The Evolution of Christmas: Holiday Happenings in “Better Homes and Gardens,” December 1926

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Next year, Better Homes and Gardens will celebrate its centennial and, given how many magazines have come and gone since then, its longevity is pretty remarkable, especially given the dramatic transformations in the publishing industry. Founded in Des Moines, Iowa in 1922 under the title of Fruit, Garden and Home by former federal Secretary of Agriculture Edwin Meredith, the journal adopted its current name two years later and it grew to be one of the most popular magazines in the nation.

Tonight’s featured object from the museum’s collection is the December 1926 issue and we specifically are looking at Christmas-related content, though there is much other interesting material including articles on building a house, a plot plan for a “unit house,” apple and pear growing, raising mock oranges, attracting winter birds, and an installment of “Homes of Famous Americans” featuring the Kansas log cabin of the famed abolitionist John Brown.

Helen Cowles LeCron’s feature “Under the Library Lamp” offered a long list of “New Books As Possible Christmas Gifts” with the writer noting “and now that the stores are crowded with Christmas seekers and Everybody on Earth is wondering (goodness me!) what to choose for Somebody Else, it is only natural that I should be pushing the claims of books ahead of all other gifts.

LeCron warned, however, that “book-giving is the most ticklish kind of giving in the world” because “giving the right book to the wrong person is bad enough, but giving the wrong book to the right person is an unforgivable mistake.” To make the right call, however, means that “you will qualify as a Santa Claus of the first rank” which was certainly a stature “worth striving for.”

Interestingly, she recommended against buying novels, unless the recipient was “particularly fond of a certain author.” And, she just happened to be ready to recommend a few fine examples, including The Silver Spoon, a new book by John Galsworthy, best known for his Forsyte Saga; Hugh Wapole’s Harmer John, Edna Ferber’s Show-Boat, which, of course, went to be much more famous as a musical, and The Private Life of Helen of Troy, the best selling book in the country that year.

Still, LeCron went on, “general books are much easier choosing,” and works on gardening, build-it-yourself items, educational psychology, home decoration and cooking were among those she recommended. She added that “travel-books are thrilling these days, esepcially ones about adventure, though literary guide-books were also plugged including three volumes by Clara E. Laughlin under the “So You’re Going” heading—these concerning travel to England, France, and Italy.

Also mentioned were some recent works on politics and history, such as Claude Bowers’ Jefferson and Hamilton or Our Times by Mark Sullivan, the latter a “gossipy record of the political and historical changes of the last thirty or forty years.” For children, A.A. Milne, the author of the Winnie the Pooh series, published When We Were Very Young, a compendium of poems first issued in 1924 and which became a classic, as well as J.M. Barrie’s beloved Peter Pan and Wendy.

For children between 7 and 12 years, LeCron suggested Father’s Gone A-Whaling, referring to the peak of that industry in New England a century prior. Finally, there was 13-year old Deric Nusbaum’s book about his adventures at the amazing Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado, where the author’s father, Jesse, was the superintendent and an archaeologist, a profession the young author, known under the name O’Bryan, took up as an adult.

Another interesting holiday-related article is Clifford Bloom’s “The Song of the Ages,” which noted that “Carols Are Inseparable From the Real Spirit of Christmas.” He began by observing that “when the voices of the angel host proclaiming the birth of the Christ broke the clear, crisp stillness of that Judean night nearly two thousand years ago, the shepherds on the hillsides of Bethlehem heard the first Gloria in Excelsis and also the very first of all Christmas carols. The call for “peace on earth, good will toward men,” moreover, were crucial “in making Christmas the finest and the most beautiful day of all the year.”

Bloom added that “no other holiday has so rich a heritage of old customs and observances as Christmas” and, beyond decorative plants and candles, “there is one mode of observance which is the same in every land, in every langauge—the Christmas song.” He continued that “the Spirit of Christmas and song are inseparable” through noels and carols, with village watchmen being the first carolers, after those angels at Bethlehem, who “on the eve of Christmas . . . would break the midnight silence with the sweetness of their dream-like and mysterious melodies—sometimes making up the songs as they went along after the manner of the old troubadours; sometimes singing the festive songs already well known to their drowsy listeners.”

