Monday, December 26, 2011

Dysfunctional Family Christmas

"A lovely thing about Christmas is that it's compulsory, like a thunderstorm, and we all go through it together."
~ Garrison Keillor

Did you spend Christmas with your extended family? How was it — a little shredded around the edges? Whether it's drunken uncles, cheek-pulling aunts, whiny children, passive-aggressive in-laws or some other annoyance, we all have our little crosses to bear at family holiday gatherings.

I was lucky enough to grow up in a slightly eccentric but surprisingly functional family; even so, when the extended clan came together for a holiday celebration, wires would start popping out of the hay bale. On Christmas day our house filled with aunts and uncles and cousins, enough to require every available leaf for dining room table plus a card table or two in the adjoining breakfast room. We were a merry mob for the most part, but eventually mom's two older sisters would gather in the kitchen to critique her cooking. The nitpicking began late in the afternoon, after generous quantities of scotch had been consumed by all concerned. Inevitably, one of my aunts would insert herself into the process physically, getting between my mom and the stove, triggering a great crashing and banging of pots. One year a fully cooked 25-pound turkey landed on the floor as I looked on. (I was immediately sworn to secrecy by the adults, who wiped it off and popped it onto the carving board. A useful life lesson.)

What I find fascinating is that many families memorialize their dysfunction in formal photographs. I hope you feel better about your own family after you've had a look at these images from the first two decades of the 1900s.

It's 1912 and today's theme is "living dolls."
Let's all be very quiet and maybe she won't stab us.
In 1914, the family of attorney Raymond Dickey
has itself a grumpy little Christmas.
The Dickeys again a few years later.
I could spend hours pondering who's no longer speaking to whom.
For more dysfunction, see:

"The family. We were a strange little band of characters trudging through life sharing diseases and toothpaste, coveting one another's desserts, hiding shampoo, borrowing money, locking each other out of our rooms, inflicting pain and kissing to heal it in the same instant, loving, laughing, defending, and trying to figure out the common thread that bound us all together."
~ Erma Bombeck

Sunday, December 25, 2011

The Lighting of the Tree

"Thousands of lights were burning on the green branches, and gaily-colored pictures, such as she had seen in the shop-windows, looked down upon her. The little maiden stretched out her hands toward them when — the match went out. The lights of the Christmas tree rose higher and higher, she saw them now as stars in heaven…"
~ Hans Christian Andersen

Recently, the wonderful blog Ephemeral New York told the story of how we came to string electric lights on Christmas trees. In 1882 an employee of Thomas Edison named Edward Johnson created a sensation among the New York society set when he strung crepe-paper-wrapped lights on his tree. Another 35 years passed before teenager Albert Sadacca, whose family owned a lighting company, proposed the first ready-made strings of colored lights. By the 1920s, even the White House had adopted Sadacca's idea.

White House Christmas tree, 1920s
from the archives of the Library of Congress
For most New Yorkers, and for many others as well, the words "Christmas tree" summon images of Rockefeller Center's gigantic fir and annual lighting ceremony. The tradition began in 1931 when workers who were building Rockefeller Center erected a 20-foot tree to celebrate their good fortune of being employed in the Great Depression. You can see a photo of the tree and a crowd of construction workers via the Time magazine link at the end of today's blog. [Note: An earlier version of this post included a photo of the first Rockefeller Center tree. However, since there seems to be some dispute about its fair use, I've removed it.]

Two years later, in 1933, Rockefeller Center made the tree a tradition. Here are a few photos taken over the years, all courtesy of the archives of the Museum of the City of New York.
Rockefeller Center 1934 by the great New York City
photographer Samuel Gottscho
A dramatic shot of the tree in 1945, as seen from Fifth Avenue 
Rockefeller Center, 1948

There's one more tree I want to show you. This was not in Rockefeller Center but in Dayton, Ohio.

This sad tree was in the home of Wilbur and Orville Wright circa 1900. As we celebrate our blessings, let's be grateful that the Wright brothers were so much better at building airplanes than decorating trees.

For more information, see:

"George, a camel, stepped on the foot of a Rockette; six sheep came off the elevator as three kings bearing gifts got on; human Christmas trees bumped into eight maids-a-milking at the water cooler and an elf came down with the flu."

~ William E. Geist

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Ghosts of Christmas Shopping Past

"As we struggle with shopping lists and invitations, compounded by December's bad weather, it is good to be reminded that there are people in our lives who are worth this aggravation, and people to whom we are worth the same." 
~Donald E. Westlake

For the last few months I have been collecting photos of long-gone Christmases and now find myself with far too many for a single post. There's only one solution: a series. Since some of us still have presents to buy — behold Christmas shopping as it once was.

In 1921a festive storefront in Washington, DC, celebrated with trees and flags.
Which lucky people got "talking machines" in 1921?
As the caption says, this was Woolworth's Fifth Avenue window in 1935. Miss you, F.W. Woolworth.

In 1944, Macy's offered children a Snow White Christmas.

"Gifts of time and love are surely the basic ingredients of a truly merry Christmas." 
~ Peg Bracken