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Christmas in the Space Age: looking back at the wild, weird designs of mid-20th-century holidays

There are two critical periods for Christmas. One is the Victorian era. The other is the 1960s.

Midcentury Christmas
The Christmases of the post-World War II period were full of glittering, shiny surfaces.
Jeffrey Stockbridge/Countryman Press
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

The further we get from the 1965 debut of A Charlie Brown Christmas, one scene in particular seems stranger and stranger.

It’s the one where Charlie Brown and Linus go to purchase a Christmas tree for the kids’ Christmas pageant. At the giant Christmas tree lot, searchlights beam into the sky, and the trees plunked upon the ground are every color but green. Pinks and oranges and purples dominate the horizon, and the two little boys look for something real in the din. At one point, Linus knocks on a tree to hear the hollow clang of metal. It’s not just an oddly colored tree — it’s an aluminum one.

Certainly, we can sympathize with trying to find the “authentic” and non-consumerist side of the holiday season in 2016. But who would ever buy an aluminum Christmas tree? That would seem garish and odd.

And yet this kind of Space Age Christmas was enormously popular in the United States — and, oddly enough, the USSR — in the mid-20th century. The history of the movement, a kind of warmer, cozier modernism, is chronicled in the new book Midcentury Christmas by Sarah Archer.

Packed with photos of vintage Christmas decorations, advertisements, and other trinkets, Archer’s book is couched in her knowledge of design and American craft history. Archer’s text surrounding all those photos goes in depth to explain how the scientific optimism of the post–World War II period got bound up in the hazy nostalgia Christmas has carried with it since the early 1800s (when it morphed from a rowdy night of drinking and reveling to the family-centered holiday we know today).

I recently spoke with Archer about why this time period is so interesting, what Christmas always says about America, and the key difference between Scrooge and the Grinch.

Our conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Midcentury Christmas
These cardboard Christmas ornaments were designed by Oliver Lincoln Lundquist and Julian von der Lancken for Norse Craft, Inc.
Matt Flynn/Countryman Press

Todd VanDerWerff

What was the impetus for your deep dive into mid-20th-century Christmas Americana?

Sarah Archer

I have written quite a lot about the studio craft movements in the postwar United States and the people who were moving to Black Mountain in the ’50s and making pottery and espadrilles.

Midcentury Christmas
A Soviet New Year’s card.
Countryman Press

I was fascinated by that counterculture, but slowly but surely I was teaching history of design and became more and more fascinated by the mirror universe of that craft counterculture, which is Tupperware and suburbia and [the famous suburban developments] Levittown.

I came across an article about people who collect Soviet New Year's cards. It was this bizarre chapter in history, where in the USSR they didn't celebrate Greek Orthodox Christmas, but they celebrated New Year's. There was this character named Grandfather Frost, who's basically Santa Claus. They would have these New Year's trees, which are Christmas trees. They had these fascinating cards that had this Space Age aesthetic. I started Googling. Sure enough, there's an American version of this. I started digging and digging, and I thought, it's much more than just the cards.

There's something really fascinating about the fact that for most of its history, [the modern celebration of] Christmas as we know it, which technically only dates from about 1820, has been steeped in this non-geographical, non-temporal, mythic snowy past. It's kind of Victorian, kind of medieval, sort of Arctic, vaguely Northern European, but it's all very vague.

[In the mid-20th century], it's like suddenly everybody is almost nostalgic for the future.

Midcentury Christmas
Stark, vaguely modernist illustrations adorn this Christmas card.
Countryman Press

Why did that happen? Why, after at least 150 years of this deep nostalgia for the candlelit world of either an imagined Victorian past or an imagined medieval past, were Americans so keen to marry this nostalgia and coziness with the futuristic quality of the Space Age?

I was inspired very heavily by the work of a historian named Stephen Nissenbaum. He writes mostly about the 19th century, and I was fascinated by this idea that the root of Christmas, way, way back, the way it was celebrated, is closer to what we would consider Halloween or New Year's. It was this very adult, risqué, not domestic, not cozy, not child-oriented holiday. [Ed. note: Indeed, many churches at the time didn’t observe Christmas because it was thought to be a holiday of bad influences.]

But there's a way in which the Halloween impulse remained, only the thing that's wearing a costume is the house. It's a way of trying on modernism. We're not going to necessarily have a starburst clock hanging over the geometric fireplace, but we could try an aluminum tree, sure.

It's a time period that I've always found fascinating. It's my mom’s childhood era. As a kid who grew up in the ’80s, there was this fascination with the ’50s, this inherited nostalgia for baby boomers.

Todd VanDerWerff

We’ve really snapped back hard to hazy nostalgia for an era of one-horse open sleighs and the like. Do you think there’s a reason the Space Age influence faded away?

Sarah Archer

When I was a kid in the ’80s, Santa Claus was Victorian. He wrote in calligraphy, and it was very old-fashioned. Even in the gadget-filled 1980s, there was a very clear old-fashioned focus to it.

Midcentury Christmas Countryman Press

There's this period of time from roughly the end of World War II or the late ’50s, through the early ’70s, right before the oil embargo, where despite the fact that there were many awful things happening on the ground, there was this real sense of almost childlike optimism about the Space Race.

That's something my generation missed out on, because [we] were faintly aware that there were these disasters. For people of the [older] Neil deGrasse Tyson generation, kids who grew up in the ’60s and ’70s, [the Space Race] gave people something to look up to, literally and metaphorically, that was not cultural, particularly. You could be any race, any gender, and it was inspiring.