From England came such chestnuts as “God Rest You, Merry Gentleman,” “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing,” and “The First Noel,” but “with the rise of Puritanism in England the very existence of Christmas was threatened” as “even the harmless good cheer of the season was frowned upon as being pagan.” Early American Puritans decried anyone celebrating instead of working and, in 1659, Bloom pointed out, observing Christmas was made a crime with a five shilling fine as punishment. If Scandinavians and Germans had not migrated to the United States, “it is very doubtful if we would have inherited much in the way of Christmas music,” including “O, Tannenbaum” and “Silent Night, Holy Night.”

American-created carols included “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear,” and “We Three Kings of the Orient Are,” but the author added that there were lesser-known, but “very interesting” songs like “Carry It On,” from Christianized Dakota Indians, “Rise Up, Shepherds, an’ Foller,” a song by Black Americans and others. He also mentioned “the most universal of all the Christmas songs”, this being “Adeste Fideles,” or “O, Come All Ye Faithful.” of which he noted “this glorious hymn is known and loved and sung not only in the Christmas season but thruout [sic] the year.”

Bloom concluded his article by observing that

there is yet a great need in the everyday world for songs of good will—songs of love—songs of peace . . . the world today is yet far from being entirely free from barbarism and crime, and civilization, our civilization, will become higher and nobler day by day and year by year only as the song of the happy Christmas angels gradually finds its way into the lives and hearts of men.

In the cooking section of the magazine are pieces on “Foreign Foods for the Holidays” by Nell B. Nichols and reader-contributed “Prize-Winning Christmas Candies,” The former included swiss cakes, scotch cookies, English plum pudding, French leaf paste and Italian and Polish tarts, while the latter offered Crabapple Chocolate Delights, Spiced Apple Rings, Mexican Orange Candy, French Chocolate Balls, Grilled Almonds, and a Divinity Roll—this latter offering raisins, dates, figs and nutmeats as part of the recipe.

Marjorie Murphy’s “How to Trim The Christmas Tree” began by proclaiming that “in all the world there is no fragrance more full of meaning, more stimulating to one’s colorful imagining, than that of a Christmas tree.” Notably, she added that, once “our our own tree comes home . . . it may remain hidden for several days . . . which all leads up to Christmas morning.”

It was then that the tree occupied “its rightful place in the chimney corner, glowing with color and light,” so that “the little tree takes posession of the house and we all breathe its sweetness and love it.” The smell brought back memories for adlts, while for the little ones, “it forms a warm and thrilling background upon which to build many happy memories.”

Murphy suggested that “most of us cling to the idea of the old-fashioned, the typical Christmas tree.” This was near the fireplace, with branches that were “broad and full and generous,” the top nearly touching the ceiling,” and “it sparkles and glows with color.” Decorative balls were of green blue, gold, silver and vermillion; chains of popcorn, cranberries and bright paper [the kindergarten variety]; “dearest of all those glittering chains of tinsel;” and, lastly, the tree-top angel or star, were common. So, too were little containers of candy and popcorn, candles or light, gingerbread figures, candy canes and small presents in the branches. Underneath, of course, are the dolls and toys, and “we all know it so well, have known and loved it so well always.”

In recent years, however, there were innovations, such as silver trees, which “might almost have belonged to the Snow Queen” as it “was so cool and glittering.” All the decorations were silver or glass, while white candles in silver holders and small icicles hung from the branches and “over it all was a delicate and shining veil of spun glass.” It was reported that the grandmother of the family who had this tree told them on Christmas morning that “her first thought was of a lovely bride!”

A couple with a baby purchased a small fir tree in a large lower pot and trimmed it so that small presents for the infant could be placed in the lighted branches. Then, “for his second tree, they bought a closely growing evergreen shrub, an arbor-vitae absolutely symmetrical in shape and they made it into a living Christmas card.” Balls and candles were placed just so and they “hung behind it a strip of gold brocade” and both trees “were later planted in the garden, but I am told that this cannot always be done successfully.” An innovation from our time is a tree that is rented from year-to-year.

