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Archive for the ‘holidays’ Category

To the holiday-cheerful,

Today’s post comes to you from a very special guest, someone who can speak with far more authority about Easter than I ever could (and far more irony than I would ever dare), Mollie Wilson O’Reilly. Mollie is an associate editor of Commonweal Magazine, and blogs at Restricted View. You may have also caught her writing in The Village Voice, Nextbook.org, and Television Without Pity. 

“The child of today will probably remember Easter as a sort of minor Christmas,” proclaimed this Life magazine article from 1939. “Easter today is second to Christmas as toy-buying time.”

Growing up a Catholic kid in the 1980s, I was reminded by my teachers every year that Easter is really the most important Christian holiday. Kids need to be told this because, in terms of secular hoopla (and toy-buying), Easter is a “minor Christmas” at best. For religiously motivated joy, you can’t beat it, but the consumer side of Eastertide never quite took off.

The failure to make a second Xmas out of Easter was not for lack of trying, as a perusal of Google’s online archive of midcentury Life magazines will show. Easter-themed advertising pops up every spring. Clothing gets a big push—gotta look good for that parade!—as do Whitman’s chocolates (right: “A woman never forgets the man who remembers”) and seasonal foods like Armour ham. (Or just ham in general.)

Then there are the less obvious seasonal tie-ins, like this ad for—well, see how long it takes you to figure it out: “Bright Easter finery. A smart Easter hat. Gay Easter flowers. It’s every woman’s right to glow with pride in the Easter parade. And, it’s no woman’s wish to go home and spend the rest of the day in the kitchen. There’s a hint for husbands here. Take the family out for dinner—where they have Wurlitzer music.”

Phonographs! Of course.

The 1939 article about the thriving Easter toy market referred to “bunnies that have grown to monstrous sizes” as a particularly popular treat. I think that phrasing really gets to the heart of what’s wrong with the commercial side of Easter in our culture: the total failure of imagination that is the Easter Bunny. Our Santa Claus legend is pretty solid: We know what he looks like, where he lives, what he does. But when it comes to the Easter Bunny, all we really know is that he’s an overgrown rabbit who delivers eggs and/or candy. But where does he come from? Where does he get the eggs? What, if anything, does he wear? And isn’t the whole idea sort of, well, frightening?

In 1939, as far as Life was concerned, the Easter Bunny was a Continental oddity. “In Europe, the hare is considered a sort of St. Nick who comes at night to leave colored eggs for good children,” the article above explains. But by 1947, E.B. is on the scene in America—and judging from this ad for Listerine toothpaste, he may or may not have genie-like powers: “If the Easter bunny could grant one wish, about your child’s appearance, you’d be wise to choose a friendly, radiant smile! However, if you don’t believe in the Easter bunny, and do believe in Oral Hygiene…”

A Life photographer caught these brothers (left) confronting the Bunny in Los Angeles in 1947: “To startled, half-frightened Christopher, older brother Peter explained the Easter legend. Enormous bunnies like this mysteriously appear every Easter, leave brightly colored eggs in hidden places and, just as mysteriously, disappear.” That is certainly not *the* Easter legend, but I’m not even sure it counts as *an* Easter legend. Are there really multiple Easter Bunnies?

Along with widespread uncertainty about what, exactly, the E.B. does, there is our collective failure to figure out what he should look like. In the meantime, we keep scaring children with giant rabbit costumes—a tradition that dates back at least to the 1950s, as you can see in photos from the University of Southern California’s digital library. This one below, from the 1958 Beverly Hills Easter Parade, is captioned “nineteen-months-old Mary Lee Anderson…cries as she is surrounded by three Easter Bunnies who jumped off float to greet little girls.” Can you blame her?

Pamela Schmidt, the “Easter Seal Sweetheart” of 1958 (below) held up much better when she came face to face with the Easter Bunny and the March Hare (I wonder if she could tell which was which?), while these little Los Angelenos, ca. 1951, look happy to be posing with their baskets, and no bunnies in sight.

Nobody sends Easter cards anymore, but considering the kinds of cards people used to send, that may not be such a bad thing. The University of Louisville’s Newton Owen Postcard collection has a large collection of Easter greetings from the earlier decades of the twentieth century, most featuring anthropomorphized animals that have grown to monstrous sizes. And what could be more monstrous than “two chickens in human clothing”?

