Christmas and popular culture

© Rex A E Hunt
December 2008

• The text of a speech given to the Rotary Club of Woden, ACT on 17 December 2008


I wish to pay my respects to the Ngambri-Ngunnawal People
and to those who have cared for this part of the land
from time immemorial.

The Christmas Australians celebrate today may seem like a timeless weaving of custom and feeling beyond the reach of ordinary history.  But the familiar mix of cards, carols, parties, presents, tree and Santa that have come to define December 25 is in part, little more than 130 years old.

Since its inception, whenever, Christmas has been debated, ignored, celebrated, banned, and reshaped.  A study of its development suggests it has always been a weaving together of popular culture and religion within each environment where it is acknowledged and celebrated, and neither side can lodge any claim of exclusivity.

As an event in Australian society, Christmas in the early days of the colony held little importance.  Unless Christmas Day fell on a Sunday a holiday was not declared.  And the day was usually celebrated with a compulsory Anglican church parade or, if punishment had to be administered to a convict, perhaps a reduction in the sentence was ordered.

Tonight, in this my third presentation to this club on ‘Christmas’, I want to present some examples of Christmas popular culture and then pose a question: is there a role for popular culture in religion?  The examples from Christmas popular culture are three:

(i) the Christmas card,
(ii) the world’s most popular Christmas song,
(iii) the artistic development of Santa Claus.


1.  The Christmas card

The modern Christmas card has a history of little more than 160 years.  The first card which could be called a Christmas card, was designed and printed in England in 1843.  Designed by John Calcott Horsley, an artist and member of the Royal Academy, for Sir Henry Cole, it was
"printed in lithography by Jobbins of Warwick Court, Holborn, London, and hand-coloured by a professional ‘colourer’ named Mason" (Buday 1954:6).

It appears Cole not only wanted to save himself some time by printing cards - letter writing was time consuming - he also “hoped to stimulate the postal service” (Macquarie 1983:373).  It has also been suggested that Cole hoped his new venture would be a commercial success, as had been the Valentine card for nearly a century (Brasch 1994:19).

Approximately 1,000 copies were printed on a single piece of stiff cardboard measuring 5 1/8 by 3 1/4 inches and cost one shilling. Its triptych design featured:
"[a] rustic trellis frame... encloses the main centre scene and two narrower panels on each side of it.  The main panel shows a homely family party in progress, including three generations, in true Victorian fashion...  They are toasting the health of an absent friend, the addressee, with red wine...  The greeting text, ‘A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to You’ is placed on a pink curtain draped beneath the central panel in the foreground of the composition.  The side panels represent the spirit of Christmas charity...  The reverse side of the card is left blank" (Buday 1954:10).

However, the card didn’t prove immediately popular.  Neither did it escape criticism.  Artist Cole was attacked by members of the Temperance Movement because they saw its design as depicting drinking and “encouraging drunkenness” (Buday 1954:8).  Nevertheless, as others pointed out, it also carried a strong political message “to stimulate charity to the poor” (Sansom 1968:134).

Commercially produced Christmas cards started to become popular in England in the 1860- 70s when new printing techniques were introduced which lowered their cost, and a drop in postage charges was implemented.  However, by the time of this new technology the popularity of the Christmas card was growing so quickly it prompting some to protest, claiming they were a ‘social evil’.  By the 1880s in England, five million letters and cards were being sent at Christmas.  This figure had grown to 470 million in 1938 and to 1,560 million cards in 1992.  The commercial value of this Christmas card trade was estimated to be worth 250 million pounds in 1991 (Searle-Chatterjee 1993: 176).

The arrival of Christmas cards in Australia was the result of overseas market expansion.  But there were still the ‘pretty scenes of snow on ice’ - far from the Australian experience.