Another new idea Murphy witnessed was one in which “a small Christmas tree was placed in the center and toward the back of a long refectory table which stood against a wall, a tapestry was hung behind the tree and the table covered with a long runner of red and gold.” Flanking the table were tall red candles, while the lights in the tree were the same color. She added that “Christmas packages were piled at either side of the tree and the whole effect was rich and lovely.”

Somewhat novel, as well, was that “many families now use a tiny tree for the center of the Christmas table, sometimes a real little tree, sometimes an artificial one such as the shops carry.” A club decorated for a holiday dinner with a tree at each table “and to each tree were attached two balloons, one of silver and one gold, by threads of different lengths.”

A few outdoor examples included Murphy’s town where there was “a courtyard square and in one corner stands a great beautiful fir, a magnificent tree. It is our Christmas tree—it belongs to us all” with small lights provided by the local electrical company “and we all stop to enjoy it as we go our ways.” A nearby city had “a beautiful road, which leads to the mountains, lined on either side with great deodars” and “these are wired and lighted” so that “the effect is so lovely, so faerie and dream-like, that one, seeing it can never, never forget.”

She knew of children who decorated a spruce in the front yard with ornaments and lights, but also “hung baskets of crumbs and seeds, bits of suet and little baskets of nuts” as Christmas gifts for the birds and squirrels. The house was near the train station so “as the weary people pased the tree, standing so gaily there in the snow, they felt a responsive glow of happiness and of courage.” Murphy added that “it is a pretty custom, the out-of-doors tree, and many are adopting the idea—individuals and communities.” The Temples, for example, decorated, in the Twenties, a deodar in front of the Workman House and that three still stands there today, though a bit too tall and broad for a reenactment!

Finally, she saw a girl at a holiday costume party who was “dressed as a Christmas tree” and “her slip was green, dotted with tiny glass balls, her bobbed hair was bound with silver, a little red bell on top; for earrings she wore Christmas tree ornaments and her bracelets were made of tinsel. It was quaint and pretty and Christmasy.” The piece ended with the observation that:

Looking forward to Christmas, we can each plan either to repeat for another year the customs lovingly built up and established in “the family,” or to work out some new and original idea. Some love the old—some want the new. With each it is, after all, a question of is own individuality and desire.

There are also advertisements for holiday gifts, including cases “For those Christmas Books;” the Maytag aluminum clothes washer for “Merry Washdays,” as if such was possible; a chest of Stanley Tools for men and boys; books in the “Homes of Famous Americans” series offered by the magazine’s publisher, Meredith Publications; the Synchrophase radio; “The Settlement Cook Book,” which offered women “the way to a man’s heart;” and Lincoln Logs for children, these being invented in 1916 and still being made, sold and enjoyed today.

Editor Chesla Sherlock’s “Across The Editor’s Desk” offered a suggestion for a gift that “will bring the most happiness to those near and dear to us,” namely, a house. While “some may look askance” at this idea, Sherlock asked “can you think of anything better?” Even if a house couldn’t be purchased outright, then give the family “a contract for the purchase of one” because “if you are able to pay rent . . . then you can do this.”

He added that “if you have some money saved up, then use it to acquire an equity in a home, and present that equity to your family on Christmas morning.” What better way was there to provide “continual happiness, contentment and self-satisfaction than this?” He noted that those who own their houses or were paying for one through a mortgage “are no longer transients, tey have a hearth of their own.”

Sherlock imagined a little girl crying out, “Oh, Daddy, we move so much I’m sure Santa Claus will never find us! How will he know where we are when we move every Christmas? Maybe we had better leave a forwarding address for him with the letter man!” But, if that family owned their own house, “even Old Santa knows where to find them.”

Reading through this issue of Better Homes and Gardens is an immersive experience back to Christmas and life in (parts of, at any rate) America 95 years ago. It also reflects much of the evolution of the holiday, especially with the ways in which Christmas trees were being decorated and presented, but also with gift ideas, food, and in other ways. Look for other entries in the “Evolution of Christmas” series here in the next couple of weeks leading to the holiday.

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