Christmas: Mixing the old with the new - Keith Roulston editorial
As Christmas approaches, we seem to be in a blend of the new and the traditional. Shopping experts suggest the expectation that people will spend less this year, as the rising cost of food makes people think twice about the expense of the gifts they give, and yet what they’re giving would astound my parents and grandparents.
Though we looked forward to it with high hopes, Christmas in the 1950s was a pretty barren time for most people when compared with today. I always get a chuckle from the movie A Christmas Story, which takes place in the late 1940s or early 1950s, when the young sons get their first Christmas presents that turn out to be socks, and they are hugely disappointed, before they get other gifts, which are toys. Our parents were more sensitive. The adults probably got clothes they needed, but Santa Claus always brought toys for the kids.
Still, a recent survey showed the average Canadian shopper plans to spend $675, which would be a stupendous amount for my parents 70 years ago, even if reduced to the pre-inflated price of the 1950s.
We’re all so much richer than we were back then. My parents bought a whole farm for $3,500 when my Dad came home safely from the Second World War. That would buy about one acre of a farm at today’s prices. When I graduated from university in 1969, I got a job for $6,000 a year, considerably more than my father earned, by now having sold his farm and working in a factory.
And yet, as I listen to the Christmas music and hear surveys on TV where people name their favourite Christmas movies, there’s also an attraction to the past. The popular song “White Christmas” dates from the 1942 movie Holiday Inn. On my kitchen windowsill when I do the dishes, and also on a nearby piece of furniture are ceramic snowmen, each wearing a top-hat. Few of us would even know what a top-hat was these days (our own snowmen are topped by ball caps or toques) but the tradition dates all the way back to 1950 and the Gene Autry song, “Frosty The Snowman”, which has been a popular part of the Christmas season ever since.
Gene Autry also sang the song, “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”, which hit number one on the U.S. charts the week of Christmas of 1949. Until that song came out, people imagined Santa’s sleigh pulled by eight tiny reindeer, but Rudolph, a ninth, soon became essential to children.
Illustrative of the way Christmas dreams have changed is the difference between the 1947 black and white version of Miracle on 34th Street, starring Natalie Wood as a youngster, and the 1994 remake. Natalie Wood’s dream house in the suburbs is a modest house on a huge lot. The little girl in the later movie dreams of a huge suburban house on very little property.
I still like to watch the classic James Stewart movie It’s a Wonderful Life, which dates back to 1946, even though times have moved on since the dreams of those days. There’s something real about those movies. They make a slew of new Christmas movies every year these days but most seem interchangeable.
Jill recently saw the hosts of one of her favourite morning talk shows read a list of people’s favourite movies. Most are from earlier days - even if they’re modern compared to It’s a Wonderful Life. From 1990, there’s Home Alone, even though its young star, Macaulay Culkin, is nearly middle aged now.
Other favourite classics include 1989’s National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation with Chevy Chase, and Elf, starring Will Ferrell, and Love Actually, both from 20 years ago in 2003. Even the newest of these reached 20 years old this year.
Of course, music shows the ability of people to adapt to all times of any of the media. “Silent Night”, the most favourite of Christmas carols, was composed in 1818 by Franz Xavier Gruber. Some of the other carols are as old or older.
But many of the songs we celebrate at Christmas today are from a more recent age. Few of us today have had the privilege of taking a sleigh ride, like that in Leroy Anderson’s 1948 song “Sleigh Ride”, yet it’s still a popular addition to many Christmas albums. “The Little Drummer Boy” was first recorded in 1951 by the Trapp Family (of Sound of Music fame), and later popularized by a 1958 recording by the Harry Simeone Chorale. So, there’s no time of the year when we blend the old and the new in our modern traditions like Christmas - which is great if you’re an old guy like me nearly fading from the modern scene.
As we celebrate Christmas this year, my grandchildren and children will be blending long-held traditions with modern times. It’s what makes Christmas a favourite time.