Something about the slow industrial decline of the ’70s made people turn their back on that and think, oh, it's goofy. Aluminum trees suddenly became uncool. We're rejecting the Levittown ideal, and many are too young to remember World War II, and they take all that stuff for granted and say, "We don't want your consumerism." It was probably perceived as being kind of hokey.

Midcentury Christmas
This Christmas card features an aluminum tree.
Countryman Press

The space program has dialed back. It's not in the forefront of people's minds in the way that web-based technology is today. The Google, Twitter, Snapchat universe of inventiveness has taken the place of that in our consciousness in terms of what we produce as a culture. Either that or prestige television.

Todd VanDerWerff

Well, I, for one, don’t really miss aluminum trees. But what are some things you found in researching this Christmas design aesthetic that you’re sad are no longer with us?

Sarah Archer

There's something about the unselfconscious love of kitsch that I find very endearing.

I didn't grow up with [the stuff I discuss in the book], but I grew up with a basement full of ornaments. I had a Midwestern grandmother who did the full Marshall Fields department store concept tree every year. It was this real creative exuberance that I think has come back into vogue with a little bit of a smirk. There are people who throw kitschy, retro holiday parties.

There was a real inventiveness and creativity to a lot of the DIY stuff. Coming out of the Depression and World War II, there's this culture of women's magazines and pamphlets and newsletters and companies encouraging readers to use what they have, create things with what they have on hand. After rationing is over in the ’50s and ’60s, all those same companies say, "Now you can buy tinfoil again, and there's a houseful of uses. You can create wreaths." All these creative, fun things.

Midcentury Christmas
Everybody was into aluminum, apparently.
Reynolds Consumer Products/Countryman Press

It's not quite anti-consumerism, because you have to buy tinfoil or you have to buy cellophane, but there's something really wonderful about being at home with your folks or your friends or your siblings and making a project and figuring out how to use the material inventively in creating something unique that you can photograph and chuckle about for ages.

That's good practice for being a flexible and thoughtful adult. There's something really useful in that for any kid in any time period — making your own fun, but also really experimenting with what you have on hand and how you can be creative with it. That's still around, but there's a way in which the Waldorf toy aesthetic of "We're not going to buy anything sparkly or tacky” is a little sad.

I don't have kids myself, but I've been around enough of them to know they like stuff that looks really tacky. [laughs] They like things that make noise and sparkle and flash. Not caring about it being cool, having uncool Christmas, is a beautiful thing.

Todd VanDerWerff

One thing you touch on in the book is that we still have a semi-immersion in this Space Age Christmas thanks to the TV specials and Christmas songs of the era — like how Lucy wants an aluminum tree in A Charlie Brown Christmas. What are some of the ways this type of Christmas is still with us?

Sarah Archer

My gut feeling is that there are two critical periods for Christmas. One is the Victorian age, when the Industrial Revolution was being disguised in this gaudy myth of "It's not from a department store. It's Santa Claus."

The second is the postwar period, because so many of the things we associate with cozy Christmas celebrations now are the product of this confluence of Hollywood and TV and the music industry and department stores and catalog shopping and all that stuff put together.

Midcentury Christmas Countryman Press

I watched a number of those specials again and was really taken aback by them. They’re very serious in their critique, particularly the Grinch and Charlie Brown.

Christmas is always a litmus test for how we feel about buying stuff. It comes at the same time every year. If you look at what the thinking around Christmas is in 1838 and 1912 and 1950, you always get a slightly different pulse of what Americans are thinking.

I started playing around in my head with Scrooge versus the Grinch. In the middle of the 19th century, you have a hero figure who is stingy and greedy and doesn't care about other people. When he has his epiphany, the answer is material abundance. It's the Oprah effect. Everybody gets stuff.

Then, about a century later, the Grinch is similarly mean and stingy of heart, but his epiphany is the exact opposite. [Dr. Seuss] was writing this book at the height of the postwar boom, and the message is: You don't need all this stuff.

The Charlie Brown narrative is all this kind of angst about the Christmas tree. Do we want the shiny pink aluminum, newfangled, modern tree? Or do we want the sad, sentimental, small tree that's not as impressive and has a kind of rustic charm? That's a real clear way of translating for kids this [feeling of] wrestling with consumerism. What does it mean to be an American living in this age of abundance?

Todd VanDerWerff

If Christmas reflects how we feel about buying stuff, then how do our post-1970s Christmases reflect our evolving feelings about consumerism?

Sarah Archer

I grew up on the Upper West Side, and we lived around the corner from a store called Think Big. It was this crazy concept store where the business plan was everything big. It was insane. It was like living in Pee-wee's Playhouse. It was this really weird, over-the-top consumerist boom.

Midcentury Christmas Countryman Press

Our parents were all people who had bought [Manhattan] real estate at the wrong time, they thought, living in this bankrupt, dirty city. Then suddenly everything was glossy and glitzy. There was a kind of novelty to it. I remember, even as a kid, thinking, wow, the adults are really intoxicated by this.

Since that time, it’s a lot of “experiences, not stuff.” That's a fairly rarefied ideal if you actually have little kids. They do like stuff. What I hear often is there seems to be a real focus on turning away from that kind of consumption since the NAFTA boom, where credit's gotten easier to obtain, things became really cheap, and Target proliferated.

We all have these storage units. We all have too much stuff. We're all having to constantly clear things out.

So you want to spend whatever discretionary money you have on the cool trip or a cool factory tour or some experience that's really interesting. It’s doing something that you'll remember that doesn't take up space, that may cost money but is more about using time.

We're all time-impoverished. Nowadays, perhaps the ultimate luxury good is time.

Midcentury Christmas is available from booksellers now.