Christmas Then and Now
Memory, nostalgia, and bringing traditions into the present
One of my Christmas traditions is writing a Christmas article every year, going back to 2016, the year I got my first magazine job. These articles have been fun to write, and yet they’ve often been…not exactly merry and bright. Last year’s piece was an utter downer, arguing that as America has “grown up” as a nation, our popular culture has become more complicated, more mature, and less cheerful.
The final line was downright chilly: “Perhaps, when Auntie Mame sang in 1966 that ‘I’ve grown a little leaner, grown a little colder, Grown a little sadder, grown a little older,’ she was merely half a century early.”
All of this is to introduce that my wife advised me to write something positive this year. It’s the most wonderful time of the year, after all. Why brood over sad Christmas songs or haywire consumerism?
So I thought about that, and I started thinking about food. Especially since, for the first time ever, my wife and I will be hosting Christmas, in our new house. And I have a piece in The Bulwark this morning, thinking about how the Christmases we celebrate today differ from those of my childhood, and even more from those of my parents’ childhood.
In their time, as I wrote, the antipasto was a relatively quick affair: some plates of cold cuts rather informally arranged, and a lot of the antipasto ingredients combined into a salad, rather than served separately. And the main meal either consisted of, or included, lasagna or some other Italian specialty. The meal was eaten at 2 or 3 in the afternoon, pretty much right after the relatively light antipasto.
But over the years, that turned into a full-on heavily arranged charcuterie lunch followed by a fancy but thoroughly American dinner served at dinnertime: prime rib. Like this:
And that’s a relatively simple one for me.
Yes, I’m sort of showing off my menu, but I mainly wrote about this because I find the cultural evolution really interesting. You can see the through-line across the generations, but there are things that have been lost, like the mid-afternoon dinner (which I really don’t quite get) and the Italian main course.
I still call the meal-before-the-meal antipasto, but I didn’t realize how different it was from the old-school Italian-American deal until recently. “You know, this is a lot of work, isn’t it?” my dad remarked last year, watching me arrange the antipasto at his house. He looked at two platters of perfectly arranged cold cuts, one plate of cheese, and bowls of every pickled and marinated thing I’d been able to get at Whole Foods and Wegmans. “We used to throw it all in a bowl and then have dinner.”
It’s true: My antipastos are more like charcuterie boards—an old idea I’d updated to modern trends. When my dad observed this, he brought to mind an “antipasto salad” I’d ordered at an Italian restaurant once; it arrived looking like the contents of an Italian sub tossed on a platter. I thought this was some kind of inventive twist along the lines of a “deconstructed sub.” I had no idea it was actually an old Italian-American staple prepared in the classic fashion.
And then I thought about how simple the few hints of Christmas foods we get from the classic Christmas songs are: turkey and pumpkin pie. It never really occurred to me how foreign those old Italian-American Christmas dinners would have seemed to non-Italian Americans. And it also makes me think of how much higher our standards and expectations are now.
As our standard of living has increased, I wrote, “so has the extent to which our Christmases surpass our ordinary days.”
Bing Crosby wished for “presents on the tree,” a reference to an old custom of hanging little gifts that doubled as decorations. Today we’d call them stocking stuffers—appetizers, antipasto—but for many people they were once the main event.
Our appetites have also grown. One classic Christmas song suggests turkey for the big dinner, and more than one mentions pumpkin pie. There certainly must have been holidays hams, prime ribs, and legs of lamb in the 1950s, but the only dinners recorded in the popular playlist are rehashes of Thanksgiving fare. (Frank Sinatra, to his great credit, suggests an unusual bird, pheasant, in one of his lesser-known Christmas songs.) And while appetizers, hors d’oeuvres, and variations on charcuterie boards didn’t spring unannounced into American culture in the 2010s, the antipasto spreads that were practically synonymous with holidays in my family must have been rather foreign to the non-Italian Americans.
Today, when I imagine a turkey for Christmas dinner, I think, “We just had that!” Of course, we actually had it one month ago, more than long enough for it to feel new again. But Americans are now affluent enough in the main to switch it up, and to feel entitled to something fancier.
I can’t really write about Christmas without writing about Christmas songs and consumerism, I guess! So here’s a little more. I think sometimes of a comment I read a long time ago on a web forum, on a discussion about Christmas consumerism.
The problem, the commenter wrote, wasn’t that we went all-out for the holidays. That was one of the points of the holidays. The problem was rather that our everyday standard of living has gotten so high that in order to maintain that sense of holiday specialness, we need to dial up the consumerism to 11. In other words, the over-commercialization of Christmas is a sort of does-not-compute result that arises from our affluence clashing with our deep human need for a special time.
But as much as I look forward to the prime rib and the fancy deli meats and the cookies and the eggnog and the gifts, I remember that it isn’t all synonymous with Christmas. I’ve suggested before that Christmas is really two holidays: the Christian celebration of the birth of Christ, and the secular, almost civic American festival of food and stuff. I am a Christian, and I love both of them. The more, the merrier.
So there it is. No cultural ax to grind, no doleful message to deliver about society. Just some reflections on the evolution of a holiday. Check out the whole piece at The Bulwark. And Merry Christmas!
The Christmas Song Cultural Barometer
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i've been thinking about this same thing in the context of the light displays people put on their homes. it's a tradition even older than christmas itself, as people burned fires to drive away the darkness and bring back the sun on the winter solstice.
growing up there were certainly people who did elaborate light displays on their house, while others kept it simpler with white lights or just candles in the windows. but the top end of that spectrum has gotten bigger and bolder, and expanded beyond the house itself into elaborate yards too! people sync lights to music or set up a screen playing holiday movies, and have yards decorated alongside their homes with blow-ups and more lights.
i don't dislike it at all, it's a lot of fun and frankly does great job of driving away the darkness on these long winter nights. but interesting to see how it seems to grow more elaborate (and expensive) with the passing years