Sometimes the chickens are beasts of burden, as in this image, captioned “woman in a chariot drawn by three very large chicks.” (Or perhaps it’s just an abnormally small woman?)

 

Many of these images have military overtones, perhaps in relation to the Great War. In some, uniformed rabbit soldiers bring you Easter wishes, astride their sturdy chickens:

But at other times the rabbits are the beasts of burden, and the chicks their masters:

Whimsy may be the intent, but I find these illustrations slightly nightmarish. And none gives me the willies more than this “Loving Easter Greeting,” which depicts a chick roasting eggs over a stove. Is this proof that “Suicide Food” is not a recent phenomenon? Please note that the person who sent this card back in 1911 scrawled “This is I” across the apron of the cannibal chick. Loving Easter Greetings indeed!

Yours in waiting for the Easter Bunny,

Mollie

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To the domestically-inclined,

Break out your horseradish everybody! Passover is officially here, bringing with it gefilte fish, chocolate-covered matzo, brisket, and all the other healthy treats you’ve come to associate with the feast of the unleavened bread. In truth, perverse as it might sound, I do look forward to Passover every year, I suppose because it’s a family-centered, home-bound holiday, unlike Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur. Plus, I kind of like matzo. You know, until day four, when I start screaming at anyone in a twenty-foot radius eating a croissant. 

For the digital scholar, unfortunately, there is no single archive that provides a wealth of Passover-related ephemera, so I’ve had to cast a wide net. For starters, you can get your holiday off to a good start listening to a genuinely catchy album by Julliard and Jewish Theological Seminary grad Gladys Gewirtz. Digitized by FAU’s Judaica Sound Archives, Gewirtz’s Seder Party encourages us all to become “Seder Paraders,” and includes piano accompaniment by Long Island dentist Len Meinwald. (No joke, he continued to record into the eighties!) My favorite song, though, has to be, “Let’s Go Shopping,” an ode to the Passover grocery experience.

Marketers have known for a while that Passover shopping is, indeed, big business. The Reform Advocate reported in 1909 you could see ads for “Chad-Ghadye Ketchup,” named for the popular Passover song. Still Maxwell House has gone down in advertising history for the sheer chutzpah of their now-ubiquitous haggadah. Click here for some scans of an early edition, proclaiming their instant coffee the “Cantors’ Choice for every day enjoyment.” Manischewitz, too, knew a good act to get in on, producing a Yiddish/English pamphlet of Tempting Kosher Dishes for Passover, digitized by the incredible National Yiddish Book Center.  Their product line-up hasn’t changed much since then.

Truly, though, you’ve never seen Mr. Peanut looking so jaunty in that top-hat as he does in 46 Ways To Better Passover Meals brought to you by Planter’s Peanut Oil. (But eaters beware : the kosher status of peanut oil is a still a source of rabbinic debate!). 

Not all Passover publications are quite so product-placement-heavy. The Internet also hides a countless array of Haggadot. For a sampling, here is one from 1883, one from 1908, one from 1910, and one from the 1920s.

Last but not least, video-lovers can curl out on their couch and watch this rather remarkable footage from the 1969 Freedom Seder, organized by Rabbi Arthur Waskow in a black church on the anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assasination. And you can thank another underappreciated digital resource, my parents, forwarding me Martha Stewart’s tour of the Streit’s Matzoh Factory.

Yours in recline, 

Stephen

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Dear leisure suit lovers,

It’s here again, everyone’s favorite Hallmark holiday, Valentine’s Day, a chance for singles to moan and couples to glow (and sometimes gloat). Where might we find traces of this hallowed festival in the digital archive? Well, friends, I’m glad you asked. Today we turn to the Notable Women of Simmons Scrapbook Collection, which includes among its many clippings a handful of sweet, and sometimes silly, declarations of love.

My favorite may be the scrapbook of Daisie Miller Helyar, a Vermont native who attended the women’s college from 1906-1910 and later became a librarian. The exhibit includes an excellent essay on the origins of Valentine’s Day, and also provides a remarkable window into the social life of young, educated women in the early twentieth century. The curators note, for one thing, that “most, if not all” of the Valentine cards  in Daisie’s scrapbook likely came not from her future husband but her friends. Below, you can read one love poem Daisie received.

