This Christmas Is Unlike Any Other, and Exactly the Same

A book about mid-20th century Christmas shows how little has changed in this season of tradition and hope

Aluminum Christmas tree in a vintage-feeling pink and green palette
Photo by John C. Chu

Every other year of my life, I’ve drawn a hard line on Christmas celebration: no decorations before Black Friday. Let Thanksgiving have its three and a half weeks, with its milquetoast pinecones and leaves, so Christmas can be magnificent in its own window of time. But this is 2020, so when the orange and black bunting came down, I responded with a resounding “fuck it.” If we were going to be stuck in these halls, they’d better be decked as hell.

I’ve been collecting vintage Christmas decorations for six years, one small antique store bag at a time: miniature deer, paper Putz houses with their vellum windows, glitter-flecked bottlebrush trees, German mercury glass balls. If you’d asked me in any other year why I did this, haunting my go-to vintage shops as a capitalist poltergeist, spending hours staging my house into a snowflake-fueled time warp, I would have told you it’s because I liked this stuff. It wasn’t until this year that could say with any integrity that I understood it.

Packed holiday decorations are a time capsule. When I open these boxes I am in communion with each version of myself that put them up before, an echo that spirals into the better and the worse. There are inevitably surprises—things I bought at the end of the season, or received as a gift on Christmas morning, and didn’t have the chance to put up. 

This year, one such surprise was a book, Midcentury Christmas, by Sarah Archer. It was recommended by some algorithm that had picked up on all my eBay and Etsy searches for “vintage flocked Santa” and “aluminum Christmas tree,” and I got it too late in the season to give it a read. In COVID hibernation mode, though, I had all the time in the world to savor it. 

In the earlier sections of the book, Archer recounts the national mood and realities of World War II Christmases through her historian’s perspective. This was the era friends and I brought up on the phone in the early pandemic days of March and April, trying to put the madness into some kind of context. “I mean, I guess this is our World War II, right? It feels bigger than 9/11, doesn’t it? This is going to define us forever, isn’t it?” At that beginning of our current reality, one of the most significant parallels from that past was sudden shortages. Twitter became a bottomless photo stream of empty store shelves with a run on hand sanitizer and toilet paper. Through the spring and summer, the less obvious but unexpectedly vital quarantine supplies became PS5-level impossible to find: yeast for the requisite bread-baking hobby, jigsaw puzzles to whittle at hours, plastic pools to turn the backyard into some semblance of a vacation. Similar wartime shortages led to a rationing system which, as Archer describes, “meant scaling way back on all the things that had been associated with Christmas since the mid-nineteenth century; food and drink, material goods, the energy needed to power decorative lights, and even the use of the telephone for making long-distance calls. Since gasoline was rationed, travel was restricted, and annual visits to family in neighboring states had to be postponed.” Facing an echoing season with no shopping, no coffee breaks underneath my favorite light display, no family squeezing into my parent’s living room, I suddenly had the urge to call my 91-year-old grandmother and ask, how did you do it?

Although the sentiment has lingered all year long, it’s never been more poignant as it has this December, an entire month of traditions large and small, personal and cultural. Singing the same songs. Telling the same lies to children. In my case, living in a self-curated museum. For many of us, this month means dredging up some artifact from the past, whether it’s a relative’s recipe for an old-world baked good or an inherited decoration still clinging to the dust of your childhood home. This season is forever raising our hopes at the prospect that for one day, even in the worst of our years, things can be better.

This season is forever raising our hopes at the prospect that for one day, even in the worst of our years, things can be better.

According to Archer, the American public of the mid-20th century shouldered these responsibilities with grace and humility: “Coming as it did on the heels of the Great Depression, this kind of household thrift was already familiar to most Americans, and indeed, many felt proud to be doing their part in helping the war effort.” In years past I would have accepted this with no second thought. Of course people banded together. They were taking down Hitler. What could be more important than that? Surely everyone would have been on the same page about that singular task. 

