When my family and friends gather each year for this holiday season, we promise to keep our phones off and in our pockets and purses during our time together. When it's time for our ritual to give thanks for what we have, I take out the book The Americans by Daniel Boorstin and read the chapter, "Christmas and Other Festivals of Consumption." This author, a United States historian, writer, professor, attorney and appointed 12th librarian of the U.S. Congress in 1975, also wrote the 1961 book The Image, its thesis, that U.S. culture was moving away from substance toward sensationalism in an era of mass media. If Mr. Boorstin could only see us now.
In The Americans, Boorstin takes us on a historic journey of how Christmas became "Americanized" and commercialized. He discusses why and how various presidents found ways to manipulate the calendar date for Thanksgiving by shifting it around in November, and what the Christmas Club was all about, created by local banks to boost business. In this book, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer takes on a very different spin when we learn how one of the Mad Men in the advertising department of Montgomery Ward & Co. wrote this 1939 ditty, and why the store gave 2.4 million copies to its customers.
How did St. Nicholas find his way into our U.S. world and become a spokesperson for a myriad of products? Boorstin has the answer for that, too. Boorstin tells us how the Christmas tree developed its "American character," how greeting cards got into the holiday mix, and how Hanukkah went from a "historically minor" Jewish holiday to one of gift-giving, eight times over.
Don't get me wrong. My goal is not to be the new Scrooge, nor was that the goal of Mr. Boorstin in his findings. For me, the reading aloud of this chapter each year puts the holidays and what we have come to know of them into perspective. Some of those at my gathering smile and jokingly (I think) roll their eyes, while others seem genuinely eager to hear about the origins of what has become standard this time of year. The Americans reminds me of how moments in time can be molded, beliefs are tweaked, myths find their way into culture and how motives are morphed into what we accept as acceptable.
The whys and hows of what we do this season have a place along with good wishes for a happy holiday of peace and understanding, valuable traditional and ritual, and a time to gather and communicate, even if it is by Skype, FaceTime or Facebook. While reading this book, whether on your tablet or on the old-fashioned printed page, you may ask yourself, What would
Mr. Boorstin have thought about social and mass media and the world as we know it today? If Boorstin could only tweet us his thoughts from wherever his spirit resides.