Christmas Past Meets the Age Of Cyberspace

HOLIDAY celebrants longing for a less commercial Christmas might find a seemingly idyllic model in the pages of my maternal great-grandfather's diaries. For more than 50 years, from 1879 to 1933, he recorded the seasonal festivities that took place in the tiny Wisconsin town where he and my great-grandmother lived - modest celebrations that, to a modern-day reader, sound part Currier & Ives, part Norman Rockwell.

Referring to a Christmas Eve service in 1890, he wrote: "Christmas tree at church. Our family sang a song. Good crowd."

Christmas Day revolved around family meals, gift exchanges, and visits with friends.

1896: "Family over to Grandpa Courtney's for dinner. Fred took Lena & Mary & Ethel sleigh riding."

1907: "Had a Christmas tree in sitting room, & after breakfast we all went in and decorated it. Good skating on pond."

1917: "Fred's folks here to dinner. Had baked goose. Took a lunch to old Mr. Barker & called on Wilbur Ward & sister."

1926: "Had a duck dinner at Fred's. Table was nicely decorated. Tree was lighted with electricity - different colored lights."

It's easy to grow nostalgic for a time when retailers didn't decorate stores in August and parents didn't max out credit cards at Toys R Us. Nostalgia has, in fact, become a holiday growth industry as merchants and magazine editors promote "old-fashioned" and "country" themes. We want our gifts ultramodern and sophisticated, but we want to pretend our celebrations are low-tech and simple. Bring on the snow, the sleigh, the candlelit tree, the heirloom ornaments, and the Dickensian ceramic villages that are currently hot collectibles.

Yet few things are as simple as they appear. Even at the turn of the century my great-grandfather, who owned a general store, depended on holiday shoppers to boost sales, just as retailers do today. In one terse entry on Dec. 23, 1907, he wrote, "Not many in store today." Considerably more upbeat was his 1928 notation: "Had quite an Xmas trade at store."

Similarly, even though gift-giving was far more modest then, his entries reveal that some concerns remain timeless:

1927: "[Granddaughter] Evelyn gave me a book, 'Life of Christ,' by Giovanni Papini. All I gave her was $5.00."

Imbalances work in reverse too, of course. 1914: "Wife got 12 oak dining chairs - cost $39.68. I gave Ethel & Irwin Webster's Dictionary & stand - $11.00. I got 2 neckties."

Today the longing for Christmas Past faces a new challenge from Christmas Future, as Currier & Ives meet cyberspace. This is the year when Christmas is starting to go virtual. Some techno-sophisticates now send virtual Christmas cards on the World Wide Web. Others take virtual shopping trips via on-line services. One software package offers virtual tree decorating on a computer screen. Look, Ma, no messy needles or broken ornaments.

And yes, Virginia, there's even a cyberspace Santa, reachable at his electronic address:

What would our great-grandparents, not to mention Norman Rockwell, think?

Will Americans someday look back on frenzied late-20th-century Christmases with longing, just as they now sentimentalize quiet 19th-century celebrations? Will parents of the future explain to children that once upon an old-fashioned time, people sent paper Christmas cards that were delivered by mail carriers, house to house? Will they describe the pleasures of driving to malls and shopping in crowded stores? Will they tell of department store Santas, back when department stores still existed?

From Currier & Ives to commercial, from Victorian to virtual, the evolution of secular Christmas activities goes on. Whatever their form, all exist outside the real observance that lies at the heart of the day. What never changes is the quiet, sacred rejoicing over a stable, a star, a Saviour - an event that transformed the world within which all the other Christmases are celebrated.

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