But that was before watching our tinderbox country spiral into chaos, as conspiracies and toxic individualism pushed back against the most basic mask recommendations and social distancing guidelines. Before conspiracy theories migrated from the fringe to national conversation talking points. The more individual heartbreaks of watching someone you considered a friend or respected family member not only ignore the rules we were all begged to follow for the greater good, but proudly flaunt their crimes on Instagram. In a calendar year flush with tough lessons, none was as strong as knowing that nothing—not fascism, not a virus, not human survival itself—could override our culture’s unapologetic egoism. 

Having seen how the request for minimal sacrifice played out in 2020, I found it hard to believe that the “greatest generation” was as selfless and committed to the greater good as Archer claimed. There had to be Midcentury Karen ignoring the war bond posters and doubling up on ration coupons, unwavering in her exceptionalism. “I need to drive down Route 66 to see Aunt Gladys. I already gave up nylons for Hitler, and the war’s still going, so what difference does it make? Also, I’m going to need 3 pounds of butter for my shortbread. It’s a free country! Let me make my choices!!!!”

In fact, one trip to the National World War II Museum’s website confirmed that hoarding and cheating were rampant through the rationing system. Extra stamps and rationed goods comprised a thriving black market, even as the majority of Americans agreed that following these guidelines was extremely important to the war effort. From the occasional bend of the rules “just this once” to organized crime running counterfeit gas coupons, many people found ways to justify dispensing with the rules when they came in conflict with their desires. 

It’s uncomfortable to examine the ways that we failed when history affirms that we won.

Directly addressing these inconsistencies in unity within Midcentury Christmas wouldn’t have played well with the gentle optimism and nostalgia that the book curated—after all, it was released in October of 2016, before the sky came down. It would have been a jarring hitch in the tone of a book with sweet chapters on the origin of tinsel and wrapping paper. It’s uncomfortable to examine the ways that we failed when history affirms that we won.

Still, these complexities can’t help but thrive in the subtext of Archer’s work, even when discussing these beautiful objects that seem innocuous in their sparkling light. The bulk of the text, in between gorgeous historical photographs and kitschy reproduced ads, shows the trajectory of national tragedy and cultural response through this extremely specific post-war Christmas style. Midcentury style has seen a resurgence in the early-to-mid 2010s, fueled by the fashion porn of Mad Men, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, and poorly-aged hit film The Help. Popular fashion brands like Banana Republic created vintage capsule collections, while entire brands like Unique Vintage and ModCloth built empires on the aesthetic. Architecture shaved down the curves and stripped off the ceiling to make “midcentury modern” synonymous with aspirational millennial hipster culture. 

What connects the period Archer writes about to our own, more than the sacrifices we’re asked to make or the way we resist them or the possible consequences of that resistance, is the sense that this is the year everything changed. Even a tradition as inherently conservative and tradition-bound as American Christmas completely transformed in the war and postwar era, as people’s mindsets, priorities, and resources were upheaved. The conflict and sacrifice changed people to the bone, even if the everyday realities of that experience have been sanded away into a past generation’s distant memory. For better or worse, the cruelty of anti-maskers and anti-vaxxers and every other shade of pandemic asshole will fade as we rebuild our lives. The story of human ingenuity, the miracle of an effective vaccine to put the world back together, will be the narrative that shapes our After. Those who stood in the way, who made things worse, will be thought of as a minority. A fringe. A reality specific to a less enlightened past.

There is a comfort I take in this truth, one I don’t imagine grasping if I weren’t living through a national disaster. The Americans of the 1940s weren’t any better than us, just as no generation has ever been more fundamentally good or altruistic than any other—just as American society isn’t magically more immune to the rallying energy of fascism or the mishandling of truth than any other country. There are always going to be wretchedly selfish, willfully ignorant people who not only believe themselves exempt from rules, but also impervious to the suffering and death that is surely reserved for “others.” Our society wasn’t made up exclusively of people sacrificing to do the right thing, but there were enough of those that did. There was another side to the shortages, the isolation, the giant maw of darkness. There came a time when the war was over, and we reinvented our traditions in the new world.

There came a time when the war was over, and we reinvented our traditions in the new world.