In the 1880s, just when the English Card was gaining in popularity, Australian printer John Sands from Sydney ran an art design competition, offering fifty pounds as a prize for designs of “thoroughly Australian cards” (Stapleton & McDonald 1981:39).  Nearly 700 entries were received.  The winning entry was called ‘Little girl offering a Christmas pudding to swagman’ (Boer 2000:44).  All the designs were placed on public display in the Art Gallery of NSW, attracting long queues of wide-eyed and appreciative viewers (Stapleton & McDonald 1981:39).

John Sands immediately imported new printing presses and within a few months the first of his new Australian designed and printed Christmas cards were rolling off his presses.  They featured scenes, Australian flowers and foliage as well as pure fantasy.  None had religious themes.

Sands’ efforts were soon followed by another Sydney printer, Gibbs. Shallard & Co.  The media reported this release of cards:
"The subjects of the cards are distinctively Australian, depicting the aboriginal in gaudy garb, the kangaroos and black swans in congenial haunts, and some striking aspects of colonial scenery, while the chief ornamentations are means of choice and beautiful indigenous flowers and foliage" (The Sydney Daily Telegraph, 1 October 1881, quoted in Stapleton & McDonald 1981: 40).

Around 150 million cards are sent in Australia each year.  Of these cards rarely are any published that indicate or intimate the idea that unhappiness exists.


2.  The world’s most popular Christmas song

It was Monday 8 January 1940 (Rosen 2002:17), after several years of writing and re-writing, often through all-night sessions, when former Tin Pan Alley performer and prolific songwriter Irvin Berlin strode into the offices of his midtown Manhattan headquarters and handed over the manuscript of a new song.

The new song was ‘White Christmas’, yet few know of its composer.  Most have Bing Crosby’s “dulcet, definitive recording lodged in [their] mind’s ear” (Rosen 2002:5).  

“I’m dreaming of a white Christmas
Just like the ones I used to know,
Where the treetops glisten
And children listen
To hear sleigh bells in the snow.
I’m dreaming of a white Christmas
With ev’ry Christmas card I write:
'May your days be merry and bright
And may all your Christmases be white.'”

‘White Christmas’ is the biggest-selling, most popular pop song of anytime, anywhere, recorded for the 1942 black and white film ‘Holiday Inn’ with “its milestone pairing of Crosby and Astaire” (Rosen 2002:131).

At last count, according to The Guinness Book of Records, a stupendous 170 million-plus copies of Bing Crosby’s record had been sold in the US alone and the song had been recorded by more than 400 other artists (Safe 1995:43).

Among those vocalists and choirs have been: Bing Crosby, Louis Armstrong, Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole, Fats Domino, Elvis Presley, The Supremes, The Beach Boys, the Temptations, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, Willie Nelson, Bob Dylan, U2, the Three Tenors, Doris Day, Kiss, and Barbara Streisand.  And its been sung in English, Dutch, Hungarian, Japanese, Swahili, Yiddish and Australian – if you count the performances of the Rugby Choir!

In reality, the song itself is a tearjerker, filled with musical echoes of the past.  Often Berlin’s haunted Christmas past.  It became a hit in the winter of 1942 “when it was embraced by homesick American GIs” (Rosen 2002:9).

It received an Oscar for best song of 1942 and was “the highlight of Bing Crosby’s... successful career” (Studwell 1995:204).  It also marked the beginning  of “Hollywood’s influence on the way... Americans envisioned Christmas (Restad 1995:166).  But when Jewish-born Berlin heard Elvis Presley’s ‘gospelised’ rendition of the song, “he thought it so sacrilegious that he ordered radio stations around the country not to play it” (Guilliatt 1999:78).

‘White Christmas’ is a song we either love to hum, or flee the room when it is on.  It is an oddity, especially its underlying sadness and its wistful ache for the bygone.  In contrast to “chirpy seasonal standards like ‘Jingle Bells’ and ‘Santa Claus is comin’ to town’… [‘White Christmas’] is the “darkest, bluest tune ever to masquerade as a Christmas carol” (Rosen 2002:13).