As Carroll Smith-Rosenberg showed in her classic 1975 essay, “The Female World of Love and Ritual,” romantic friendships between women were common in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. You can view two more below, and the rest here.


Not everyone, of course, made cards by hand. For some vintage mass-produced Valentines , head over to the handsome Hearts Atwirl website and the Vintage Valentine Museum.

Before I sign off, just one more recommendation: Jessica Helfand’s Scrapbooks: An American History, an extraordinary reading of the art of scrapbooking including countless beautiful reproductions. It just goes to show, sometimes only a book will do. Until then, you can check out Helfand’s website here.

Lovingly yours,

Stephen

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Dear New Years TV marathon viewers,

If you wondering when your local cafe, supermarket, and shopping mall would stop playing “Santa Baby,” rest assured: Christmas is almost here!  Though my own family is Jewish, the holiday still holds so many sweet memories for me: the evening  I gathered all the ornaments given to my mother by her elementary school students and decorated a cardboard box; the year I went to the movies to see Life is Beautiful with my friend Alli and about 35 octogenarians; and yes, the time my family saw a musical version of A Christmas Carol (we won tickets) while my hand swollen from a broken wrist.

Alas, sustained grinching is the most effective way I’ve found to navigate the month-long flood of specials, ads, and jingles that Christmas brings. Somewhere beneath my Scrooge-ish demeanor, I do though have an affection for holiday films like the Muppet Christmas Carol and a larger fascination with a popular culture I do not share. Take for example, the Christmas artifacts in the reliable  Duke Digital Collections. Their Ad Access archive, for one, includes this randy 1943 pitch for war bonds (on the left), and this adorable 1956 ad for Packard-Bell TV sets (on the right).

Over in their Protestant Family Archive you can also check out this 1936 article from The Christian Home by a mother wrestling over whether to tell their children about Santa Claus or not.

For something less expected, surf over to check out the Magnes Museums digitized scrapbook of what was an annual San Francisco event: the Christmas parties held at the Haas Lilienthal House—as the archivist notes, an unusual window into California’s “Jewish aristocracy.” Here are two images from the book below.

And why not surf over to the vast Museum of Broadcast Communications Archives where you can discover the ghosts of Christmas TV past, including a Liberace special and another starring Judy Garland. Yes, that’s one holiday, two gay icons!

On that note, this is the Lazy Scholar signing off for 2009. I’ll return after a short sabbatical on Monday, January 11, 2010! Happy holidays to all, and thank you as always for reading.

Merrily yours,

Stephen

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Hanukkah Caroling

Dear holiday lovers,

In case you’ve lost track of your  candle-lighting, tonight’s the sixth night of Hanukkah—a.k.a. the Festival of Lights, a.k.a. the Jewish Christmas, a.k.a. an excuse to eat oily, fried foods. Hanukkah sometimes felt like a hard holiday to get into as a kid. I loved the eight days of presents and the chocolate coins, but I didn’t understand the whole Maccabees story and not-so-secretly coveted our neighbors’ Christmas tree. There was, of course, no Charlie Brown Hanukkah special, with a misshapen menorah in place of that scraggly bush. Even in my elementary school choir, we were forced to sing “We wish you a happy Hanukkah” to the tune of “We wish you a merry Christmas,” trading figgy pudding for potato latkes. Honestly.

Of course, Adam Sandler long ago called everyone’s attention to the derth of good Hanukkah tunes. Little did he know there was a veritable smorgasbord of Hanukkah songs just waiting to be sung poorly. Thanks to the wonderful Judaica Sound Archives at Florida Atlantic University, now you can listen to two albums of the 1950s Tell Me About Chanukah! and Hanukkah The Feast Of Lights. Check out their full listing of Hanukkah albums and their holiday mix. (Click the covers below to listen!)

Not to be outdone, the wonderful Idelsohn Society (your source for reissues of the Barry Sisters and offensive “Jewface” recordings) has their own Hanukkah mix, with tracks by Milton Berle and Woody Guthrie. You can see the full album listing here (scroll down…) and listen below.

And last but not least, don’t forget about Tom Lehrer’s kitschy classic, “Hanukkah in Santa Monica,” sung here by Lehrer himself, here by Brandeis U’s Jewish Fella A Capella, and here by a glee club.

Yours in Hanukkah cheer,

Stephen

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