Remembering Christmases past
Each passing Christmas I begin to think more and more of Christmases past.
As I write this, we are now in the middle of the production of “It’s a Wonderful Life” at the Old Opera House in Charles Town. Before the play there was the movie. In our American culture “It’s a Wonderful Life” has become almost as familiar as Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.”
The movie opened in December 1946. Despite initially being considered a box office flop, the film has come to be regarded as a classic and a staple of the Christmas season. Whenever I see the movie, I am reminded what Christmas was like in Washington, D.C., in the late 1940s. The movie came out a year after the end of World War II. I can remember my mother taking me down to see the store windows at Woodward & Lothrop Department store, or as many shoppers called it, Woodies. Mother liked going in the evening; she wanted to see the lit up window displays. The windows at Woodies were elaborately decorated with Christmas scenes. In 1946 many more people came down to see the displays because it was the first time since the end of the war that the windows were lit up with Christmas decorations and displays.
Other than movies, radio was the main source of entertainment when I was young. During the Christmas season the airwaves were full of Christmas music and all of the big-name stars of the time – such as Bing Crosby, Bob Hope and others – would have their Christmas specials.
The first time I remember Bing Crosby singing “White Christmas” was in 1947. He sang it on his radio show. I remember it because that year I got a Charlie McCarthy radio for Christmas. Edgar Bergen was a ventriloquist who worked with a wooden dummy Charlie McCarthy. The duo was very popular in the 1940s. Whenever I hear that song, “White Christmas,” I think of the small apartment that my mother and I shared and the little Christmas tree she put up by the window.
Another radio program introduced me to Charles Dickens. Every Christmas a radio play called “A Christmas Carol” would be rebroadcast. The program was originally broadcast in 1939 and starred Lionel Barrymore as Scrooge. The radio play was from a book by Charles Dickens that was published in 1843. Not only did I fall in love with Dickens and his Victorian England, I fell in love with Victorian Christmases. His work gave me a feeling for what Christmas must have been like long before I was born.
A version of “A Christmas Carol” came out in the movies in 1951 during Christmas week. The movie stars Alaster Sim. The movie depicts Victorian England. The film was shot in black and white. It is the story of a bitter old man coming to grips with himself and those around him. The movie at the time helped me have a better understanding of Christmas. It left an impression that is still with me today.
Thomas Nast is best known as a political cartoonist who brought down Boss Tweed and Tammany Hall in 1868. Nast is also known for his Christmas drawings. His first drawing a religious-type figure appeared in Harper’s Weekly during Christmas of 1862. This marked the first appearance of Santa Claus. It is this drawing that gives us the picture of the Santa we have today.
By 1886 he had produced 76 Christmas engravings. Nast combined his work with Clement Clarke Moore’s poem a “Night Before Christmas” to put all of his work together in a visual form we see today. The sleigh, reindeer, jolly old elf, Santa filling the stockings hung by the chimney – we see all of that today. Nast invented Santa at the North Pole. That bad kids did not get gifts but large lump of coal all came from the mind of Thomas Nast.
When I was about 12, I received a copy of this book for Christmas. Even as I write, I can still visualize those wonderful pictures.
I could go on forever.
I hope that this year all of you have a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.