3.  The artistic development of Santa Claus

There are many precursors to the modern Santa Claus.  Some of the names they have been known by include Father Christmas, Saint Martin, Pere Noel, Saint Nicholas, and of course, Santa Claus.  Both Father Christmas and Santa Claus have been part of the Australian popular culture.  The former comes from Europe, the later has been shaped primarily in America.

Father Christmas, also known as ‘Old Christmas’ (Charles & Taylor 1997:18) as well as ‘Old Winter’ (Morris 1992:10) can be traced back to England’s contact with the Vikings.  While Santa Claus was ‘brought’ to America in the 1770s by Dutch and German immigrants and adapted and exported over time.

An artistic development in the depiction of Santa Claus came with German immigrant Thomas Nast's drawings, which appeared in the New York Harper's Weekly between 1863 and 1886 (Belk 1993:79).  However, Nast’s vision of Santa did not become the Santa archetype.

He never settled on Santa’s size, which changed to fit his fantasies.  The enduring aspects of his Santa - billowing white beard, powerful pear- shaped physique, and sunny demeanor...  gradually gained acceptance as essentials of all Santas, but in one major respect - their close-fitting suits of fur - Nast’s Santas would lose the battle of history (Charles & Taylor 1997:12-13).

The only original and remaining Nast touch was to specify the North Pole as Santa’s home (Restad 1995:148).

During the 1930s a significant appointment happened in America which was to have lasting international influence on this global festival.  The American soft drink manufacturer Coca Cola Company, who had adopted Santa Claus “as a salesman for the idea that ‘thirst knows no season’ and... that winter-time is as good a time as summer for drinking Coca-Cola” (Mooney 1997:5) employed artist Haddon Hubbard Sundblom (1899-1976) to paint a redesigned Santa Claus for their popular outdoor billboard advertising campaigns.

From 1931 Sundblom created at least one Santa Claus painting annually for Coca Cola, however over the years other paintings were also required as the company included magazine advertising and point-of-sale material to its billboard posters.  His vision of Santa Claus: “a lavish use of fur and leather (belt, boots, and gloves were all massive), a billowing beard, and a waistline so ample it required a belt and suspenders” (Charles & Taylor 1997:15) - and a suit of red and white.

His model for Santa Claus was a friend, Lou Prentice, who was a retired salesman, however after Prentice’s death “Sundblom found his Santa model in the mirror” (Charles & Taylor 1997:17).

But by the 1960s, television had become the dominate advertising medium, attracting the high advertising budgets of companies; photography had caused many illustrators, such as Sundblom, to be dropped by the popular magazines; and outdoor advertising on billboards was subjected to restricting state and local highway environmental laws.  In 1964, Sundblom submitted his last two paintings of Santa Claus to Coca Cola: one was used in their 1964 Christmas campaign; the other in 1966, and shortly afterwards, he retired.

Father Christmas, as he was then called, first appeared in Australia around 1864.  By this time, ties with England were beginning to dissolve as a new sense of independence was emerging.  His first appearance, according to The Illustrated Sydney News was as:

the traditional figure bearing gifts, dressed like a druid in a long gown.  But instead of riding a sled pulled by reindeer, he drives an oxen cart, laden with festive eucalypt branches and an Australian Christmas tree, and he is surrounded by children in crisp, summer dress 
(Stapleton & McDonald 1981:77).

Colonial artists and newspapers soon offered him in various guises.  In 1875 he was still the jolly old English squire, complete with stripped suit, round belly, double-breasted waist-coat, long, full beard, seated on a wicker chair, “while an obliging aboriginal plies a breezy fan” (Stapleton & McDonald 1981:77).  Four years later in 1879, again in The Illustrated Sydney News, he had slimmed down quiet a bit.  The English touch was still there: beard, pipe, long-sleeved shirt, riding pants and boots, but now he was reclined on a wicker lounge tended by six aboriginal persons either standing - fanning him with fern frongs, a large feather, or offering cigars, or kneeling - offering fruit and drink “obviously a romanticised version of the colonial ‘squattocracy’” (Stapleton & McDonald 1981:79).