The decorations taking up every inch of my small home date from the post-war period. Many of them were manufactured in occupied Japan, where the once-thriving Japanese ceramics industry pivoted to European-style holiday decorations in order to skirt around embargoes placed by the Allies. The factories turned out scores of ceramic elves, angels, and Santa Clauses, which were shipped to the United States for sale in dime shops and drugstores. This industry thrived through the 1960s, leaving behind the sparkly bottle-brush trees, miniature cardboard glitter Putz houses, blow molds, and the iconic plastic flocked Santa Claus that I now chase in antique booths and Etsy listings.

Lining my mantle and crowning the china cabinet, these decorations have always been cute ephemera. They’re made of simple, forgiving materials that hint at childhood crafts, like cardboard, pipe cleaners and spun cotton. In the decades they’ve traveled a journey I can only imagine—from an assembly line in Nagoya to corner store to a housewife’s impulse buy to attic storage to the antique mall to my anxious hands—they’ve each developed a patina from pine-needle scratches, clumsy hands, stale air, brittling plastic, yellowing lace. There is a weariness to their joy, a quality I’d previous chalked up to age.

But this year I realize that these were tools of celebration created by those who survived unimaginable darkness. For these people, whether sketching tree dimensions in Japan or gifting a set of ornaments in the States, there was no going back to Before. They could not erase the worst of humanity that had been revealed, or say with confidence that such peril would never return. 

As our very special Pandemic Christmas settles in, the past that Archer presents before delving into what we came for (drool-worthy pictures of lights and tinsel trees) offers clues into our future—particularly the fate of industry for the war’s losers. “Germany was the world capital of Christmas manufacturing across all categories: tinsel, ornaments, toys, games, and the revival of the Christmas tree itself in the 1830s,” she writes. “During World War II and after, American companies began producing toys and decorations on their own, even finding ingenious ways to adapt existing equipment… At peak efficiency, the Corning [production] method could produce more ornaments in a minute than a German glassblower could produce by hand in a day.” As the U.S.we sinks further and further behind every other industrialized nation because of our government’s callous response to Covid and fixation on undermining democracy, who, exactly, is going to replace us? 

These were tools of celebration created by those who survived unimaginable darkness.

Much of what we associate with this bygone Christmas era, such as the iconic aluminum tree, came directly out of the war effort. Aluminum factories had revved up production to keep up with military demand, and in the lull of victory, designed a progressive and uniquely “evergreen” tree to diversify. The bold pink, blue and red glass ornaments that remain ubiquitous today were a response to the shortage and rationing of metallic substances, such as silver. The army wasn’t clamoring for pastels. The sudden abundance of the post-war saw the rise of early spon-con, referred to at the time as “corporate advice.” “How-to manuals, idea ‘treasuries,’ and recipe booklets proliferated, offering consumers glossy magazine-style inspiration for how to decorate and make merry in their own homes.” Decorative light manufacturers essentially invented a $90 million industry out of the question, “what the hell do we do now?”

These innovations in technology and advertising coincided perfectly with the public’s wild shifts in priorities and focus. People discovered crevices of themselves that sat dormant in more tranquil times; their best and worst selves. Just as we have, holed up in our homes for months, finding a new way to live. They couldn’t simply revert back to what they’d been before. They had changed, and so had everything else. All the way down to this tiny little niche of holiday decorating. The new materials, ideas, hopes and fears were all present in these kinetic posing figures, bursting ornaments, bubbling lights and pom-pom trees. They tell a story of a wiser world, a wearier world. So grateful for this future, yet overwhelmed with its uncertainty.

I see that truth in midcentury Santa’s furrowed forehead, a design repeated on each version of him, whether he’s an inch or a foot tall. Always wrinkling his brow and gazing off to his right side, eternally prepared for the other shoe to drop. I see it in the spun cotton angels with their heartbreaking delicate wings, eyes closed, hands clasped, no smiles. Occasionally a faint mouth drawn in an O, a silent plea. Even the Putz houses with their vellum glow windows are quiet, unoccupied, muffled by snow and marooned on their own separate cardboard islands.

This collection I’m now surrounded with for the remainder of my quarantine holiday is the answer to a question I wouldn’t have dreamed to ask. How did you know it would get better? 

This sparkling, melancholy, fading world is its own reply. We didn’t. But we celebrated anyway. As you do. As people always have.

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