Photo Credit: Christmas card by Louis Prang, showing a group of anthropomorphized frogs parading with banner and band. Note the card has the makings of a work of art (see below for more details about Prang and his philosophy of Christmas cards). 19th century (no specific date), American Antiquarian Society. M2545/Wikimedia Commons/PD Old 100
If you’ve been reading my blog for awhile, you know I love seeking out historical traditions of our beloved holidays so that you know how the Alderdices in my Waxwood Series would have spent their holidays. I’ve done this post on Thanksgiving in the Gilded Age, and I’ve also written this post about New Year’s Day traditions in the 19th century. So it’s fitting that we take a look at Christmas traditions as well.
Many of us in the 21st century grumble about the way Christmas has become so commercialized (Christmas in July, anyone?) Many of these commercial ideas about Christmas were planted in the Gilded Age. For example, the tradition of the decorated Christmas tree was brought over from Germany, but the Gilded Age added its own philosophy of splendor and excess. As you might recall, modesty was not exactly the order of the day for Gilded Agers. They liked lavishness and glitz, and they weren’t afraid to make a profit from it. They turned the decorations of simple strings of popcorn and beads into a display of lights, colored glass balls, and wax angels, creating a commercial enterprise of Christmas tree ornaments.
The humble Christmas card also acquired a different meaning in the Gilded Age. Louis Prang, one of the most successful printers of the Gilded Age, began producing Christmas cards less for profit than for an opportunity to give a lesson in fine art on a budget. He saw his cards as mini artistic achievements that even the working and middle classes could afford. This idea of democratizing fine art, an exclusive domain of those who could afford it, was not one Gilded Agers were willing to embrace. So predictably, Prang’s idea of elevating Christmas cards fell by the wayside when other manufacturers decided to cash in on the trend and produced cheap variations. It was then that Christmas cards became big business.
Also big business was the gift-giving that now dominates Christmas in our modern world. Today we might find it appropriate to give a family member or friend an Amazon gift card and let them choose what they want, but in the Gilded Age, such gifts just weren’t to be had. Presents had to be individualized and carefully thought out and chosen. It was also an opportunity to show one’s generosity by the expensiveness of the gifts one was giving others.
Wrapping presents was also a Gilded Age invention, as it fit in with the idea of elaborate presentation that characterized the age. Here also, people like the Alderdices could flaunt their wealth. Plain white wrapping paper was more about the gift than what the giver could afford, but elaborate wrapping paper told loved ones that one bought the gift at the “right” place.
We think of Santa as a jovial, generous white-bearded, somewhat heavy-set man bestowing presents to “good” little boys and girls. In the Gilded Age, Santa also had political and social implications. Santa was the glorified symbol of Capitalism with a capital “C”, an authoritative and somewhat mystical figure who held gifts aplenty — for those who deserved them, of course.
Here’s where you can find out all about the Waxwood Series, my Gilded Age family saga.
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