Tuesday, December 24, 2013

'A Century of Christmas Memories' - A Book Review

A Century of Christmas Memories, 1900-1999, by the Editors of Peter Pauper Press. White Plains, N.Y.:  Peter Pauper Press, 2009. Hardcover $12.95, 120 pages.

One hundred years ago today, President Woodrow Wilson lit the first national Christmas tree on the grounds of the U.S. Capitol.  Ten years later, Calvin Coolidge presided over a tree-lighting ceremony on the Ellipse south of the White House, beginning a tradition that endures today.

These are two of the historical tidbits included in A Century of Christmas Memories, 1900-1999, a stocking stuffer book attributed to "nameless" editors working for the Peter Pauper Press.

While it contains more than 100 pages spanning ten decades, the book itself can be read cover to cover in less than an hour.  Each item consists of just one or two sentences, and the pages are dominated by photographs and other illustrations.

Designed more to entertain and to evoke nostalgia than to be a serious reference tool, A Century of Christmas Memories has the capacity to send readers scrambling to the encyclopedia or to the Internet to learn more about the events, trends, and commercial products it mentions.

To get a flavor of the book, check out some of the items reported every ten years ending in "3".

One might be surprised to learn, for instance, in one of the entries for 1903 that that was the year that Advent calendars were first introduced:
they are attributed to printer Gerhard Lang.  Legend has it that Lang's mother gave her son a piece of cake or biscuit on each day in December, giving him something to look forward to as he counted down to Christmas.  This inspired his creation of the calendars that offer children treats or favors for each day leading up to December 25.
Besides the debut of the first national Christmas tree, 1913 also saw the birth of the Kewpie doll and the Erector Set, as well as the Goo Goo Cluster candy, the crossword puzzle, and
On December 1, the first "drive-in" gas station opens in Pittsburgh, current home of the Gulf Oil Company.  The price for a gallon of gas?  Eight cents!
Ten years later, when Coolidge lit the Christmas tree outside the White House ("illuminated by 2,500 lights"), Paul Whiteman's orchestra had a hit with the holiday-themed "Parade of the Wooden Soldiers" and the Hasbro company, eventually known for producing popular toys left under the Christmas tree, was founded.

In the midst of the Depression, 1933 saw the erection of the first Rockefeller Center Christmas tree and the first Radio City Music Hall Christmas Spectacular (featuring the Rockettes).

During the Second World War, the U.S. government suggested giving war bonds as Christmas presents.  In 1943, Bing Crosby had a hit record with "I'll Be Home for Christmas" and -- despite otherwise suspending the expansion of the TV industry -- there was an experimental broadcast of Dickens' A Christmas Carol.  (How many -- or how few -- viewers saw it is not noted.)  Overseas that year, American GIs decorated Christmas trees in Italy with the leftover foil from their C-rations and sailors on the U.S.S. North Carolina sent a large check to Macy's with instructions to provide gifts to their families across the country.

In the peace and prosperity of 1953, President Dwight D. Eisenhower produced the first White House Christmas cards, featuring his own artwork.   Classic holiday recordings introduced that year included Eartha Kitt's sultry "Santa Baby" and Louis Armstrong's novelty number, "Zat You, Santa Claus?"  That was also the year that Matchbox cars were first found under the tree on Christmas morning.

In the wake of President John F. Kennedy's assassination, Christmas 1963 was somewhat subdued, as suggested by Roy Orbison's recording of Willie Nelson's song, "Pretty Paper," but that year in England, the Beatles sent their fans the first of several special recordings of holiday greetings and Andy Williams first recorded the now-seemingly ubiquitous "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year."  Toy manufacturer Hasbro introduced the Easy-Bake Oven in 1963, selling half a million units that first year.

The OPEC oil embargo dimmed some lights for Christmas 1973, but that year saw the debut of Dungeons & Dragons and the first Hallmark collectible ornaments.  Songwriters Johnny Marks ("Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer") and Irving Berlin ("White Christmas") received the 1973 Spirit of Christmas Award from the International Society of Santa Claus.

Today we think a 24-hour cable-TV marathon of A Christmas Story is a tradition whose origins are lost in the mists of history.  It turns out that movie premiered in 1983, as did the Eddie Murphy-Dan Aykroyd vehicle Trading Places and ABC-TV's annual Mickey Mouse Christmas parade broadcast from Disney World.

The fourth year of the last decade of the twentieth century, 1993, featured the release of Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas, a hybrid holiday film.  Big toys that year were action figures based on the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers TV series and the biggest bubble commodity since tulips and before Bitcoin, the Beanie Babies:
this is the year the first Beanie Babies are unleashed on an unsuspecting public, creating a craze that would last for years.  The Original Nine?  Spot the Dog, Squealer the Pig, Patti the Platypus, Cubbie the Bear, Chocolate the Moose, Pinchers the Lobster, Splash the Orca, Legs the Frog, and Flash the Dolphin.
The twenty-first century is beyond the scope of A Century of Christmas Memories, but let's take a look back at what happened on December 25, 2003, just ten years ago, to continue the nostalgia,  The top three films that day (per box office receipts) were The Lord of the Rings:  Return of the King, Cheaper by the Dozen, and Paycheck.  Billboard's top single for that week was "Change Clothes" by Jay-Z.  The AP headlined a story: "‘Secret Santa’ spreads $40K worth of cheer" about a man in a Santa suit passing out $100 bills to strangers.

What will a future edition of A Century of Christmas Memories have to say about the holiday season of 2013? Perhaps we'll be remembering Pajama Boy, but only the editors of the Peter Pauper Press know for sure.

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