This photo comes from the Walker family collection. Theoretically, it should be easy to guess the year, because there’s a calendar right there. But my scan doesn’t have enough resolution. I could consult a perpetual calendar too, but that sounds like too much work. It’s probably the ’30s or ’40s. Certainly well before I was born. My guess would be the ’40s, because I don’t imagine there was money for so many presents in the ’30s. Though it was a large family, and this probably works out to one for each member.
This was the “old parlor” in the house where I grew up. In my time we just called it the living room. The first Christmas tree I remember stood in that very spot, though I recall that one as being somewhat taller and fuller. Later, Dad would knock out a wall and we moved the tree to a different location. I think that carpet was still there when I was very young, and possibly that sad sofa. But we had different curtains by then. They were heavy, and printed with Grandma Moses scenes.
One of those influences was Queen Victoria, who shared her family traditions with the world just as Christmas was beginning to be accepted again in America. (Alabama was the first state to make it legal in 1836.)
As the historian Stephen Nissenbaum summarizes things in The Battle for Christmas, what was once marked by liturgical celebrations at church and festivities in the village, revolving around public rituals and civic activities, eventually turned into a domestic affair, revolving around a children-centric holiday, marked by extravagant gift-giving and, in time, commercial-oriented activities.
Tom Flynn in The Trouble with Christmas adds this remarkable fact: “[It is] surprising how small a role the churches played in the Victorian revival. From its inception, contemporary Christmas was primarily a secular and commercial holiday. The parsons were as surprised as anyone else when after a century-long hiatus, the pews started filling up again on Christmas morning.”
Add to this Dickens giving us the Spirit of Christmas instead of the Spirit of Christ and various artists portraying St. Nicholas as a secular toymaker.
Here’s Sissel singing the most famous Norwegian Christmas carol — Jeg Er Saa Glad Hver Julekveld. Generations of Norwegian-American kids have learned it by rote and sung it for church programs. As did I.
The art here is not really appropriate. It’s not a Santa song. It uses the lighting of the Christmas tree to meditate on the wonder of the Incarnation of Christ. The child sings that he/she loves Christmas because of Jesus.
What a weird season this is turning out to be. I enjoy what I’m doing for a living, but working part-time, from home, turns out to leave me less free time than I had when I was an upstanding cog in the system.
I usually put up my Christmas tree right after Thanksgiving, and I start writing my Christmas letter around the same time. Now it’s the 5th of December, and I’ve done nothing! Nothing!
I have failed as a Norwegian. Christmas is one of the things we do. My ancestors are ashamed of me.
But tonight I’ve put in six hours already, and I have a little latitude on the deadline, and I’ve made a personal commitment to starting the Christmas letter this evening.
Heaven knows I have a lot to write about. Mostly about my new semi-career, the schedule for which is the reason the letter will be late.
My Christmas letter is kind of an annual epic production. First I write it in English, then I translate it to Norwegian, for the recipients over there. Those letters have to go out first, because of postal transit time.
And there was something else, wasn’t there? … Oh yeah, the tree.
Well, the actual old tradition was to decorate and light it on Christmas eve. I may end up being traditional this year.
I’m not in favor of spending a lot to finance fantasies of Christmas perfection, nor do I endorse the sort of gluttony and the psychological overload of “special moments” that makes us feel as though Christmas is a celebratory marathon to recover from rather than savor. Yet, the basic impulse toward excess is not wrongheaded. In fact, given the theological meaning of Christmas, it’s altogether fitting in its way.
R.R. Reno says the incarnation of God is most expensive, most exorbitant gift ever given. That doesn’t totally justify our modern day Christmas excesses, but it does give them a little room. The problem is less with our excessive celebration and more with how we view our excesses in comparison to God’s.
God does not give himself to us by assembling the good things of life into a giant banquet. Instead, we get Jesus.
Here’s an orchestral work that isn’t played constantly every Christmas season but could easily fit in any holiday concert program. Victor Hely-Hutchinson wrote “A Carol Symphony” in 1927, which was about the mid-point of his life. It hit all the right notes of his London audience at the time, but since then other compositions have crowded it off of our traditional Christmas playlists.
Tonight, another classic Norwegian Christmas hymn. This one, “Jeg Er Så Glad Hver Julekveld,” is probably the best-known original Norwegian carol. Which isn’t saying much; you’ve probably never heard it. But it’s famous to us. I had to memorize it phonetically when I was a kid, for a Christmas program in church.
The title means, “I Am So Glad Each Christmas Eve,” and that’s what the translation is called, if you can find it. The singer (clearly a child) is saying how much he loves Christmas Eve, and the reasons are all about Jesus. How the star shone forth and Jesus was born, and how Jesus lives in Heaven to hear our prayers. How his mother trims the Christmas tree and fills the room with light, explaining that Jesus came as a Light to enlighten the world.
It should really be done by a children’s choir, but I couldn’t find a video like that. So this one will have to do.
Ironically, after all of this, Christmas lost its luster for me. The rank materialism became too much to bear, and the Christmas season morphed from being a time I savored into something I tried to survive each year. Santa Claus, Christmas trees, the holiday jingles—they all felt like pagan oppression. When people complained about a war on Christmas I often smirked and thought to myself, Where do I sign up? Honestly: When a sale at Crate & Barrel gets entangled with the birth of Jesus Christ, something has gone horribly wrong.
She doesn’t leave it there. It’s a marvelous story.
Also out of New York City today, columnist Nicholas Kristof asks pastor Tim Keller whether one can be a Christian while rejecting the virgin birth and resurrection. Keller says many good things, and on this question the main point is that Christ Jesus was not a good teacher whose ideas could be taken out of the context of his life. He came to give us life through his resurrection. It was on this basis that he taught what he did.