Between the lines: Christmas then and now
By Gwen Kautz, General Manager
gkautz at dawsonpower.com
Some of those Norman Rockwell paintings always stir up “the good ol’ days” kind of thoughts. Let’s look back on Christmases before electricity and then look at what we see today. The differences are significant, but if we look deeper, we’ll find a few things are the same.
The biggest differences between then and now is the magnitude at which celebrations are held. At one time, Christmases were simple family gatherings marked by church and a single meal. Today, religious aspects have been diminished for extended family, feasts, football games and excessive gifting.
Before rural areas received the gift of electricity, Christmases in the country were marked by the hours of daylight and their evenings would be bathed in candlelight. Farmers and ranchers (and their families) typically woke up with the sun and went to bed shortly after the sun set.
In the early 1920’s, many of the ornaments placed on a tree were made of fabric, paper and sometimes cookies. There were strings of popcorn and cranberries to add color as well as those brave souls who clipped candles on the branches of trees. By the way, usually those candles only stayed lit for 10 minutes at a time because families were worried about starting fires. Today, the common cause of Christmas tree fires is from faulty cords. Glass ornaments showed up around 1928. Today, the dazzle and sparkle of a tree rests on the number of lights and the shiny, frosted ornaments hanging in abundance.
To have electric lights on your Christmas tree was considered an extravagance in the years before World War I. The first set of Christmas lights was introduced by General Electric in 1902, but only the very wealthy could afford them.
In the 1930’s and 40’s, Christmas celebrations were very short. Families gathered and shared in the meal preparation. Everyone usually got only one present. Today, we receive several gifts and often the meal is hosted entirely by one family. Would it surprise you to learn that some of the New England states served green sea turtle in the 30’s for Christmas?
While I don’t know when this changed, but early on, for many families, the Christmas tree was not decorated until the night before Christmas. Today, Christmas trees show up in homes across America the day after Thanksgiving. They are adorned by all colors and all styles of ornaments. Some of these elaborate trees stay up clear through January.
Kids in the 30’s, 40’s, 50’s and 60’s wrote letters to Santa Claus. The post office was inundated with mail to the North Pole and some post offices actually answered each letter. A few years ago, I discovered that Santa now has an email address.
Rural folks going into town on Christmas Eve night to attend a church service were greeted with electric lights showing up in the city windows. Everything looked so much brighter in town. Whether walking or using a wagon, each family carried a single kero
sene lamp to light the way.
Way back when, one window would contain three candles which were symbols of the three wise men who searched for the baby Jesus. Today lights are strung on rails, eaves, trees, bushes, buildings and pre-built designs.
Have you figured out what’s the same? It’s family! In every single example above, there is family in the middle of it all.
The essence of Christmas is not in presents. The ‘light of the world’ was born on Christmas Day. May your family experience a very blessed Christmas!