Then, in 1882, with the growing feeling of independence, Santa emerged in The Illustrated Sydney News more like an Indian raja riding a kangaroo escorted by six ladies-in-waiting riding emus and flanked by a young ‘new year’ (complete with 1883 headband) riding of the wings of a cockatoo.

One year later, there had been a dramatic change.  Gone were the English touches.  In their place were such things as a buggy with its buck-board filled with toys and possibly balloons, and drawn by 14 kangaroos through the sparce Australian bush towards a lonely house.  And Santa’s garb had changed.  Dressed in what appears to be ordinary clothes he looked very much like a country squatter, complete with wide-brimmed hat, coming home from a day’s shopping in town.

So while American artists such as Thomas Nast and Haddon Sundblom introduced a ‘winter’ Santa Claus to the world in the 1860s, enterprising Australian artists a few years later soon gave him a cooler ‘summer’ outfit, complete with kangaroo driven sleigh.

This Australianised Santa Claus has now all but gone.  The popular media have largely reinforced the so-called traditional images of Santa as an obese, Caucasian, white-bearded, jolly, dressed in a ‘Coca Cola’ red suit trimmed with white fur, male, and as the bearer of gifts of toys for children (Belk 1987:87).


Finally, the question I raised at the very beginning of this presentation: is there a role for popular culture in religion?  Yes, as there always has been.  Let me offer some comments by Mikhail Bakhtin when, speaking of the cultures of the Renaissance and the Middle Ages, he said there always has been
"a boundless world of humorous forms and manifestations opposed [to] the official and serious tone of medieval ecclesiastical and feudal culture...  Besides ‘Easter laughter’ there was also ‘Christmas laughter’... expressed in gay songs.  These songs of an extremely worldly content were heard in churches; some religious hymns were sung to worldly, even street tunes"          (Bakhtin 1984:4, 79).

So my advice to the churches and preachers as I approach retirement…?  They might like to monitor the activities of the creative imagination of their membership so as to understand what is the religious and human situation in which their people live.  Religion in general and theology in particular has always been an imaginative reconstruction.  Even for those who now claim only a residual ancestral link to a religious tradition.  Indeed,
"the driving force of religion... is experiential, imaginative, symbolic, and narrational, not propositional” (Greeley 1982:68f).

Both the pre-Christian folk-festivals and modern popular culture celebrations are essentially life-affirming.  They say ‘yes’ to life.  For life is not a great ready-made thing out there.  Life is ourselves and what we make it.  Life is a buzz that we generate around ourselves.  It includes everything and excludes nothing (Cupitt 2003).  Such a view stands in shape contrast to much evangelical/fundamentalist Christianity with its unchanging sky god, and which still is “pessimistic as regards this earth, and value[s] it only as a place of discipline for the life to come” (Miles 1912/76:25).  No wonder popular culture wins out all the time!

To be religious in the 21st century will be to dispense with the natural/supernatural dichotomy, and reassert a life-affirming belief and lifestyle:
• maximising the future of all living creatures, whose destiny is
increasingly in our hands;

•valuing, more than ever, the importance of the human relationships
which bind us together into social groups (Geering 1998:46), and

• working towards a fully humane world within the ecological restraints
here on planet earth, while standing in awe before the profound mysteries of existence (Kaufman 1993).

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Belk, R. 1993.  “Materialism and the making of the modern American christmas” in D. Miller. (ed) Unwrapping christmas. GtB: London. Oxford University Press.
Boer, R.  2000.  “Bilbies, gumnuts and thanksgiving, or the commodified religious imagination in Australia and America” in Australian Religious Studies
Review 13
, 1, Autumn, 40-55.
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Guilliatt, R. 1999.  “Jingle hell” in Good Weekend, 18 December, 77-78.
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Rosen, J. 2002.  White Christmas. The story of a song. GtB: London. Fourth Estate/HaroerCollins.
Safe, M.  1995.  “Hell’s bells” in The Australian Magazine, 16-17 December, 43-47.
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