Here at the Ohio History Center, we have been busy decking the halls in our Lustron House for the upcoming holiday season. Visitors to the house will see an aluminum Christmas tree, play musical records from the 1950s, and enjoy other décor from the decade. Many people look fondly back on that period, portrayed in movies like White Christmas, as a time of newly created traditions. Even the first White House Christmas card was sent during the administration of Dwight David Eisenhower in 1953. How did many of the traditions we associate with Christmas today emerge from the 1950s and why did other traditions from this time period disappear?
Post World War II, many Americans enjoyed an increased income and standard of living thanks to the GI bill and affordable housing. This led to a boost in consumer spending, allowing for new traditions to emerge with a new class of consumers. Larger houses in the suburbs had more land and more space in the home for material goods. In addition to the creation of a large toy industry, other industries began to emerge to create new traditions. Many of these traditions related to material culture from the 1950s continue to exist today.
A survey from 2013 found that of the U.S. homes that display Christmas trees, 79% of them use artificial trees. This practice has its roots in the 1950s. Christmas trees, a tradition from Germany, became popular in the U.S.; by the 1920s, many American homes had real Christmas trees. As shortages began to ease after World War II, companies, like DuPont, experimented with new materials to make consumer goods that were cheaper and higher quality products. This extended to Christmas trees. In 1950, the Addis Brush Company patented an aluminum Christmas tree. This tree was silver and came with a rotating color wheel, intended for the light of the wheel to reflect off the silver branches of the tree. This also eliminated the need for Christmas lights to be strung on the tree, which would have been a fire hazard. Aluminum Christmas trees became widely popular in the 1950s, found in many homes across the country. By the 1960s, Americans had moved on to more realistic looking artificial trees, but some still carry on the tradition of the aluminum Christmas tree today.
In Germany, candles were placed on the exterior of houses to signify the celebration of Christmas. This tradition carried over to the United States in the early 1900s, but with the introduction of electricity the invention of Christmas lights was possible. Bubble lights, a decorative device consisting of a liquid-filled vial, were actually patented in 1935, but wartime shortages stopped their production. After World War II, new materials and higher consumer incomes lead to the rise of popularity of bubble lights and newly developed electric lights. The Rockefeller Christmas tree in New York City was lit with its first electric lights in 1956. Disney’s Christmas tree began in 1956. Bubble lights were out of fashion by the 1960s, but electric lights continue to light up trees, homes and businesses across the country today.
Another tradition that emerged during the 1950s was the tracking of Santa Claus by NORAD. In 1955, “a Sears department store in Colorado Springs, Colorado, advertised a telephone hotline whereby children could call and personally speak to Santa. The number was misprinted, however, and calls went to NORAD’s front runner, the Continental Air Defense Command Center.” The Colonel at CONRAD ordered personnel to give the location of Santa to children who called in, creating a tradition that continues at NORAD today. The center receives over 70,000 calls each Christmas Eve; tracking information is even available on the social media sites Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.
One tradition that has not continued its popularity is the character of Mr. Jingeling. Mr. Jingeling was the “Keeper of the Keys” to Santa’s Workshop. Originally created by Halle’s Department Store in Cleveland, Ohio as a promotion in 1956, the character became so popular, he quickly became a staple for the store. Mr. Jingeling “was a key-making elf who saved Christmas one holiday season when Santa lost the keys to his Treasure House of Toys. Jingeling fashioned new keys for Santa, who was thus able to gain access to toys and carry on with Christmas gift giving. As a reward for saving Christmas for all the good boys and girls, Mr. Jingeling was made the official “keeper of the keys” which he always had in hand at all times.” Mr. Jingeling even made television appearances played by Max Ellis, an actor from the Playhouse Theater. Mr. Jingeling appeared every year in the store until the closing in 1982; he was moved to Santaland on the 10th floor of Higbee’s Department Store, but no longer had the following he once did. Mr. Jingeling still makes some appearances at Cleveland events, but never matched the popularity as he did during the 1950s.
It is interesting to note as Christian Americans embraced new traditions surrounding Christmas during the 1950s, the prevalence of Hanukkah as a major holiday emerged during this time period. Hanukkah was traditionally a minor holiday commemorating an Israelite revolt against the Syrians, usually celebrated with a small gift of gelt (chocolate coins). While many Jewish immigrants in the early 1900s actually celebrated Christmas as a means to “Americanize”, many of their second generation children did not accept celebrating a Christian holiday. Due to the close proximity of Hanukkah and Christmas, many Jewish families began giving gifts to their children for Hanukkah instead of the traditional gelt. As author David Greenberg explains, “After World War II, as Jews moved with other Americans to suburbia, Hanukkah shored up its place as their No. 1 holiday. In the early ’50s, in a famous Middletown-style study of a Chicago suburb referred to as “Lakeville,” sociologist Marshall Sklare found that lighting the Hanukkah candles ranked as the most popular “mitzvah,” above hosting a Passover Seder and observing the Sabbath.” Indeed by the end of the 1950s, “Chanukah’s accoutrements had grown to include paper decorations, greeting cards, napkins, wrapping paper, ribbons, chocolates, games and phonograph records.” The consumer culture surrounding the holiday made it almost bigger than the commemoration itself, as companies looked to promote the “Jewish Christmas”. Hanukkah has come to symbolize Jewish holidays in much of American culture, despite the fact that it is still not a major religious holiday.
Do you take part in any of these traditions? What do you remember about the holidays during the 1950s?
Emily Lang, History Curator
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Weeks, Linton. “Begun The Christmas Tree War Has.” NPR. December 10, 2014. Accessed December 12, 2014. http://www.npr.org/blogs/theprotojournalist/2014/12/10/369368167/begun-the-christmas-tree-war-has.
 Crump, William D. “NORAD Tracks Santa.” In The Christmas Encyclopedia. 3rd ed. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2001.
 Faircloth, Christopher. “Christmas Time Windows, Keys, and Giant Trees.” In Cleveland’s Department Stores. Chicago, IL: Arcadia Pub., 2009.
 Rusek, Joan. “Mr. Jingeling Still Makes Cleveland Hearts Go Tingeling.” Cleveland.com. December 22, 2013. Accessed December 12, 2014. http://www.cleveland.com/shaker-heights/index.ssf/2013/12/mr_jingeling_still_makes_cleve.html
 Greenberg, David. “Christmas for Jews: How Hanukkah Became a Major Holiday.” Slate Magazine. December 16, 1998. Accessed December 11, 2014.
 Joselit, Jenna Weissman. The Wonders of America: Reinventing Jewish Culture 1880-1950. New York: Hill and Wang, 1994.
 Morreall, John, and Tamara Sonn. “Hanukkah Is For the Jews as Christmas Is for the Christians.” In 50 Great Myths About Religions. Google EBook.