Christmas, now and then


PERUSING 125 YEARS of Christmas editorials in the Los Angeles Times is a dizzying experience, not so much because there are so many to read as because journalistic sensibilities have shifted so radically since the 19th century. Up until the 1960s, many of these annual paeans read as if they were written by Christian pastors, and wouldn’t sound out of place if read aloud during a Sunday church sermon.

Few things could signal the about-face more sharply than an editorial from 1989 that urges people to say “Happy Holidays” rather than “Merry Christmas,” so as not to cause offense to non-Christians. Before we’re accused of waging a war against Christmas, our new, somewhat retro, policy is: People should wish each other happiness or merriment in whatever packaging they’d like. Peace on Earth, above all!

Beyond the sermons, there are some fascinating historical glimpses within these ghosts of Christmas editorials past, from an 1889 musing about the weather that calls up images of dusty L.A. streets and resentful Mexican natives to a 1999 warning of terrorist threats that now seems chillingly prescient. And if this Christmas dawns with a chaotic Middle East and other looming threats, from climate change to North Korean nut jobs with nukes, at least it’s not 1961, when this paper printed perhaps the least merry Christmas editorial in its history.


Dec. 24, 1889

The ordinary Christmas in Pasadena is somewhat different from that enjoyed in the East. There sleighing, skating and other winter sports can be counted on, especially in the country, and if rumor is correct a cold, stinging blizzard is sweeping over the East. Here the usual Christmas is a day spent out of doors, among the flowers and under a warm sun, with everything about suggestive of summer. Grain is up in many places, while farmers are plowing everywhere. It is hoped that Nature will be in a gracious mood, and give us a warm, clear day. The unprecedented rain has taxed the patience of even the Mexicans, who vow they remember nothing like it, and believe that it is all on account of the Americans settling up the country.

Dec. 20, 1897

These are the days when you are looking about for Christmas presents. And there is nothing you can find that is better than a good book. Books are so plentiful and so cheap that it is not difficult to suit the taste in any recipient or the purse of any giver. As these words are said the plain, common people are in the sayer’s mind, for those who can afford to buy editions de luxe do not care, perhaps, for advice. If, however, you have looked at the advertisements of new books until your brain reels, if you are utterly at sea as to which of the latest volumes to purchase, why, don’t purchase any of them. Get old books. Remember Emerson’s advice that no book is worth reading until it is 20 years of age. Not only are the dear old classics the best, but they are the cheapest.

Dec. 18, 1900

It is well for the turkey that survived Thanksgiving that he does not know why it is that he is being fed so well now.

Dec. 23, 1909

On Saturday, the world will celebrate the birth of Christ, the Prince of Peace. Certainly the reign of peace seems more secure in Europe at present than at any Christmastide in many years past. The danger of an outbreak somewhere between the mouth of the Danube and the mouth of the Rhine or the Rhone caused an intense strain in every capital in Europe during recent years.... The new German chancellor has developed a notedly different disposition from that of his predecessors. The tone of his address to the Reichstag has been accepted with satisfaction at all the capitals of Europe.

Dec. 20, 1919

Holiday shopping is solely a matter of the survival of the fittest, and a lot of us are not fit. About the third day the average shopper begins to show signs of shell shock. Something should be done in honor of those patriotic shoppers who in the last week have gone down fighting against overwhelming odds. A statue showing a pale, slim gent stretched on the store floor with a bevy of fat ladies charging across his prostrate form would be appropriate.

Dec. 24, 1922

... And if there are enough [people who defy Prohibition] to turn the occasion into a drunken debauch, to congregate in dubious restaurants and cafes or even at private parties, to flout the laws and to exercise their particular form of “smartness” by securing and dispensing liquor, making of Christmas Day and New Year’s Eve a triumph of law-defying, sousing, maudlin idiocy and drunken jubilation, the whole city must bear the shame of it.

Dec. 14, 1941

The more retail selling that is done, the larger are the tax contributions of all business to the government’s war chest. So when, reasonably and within your means, you buy gifts, even those not strictly utilitarian, you are helping to win the war in several very practical ways.... There is still another way in which Christmas giving supports our war effort -- intangible, maybe, but nevertheless very real and effective. The good cheer and good will it expresses and embodies are powerful stimuli to popular morale.... Psychologically at least, there is no better bomb shelter than a Christmas tree.

Dec. 9, 1942

Santa’s job is evidently going to be complicated this Christmas. The girls can’t hang up painted-on stockings. It would be a joke if the old boy should paint their presents on the mantel.

Dec. 25, 1958

The spirit which animates Christmas giving is that which government and group philanthropy unwittingly -- and sometimes wittingly -- are stamping out. It is a refractory spirit, spontaneous, unregulated, unbureaucratized. It is not political and it does not spend tax money. It does not depend on funds “scrimped and iced, in the name of a cautious, statistical Christ.” Christmas and its givers and its spirit are -- in America -- the last rally against the soulless welfare state in which generosity is taxes, bureaucracy is the substitute for kindness, compassion is a subject for legislation, and a Social Security number exempts a man from nursing his conscience by taking thought of his friend or neighbor.

Dec. 25, 1961

Strangely enough, the hope for peace seems a little closer to realization now than ever. Strangely, because the antagonists in the divided world are armed so well that they can end the whole world in an apocalyptic blaze of murder and suicide. The peevish Roman emperor wished the people had one neck for his executioner’s sword; 1,800 years later he could satisfy his lust for extermination by pressing a button. For all the people now living in what had been his empire, and the billion or more who reside in other parts of the globe, could be killed by a decision made in Moscow or in Washington.

Dec. 24, 1965

With 175,000 U.S. troops already facing a murderous foe in Vietnam, and more on the way, there can be no pretension that this is a truly merry Christmas. However, the Yuletide cease-fire in that battle-torn land is surely a welcome gift to our fighting men and their families -- provided the enemy observes it in good faith.

Dec. 17, 1989

A red-suited Santa Claus, evergreens with tinsel and lights, festive music, brightly wrapped gifts -- all are a part of this holiday season. But as festivities get into high gear this week, it is well to remember something easily forgotten: Christmas is not for everyone. Nor should it have to be.... Even wishing “Happy Holidays” to friends of other religions instead of “Merry Christmas” can be a sign of respect and an inclusive way to share the spirit of the season.

Dec. 24, 1999

As the year-end holidays draw closer, the government has increased its warnings about possible terrorist acts both in the United States and abroad. President Clinton advises Americans to enjoy the Christmas and New Year’s festivities but keep an eye open for anything that looks suspicious....

The vagueness of the warnings is not very helpful, though it’s probably the best the government can do. Clearly there’s a compelling suspicion among federal officials that anti-American terrorism looms as a real possibility in coming weeks.... The December holidays and the coincidence of millennial celebrations offer a tempting opportunity to terrorists, always on the lookout for spectacular settings for their acts. That’s why law enforcement authorities are being especially vigilant at airports, and why the major public New Year’s festivities, in Washington, D.C., and New York, among other places, will be saturated with police and other security agents.