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The Great Reveal: Christmas through the ages in the Crystal Bridges Library

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Jon M. Sexton, Reference Assistant for the Crystal Bridges Library and Archives, will be leading a special holiday-focused Great Reveal program on Thursday, December 15. This popular program looks at materials from Crystal Bridges’ Library collection of rare books.  Get a sneak peak at some of the material featured in today’s blog.

 

Christmas has been a fixture of American life since Europeans first arrived on the North American continent. However, it has not always been a time of cheer and celebration. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries for instance, the Puritans had a contempt for Christmas. They believed it took away from work and was more or less a form of idleness. However, non-Puritans (especially German and Dutch) were enthusiastic about Christmas even during this time. The European heritage of American Christmas is strongest from the Germans, Dutch, and English.

 

Although the Puritans tried to downplay Christmas in the former centuries in early America, the nineteenth century saw a dramatic change and revival in the approach to Christmas, especially after the publication of Charles Dickens’, “A Christmas Carol.” Beginning in the later nineteenth century, the holiday’s religious and cultural significance manifested itself in Christmas carols and cards in America;  and the holiday was officially recognized by the US government in 1870. In 1875, Louis Prang, a German American lithographer, introduced the Christmas card to the American public, which revolutionized the way Americans celebrated Christmas. The cards were sold individually or in “catalogues.” Louis Prang’s “Boston Baked Beans” from 1897 features a short German language Christmas poem along with Boston landmark prints. The Christmas well wishes are in German, yet the “Boston Baked Beans” catalogue showcases Boston monuments with captions that are in English.

From Louis Prang’s 1897 “Boston Baked Beans” card catalogue:

When the New Year is already bright and clear, it indicates a good year, the New Year also comes with storm and rain, God does not end with blessings, whether rain or sunshine.”

 

In the early twentieth century, Christmas cards in America became cheaper because of the development of widespread printing techniques and an increase in the number of companies producing cards. In addition, cultural changes focused on the merriness and familial atmosphere of Christmas. Hallmark is a popular greeting card company founded in 1913 that created Christmas cards for a wide audience. Grandma Moses, a well-known folk artist, wrote a tale about how her family got ready for Christmas when she was a small child. One of her artworks, A Frosty Day, was later used by Hallmark for some of their Christmas cards.

From Grandma Moses’s 1952 story “Christmas,” describing the family-oriented activities of Christmas that became prominent in American culture during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries:

Then Father and the men came in from the mill and we had supper, that was a long day for me, we three kids were too little to understand what it was all about. Father would get his violin and play and have us three youngsters march around the room and keep time with his music. He thought we needed the exercise before going to bed and it was lots of fun.”

 

Christmas carols also became popular during the nineteenth century because of Dickens’s, “A Christmas Carol.” Religiously, carols have been sung around Christmas since Roman times. While Christmas cards often focused on family, cheer, and well wishes, Christmas carols were mostly religiously oriented. Most Christmas carols that are familiar today were not well known until the latter half of the nineteenth century with the publication of music books for churches. For instance, John Henry Hopkins Jr., a clergyman from Pennsylvania, purportedly wrote the popular carol “We the Three Kings Orient Are” in 1857, but it did not occur in print until 1863. Carols from the nineteenth century paralleled the optimism that was influencing the Anglo-American culture surrounding Christmas. Carols of this time focused on the hope of Christ as a gift for everyone in the world, providing a light to all,  even though the world was steeped in sin and often dark.

From John Hopkins Jr.’s 1865 “Three Kings of Orient”:

O Star of wonder, start of night,
Star with royal beauty bright,
Westward leading, still proceeding,
Guide us to thy perfect light.”

 

Many historical carols were put to music based on medieval chords. Interestingly, the word “carol” comes from Old French and supposedly involved dancing, though if dance was a prominent part of caroling, it fizzled out early. Phillips Brooks was a well-received Boston rector who famously wrote, “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” though he also wrote many others, including the “Voice of the Christ-Child.” His “Voice of the Christ-Child,” also focused on the hope of Christ during the Christmas season, though strangely, it may be one of the few that was not set to music; or if it was, it is unsure what the music originally would have been.

From Phillips Brooks’s 1891 “Voice of the Christ-Child”:

And the Voice of the Christ-Child tells out with delight
That mankind are the children of God.

On the sad and lonely, the wretched and poor,
That Voice of the Christ-child shall fall;
And to every blind wanderer opens the door
Of a hope which he dared not to dream of before,
With a sunshine of welcome for all.”

 

To see these rare Christmas books up close, attend the Great Reveal Program on the 15th of December at 6:30 p.m. in the Cassatt suite presented by the Reference Assistant for the Library and Archives, Jon M. Sexton.

 

 

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