It's beginning to sell a lot like Christmas

Now that the Grinch has been promoted to the big screen and has begun earning record box-office grosses, we must take him seriously as a bigtime Christmas icon. How did he and other Christmas favorites achieve such perennial eminence?

Karal Ann Marling's "Merry Christmas! Celebrating America's Greatest Holiday" tells readers perhaps more than they thought there was to know about the subject. Exhaustively researched and documented, this book may be the definitive study of secular Christmas traditions in the United States.

Though she acknowledges the genuine glow of family and religion in Christian observances, Marling, a professor of art history at the University of Minnesota, makes it clear that her story centers on the materialism of Christmas.

On a certain level, "Christmas is all about stores and shopping," she writes, not the Nativity theme and its customary pieties. However, she observes that "religion remains the guilty secret of the American Christmas.... It is the sonorous language of the Gospel of Luke recited by a cartoon character on Charlie Brown's Christmas special. This is religion in quotation marks."

The book traces the development of our Christmas iconography as a virtual analogue of the nation's social and cultural history, borrowing mainly from European sources.

In a chapter entitled "Somebody Else's Christmas," Marling details ancestral and multicultural Christmas observances, such as the ethnic traditions of European, Latino, and Asian Americans; and the idiosyncrasies of celebrities like Liberace and Elvis Presley.

Depictions of what Marling calls Black Christmas indicate the mean-spirited use to which Christmas has sometimes been subjected. She offers illustrations of Christmas cards that show slaves and ex-slaves in demeaning postures of either glee or gloom. Evidently, those who created these scenes thought them diverting and fun.

Santa Claus himself owes his iconic appearance to the work of several illustrators. Marling credits the political cartoonist, Thomas Nast, with creating the modern image of Santa in illustrations appearing in Harper's Weekly from the 1860s onward. He based his figure on Clement Moore's 1832 poem, "A Visit from St. Nicholas."

On covers of The Saturday Evening Post in the 1920s and 1930s, J.C. Leyendecker and Norman Rockwell inculcated the familiar rotund, white-bearded, and jolly fellow. But perhaps the quintessential Santa was that of Haddon Sundblom in his ads for Coca-Cola in the 1930's. This Santa serves as the model for countless department-store replications today.

Marling's style is witty and anecdotal, but steadfastly objective and nonjudgmental. Noting that voices are occasionally raised in protest against the concentration on wrapped presents plied under the tree, she adduces a provocative inference: "The shopper's annual murmur of discontent with the impersonal materialism of it all may account for a fresh groundswell of enthusiasm in record years for homemade wrappings.... Martha Stewart's pathologically creative suggestions for wrapping gifts in glorified paper bags, and the spasms of eco-friendly angst expressed through presents wrapped in old newspaper and biodegradable hemp respond to a persistent national sense of satiety and waste."

On Marling's agenda is due recognition of the preeminent role played by women in the celebration of Christmas. Notwithstanding traditions and stereotypes - Santa is a man, and Dad puts up the outdoor lights and directs the trimming of the tree - women embody the warmly cherished sense of family and home. They make everything work in the season's rituals, and they are the custodians of nostalgia.

"Christmases always look backward toward how things used to be or should have been - toward magical childhoods and 'the good old days' before race, class, and gender intruded themselves upon the national consciousness.... Because it is about memory and yesterdays - personal identity is at its very point of origin - Christmas speaks to the national identity, too."

Norman Anderson, a retired professor of literature, lives in San Clemete, Calif.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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