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The History of Christmas: Part III

Christmas presents
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In the third and final installment of the “History of Christmas,” a look at the holiday now, and beyond.

“It’s a time – the 1940s and the 1950s – when Christmas really starts to take hold in terms of consumerism,” said Andy Barbero, an historian at Pensacola State College and our partner in crime for this series.

Americans had more disposable income than ever before, leading to a better way of life, and on a larger scale, Barbero says it’s a way for America to show the world that capitalism was the wave of the future.

“The world before World War II had gone through this horrible depression, that had created all this uneasiness and had overturned all of these established economic orders,” Barbero said. “And now, in the 1940s and 1950s with communism being this growing and growing force in the world, Christmas became another way to show the world what the American standard of life and American freedom and American free enterprise was all about.”

As the Soviet Unction became more secular, Barbero says the United States responded by becoming a more religious nation.

“In the 1950s we added ‘Under God’ to our Pledge of Allegiance; it was the 1950s when we put ‘In God We Trust’ on our money. It was the 1950s when President Eisenhower became the first sitting president to be baptized,” Barbero said. “And all of those were the direct result of the threat of Cold War communism.”

Besides turning more to religion, the United States also became more about free enterprise as the USSR banned ownership of private property. Barbero says those were seen as bulwarks against communism and subversion. Where Christmas was concerned, part of that free enterprise increased the targeting of kids, especially in TV ads. One in 1959 featured a brand new doll.

“Barbie dressed for swim and fun is only $3; the lovely fashions range from $1 to $5,” said the voiceover. “Look for Barbie wherever dolls are sold.”

And for the boys….

“The world’s only boxing robots — the Rock ‘em Sock ‘em Robots by Marx. It takes two managers to handle the fighters, and lots of skill to win.”

Children all over the world turn in on Christmas Eve, to await the visit from Santa Claus, who is based on a Danish priest, Saint Nicholas, and popularized through, in part, the writings of Washington Irving, who was featured in Part two.

“Because the same collections of serialized essays that include “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and “Rip Van Winkle” and these four Christmas stories, they also include more of stories surrounding St. Nick,” said Barbero. “In many ways that was what helped propel St. Nicholas and the idea of Santa Claus forward was the literature surrounding Victorian England and then the United States.”

While church attendance has been dropping in recent years, according to Gallup and other polls, Christmas is like rock-n-roll — it’s here to stay, says PSC’s Andy Barbero. But it’s likely to undergo some changes in reflecting what times we’ll be going through in the future.

“Even at a time when church attendance has been down before in American history, Christmas has still been widely celebrated,” he said. “For example, during the 1920s, church attendance began to drop; again, it went back up and then it dropped again in the 1930s.”

What will lead to the changes and Christmas’ survival are the holiday’s different facets and components.

“Yes, it’s absolutely about the birth of Jesus Christ in the Christian Church, but it’s also this time that we all value with our families,” said Barbero. “It’s built into our culture, it’s built into systems,” said Barbero. “Every year kids are off from school; everyone takes their holiday vacations. A lot of businesses shut down during that time. Christmas is baked into American society.”

As we wrap up our series, PSC’s Andy Barbero has our last word.

“Here’s the thing about Christmas; it means different things to different people. Christmas is a religious holiday in one facet, but it’s much more than that. It’s this kind of cultural time that we as Americans — and many parts of the world — come together with our families and reflect. That’s exactly what we’ve always been doing, going back to the celebrations of the Winter Solstice.”