending cards and gifts. Ultimately, America would re-invent Christmas.
The idea of the Christmas tree comes to us from Germany and it's believed that 16th century Protestant reformer Martin Luther was the first to add lit candles to a tree. Trees were first noted in the 1830s among German Pennsylvania settlers but it wasn't until 1846 when a sketch of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert standing with their children around a Christmas tree appeared in the Illustrated London News that their popularity really grew. Royals had a tremendous influence on American culture and by the 1890s, Germany was successfully mass producing ornaments for the American market. Electricity brought about Christmas lights and soon every town square across the USA boasted it's own Christmas tree. Having one in the home became a permanent American tradition.
In 1863, political cartoonist Thomas Nast drew the first image of Santa similar to how we see him today. Santa appeared on the cover of Harper's Weekly that year wearing a white fur trimmed tan suit that was later to become red. Nast also created the North Pole workshop, Mrs. Claus and the elves.
Other notable contributors include Francis P. Church and American artist, Norman Rockwell. Church was the Editor of the New York Sun who in 1897 responded to a letter from eight year old Virginia O'Hanlon who asked, "Is there a Santa Claus?". His published response was of course, "Yes Virginia, there is a Santa Claus". Rockwell's influence can never be underestimated. His portraits can evoke instant emotion like no other medium I know. Many of the images we associate with Christmas come to us from him and are forever sketched in our hearts and minds. Beginning in 1916, Rockwell published a total of 322 original covers for The Saturday Evening Post over a period of 47 years. Here's my favorite where a stunned little boy first learns the truth about Santa.
Christmas ads were first seen in 1820 and by the 1840s holiday advertisments were placed in a separate section of the newspapers. Child-magnet Santa was prominent in all the ads but in 1841, store owner J.W. Parkinson went a step further in Philadelphia by presenting the first "real" Santa, a man hired to dress the part and climb the store's chimey. And so began the annual custom of the tormenting of parents by their children who were delighted to line up to sit on a live Santa's lap.
Along with Santa are many seasonal icons that were products of advertising. To help boost traffic, in 1939 Montgomery Ward department store copywriter Robert L. May wrote about Rudolph, a reindeer who was teased about his glowing red nose but saved Christmas by helping Santa deliver presents one foggy Christmas Eve. The store sold a whopping 2.5 million copies that year and even more when it was re-issued in 1946. Johnny Marks wrote a song recorded by Gene Autry in 1949 but I think what most of us remember is that wonderful 1964 Burl Ives narrated special. Christmas just wouldn't be the same without those nostalgic Rankin Bass claymation cartoons!
Now you just can't mention Christmas advertising without mentioning Coca Cola. The company's first holiday ads in the 1920s used Nast's version of Santa. In 1930, artist Fred Mizen painted a department store Santa in a crowd drinking a Coke at the world's largest soda fountain located in the Famous Barr Co department store in St. Louis. The painting was used in print ads and appeared in the Saturday Evening Post December that year. The ad campaign was successful and in 1931, the company hired illustrator Haddon Sundblom to create ad images for Santa Claus. Sundblom was partial to Moore's "A Visit From St. Nicholas" in which Santa was described as "chubby and plump". For the next 35 years, Sundblom painted those warm, cheerful and always timely portraits that ultimately formed our vision of Santa today.
As a Canadian, I can honestly say no one does it like the Americans! When we conjure up images of an old Victorian Christmas, it's really an American Christmas that springs to mind and it has spread across the entire world. Though they borrowed their traditions from cultures all over, look now how many of those cultures have incorporated the American spirit of Christmas into their own customs. The image of Coco Cola's Santa is known to nearly every child regardless of country, color or creed. I'm with Francis Church, "May He continue to make glad the heart of childhood".
Wishing everyone a Blessed and safe holiday!
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