By Emily Meehan, Reader Services Student Assistant
Every year, when the day after Thanksgiving rolls around, I jump at the opportunity to put on a Christmas sweater, blast Christmas radio in my car, and truly embrace the holiday spirit. To tell you the truth, I find that the joy and anticipation of Christmas Day helps to alleviate stress going into the last few weeks of the school quarter – it may look bleak now, but just around the corner is joyful and triumphant! So, I thought I would incorporate my holiday mentality into my work at the Clark Library and discover what it has to offer on the true meaning of Christmas.
I found that our Fine Press Collection includes a few treasures from our featured unique California printers about the celebration of Christmas in California. In 1960, Lawton Kennedy, who had a strong printing relationship with the California Historical Society, printed a small book entitled “Christmas in California,” which includes two parts: “Christmas at Sutter’s Fort in 1847” and “Christmas Before the Americans Came” (“Americans” meaning white, non-Spanish settlers). The story on Sutter’s Fort details a grand Christmas feast that mirror’s Sutter’s recent success and then his foretelling at dinner of his own downfall if large reserves of gold were to be found on his property. “Christmas Before the Americans Came” tells of how members of a Spanish mission, Spanish settlers, and Native Americans all prepared and celebrated the holiday in different ways, all totaling to about a week of festivities and sharing between communities.
Lawton Kennedy printed another early California Christmas story with the California Historical Society called “Christmas at Rancho Los Alamitos,” by Katharine Bixby Hotchkis. Hotchkis was the daughter of the last private owners of the ranch and describes the yearly Christmas parties that grew to be grand in scale with the attendance of both the owner’s and all of the ranch employees’ extended families. Through these personal memories, the importance of Rancho Los Alamitos is brought forth by making allusions to its past and founding as a large commercial ranch. Another edition of the book printed over a decade later by another famous California printer (Anderson, Richie, & Simon) makes mention of the donation of the ranch to the city of Long Beach for it to avoid demolition by land developers and be preserved as a historical site.
As these books are about California history and printed by a historical society, one would think the contents would be more historical and factual in their telling. Instead, they read more as personal stories that seek to describe and remember in vivid detail what Christmas was like in these different settings. I think this signifies the fact that there is no one Christmas “history.” The amazing thing about Christmas is that even when one does study the cultural foundations of the holiday, there are so many different traditions and ways to celebrate – not just in different larger cultures and communities, but in different families, even individuals. There were definitely some similarities found between the stories, like the preparation of a large feast, anxious waiting on the arrival of guests, and after-dinner entertainment in the form of stories, dances, magic acts, etc. However, the only thing that was truly constant throughout all of the stories was the different communities coming together and sharing their traditions and resources to celebrate the holidays, regardless of background. I think that’s the true meaning of Christmas, don’t you?
The last book I found in our Press Collection on Christmas in California was Remembered Christmas: Los Angeles in the 1930s, written and printed by Vance Gerry of the Weather Bird Press located in Pasadena. Again, the title makes you think that this is going to incorporate some historical facts, but it is instead a short retelling of Christmas memories of Gerry as a child growing up in Los Angeles. I was particularly drawn to this book because its simple, delicate, hand-crafted form embodies the holiday nostalgia of making Christmas crafts as a young child.
Yet, it was the descriptive words of Gerry that brought me closer to his (and therefore, my own) Christmas memory. He talks of walking down a main street in LA with the shops fully-decorated with toys and lights in the window as such a sensory experience as he says, “the essence of the dreamlike sequence has never been erased from my mind.” We quickly jump from the bustling street to his warm home on Christmas Eve, which he remembers as “the close approximation of a Norman Rockwell painting.” But it was the last lines of the book in which I felt completely justified in my search for the meaning of Christmas at the Clark:
“As the Christmas fire that we really didn’t need died down an aunt played a carol on the piano and in that contented room everyone seemed wrapped in affectionate warmth and happiness, the texture of which I never felt again.”
Some people may read these lines as depressing, but in my optimistic holiday spirit, I see them differently. One never feels the same way at Christmastime ever again because each time is so unique and different, even if your family practices the same traditions every single year. And it’s special because that unique, warm feeling you get from your loved ones or just by drinking a huge mug of peppermint hot cocoa only happens for such a short time once a year. That’s why I cherish the holiday season. I know some say that it has turned into a commercial holiday that has destroyed its true meaning, but based on these personal stories I found at the Clark, I still think it has some value.
Wishing you the warmest of holiday feelings from the Clark!