This article first appeared in the November/December 2021 edition of Home & Harvest magazine.
By Dulce Kersting-Lark, LCHS Executive Director
The Christmas season is upon us and with it comes a wonderful variety of traditions that connect us to the past. For many of us, the mark of an enjoyable holiday is its resemblance to the Christmas’s of our childhood. Familiar or nostalgic food, music, decorations, and activities can transport us back to a time when our biggest concern was whether our letter reached Santa’s North Pole workshop in time. The traditions we hold dear came from our families and our communities, and they also trace their roots farther back to another time and place. As you prepare to celebrate another holiday season, I invite you to spend a few minutes considering the history of some of the most quintessential trappings of Christmas.
For months now you may have noticed the greeting card section of your local drug store or supermarket becoming more green and red with each passing week. Christmas cards and holiday greetings are big business. According to Hallmark, the prolific producer of greeting cards founded in 1910, Americans send more than 1.3 billion Christmas and holiday cards each year. Cards with eye-catching details like glitter, pop-up characters, or even music routinely cost $4.99 or more, and when you add in a postage stamp at $0.58, sending a few messages of goodwill can leave a sizable dent in your pocketbook. The realities of the modern holiday card market makes the origins of the practice all the more surprising.
Historians widely agree that the first Christmas card was the invention of Sir Henry Cole, a prominent figure in the London social scene of Victorian England. Years before becoming the first director of the Victoria and Albert Museum, he found himself besieged with handwritten yuletide greetings from his many friends and acquaintances. The recent introduction of a “penny post” rate in the British postal system made sending holiday messages more accessible to the masses in England. Fearing a reputation of being rude, Cole cast about for a way to answer the hundreds of notes arriving at his home. In the waning months of 1843, he commissioned his friend and artist J.C. Horsley to create an engraving that represented Cole’s idea of the Christmas spirit. He then took the image of a wealthy family enjoying Christmas dinner flanked by scenes of charitable giving to a London printer and had 1,000 color postcards created. The card featured a simple message, “A MERRY CHRISTMAS AND A HAPPY NEW YEAR TO YOU,” and space to fill in who the card was for and who had sent it. Within a few years, several other prominent Londoners were sending out the very same cards.
Americans have a German immigrant, Louis Prang, to thank for our own adoption of the Christmas card tradition. Prang was a skilled printer and eager to utilize the latest technologies of his trade. From continental Europe he brought the process known as chromolithograph making to New England in the 1870s. The process involved the layering of as many as twenty colors to create vibrant images with intricate details. Prang’s very first holiday offering featured a beautiful flower and a message of "Merry Christmas.” His high-quality cards garnered a great deal of attention in his adopted home of Boston and beyond. By the end of the century lithographers across the country were engaged in the lucrative holiday card industry.
Evidence of the popularity of the Christmas card is easy to find in the Latah County Historical Society’s community archive. We have preserved more than one hundred Christmas and holiday postcards and folding cards from the 1890s through the 1970s. The wide variety of cards gives researchers the chance to see how both the quality and variety changed as new methods of printing became widely available. You can also study how the preferred aesthetics of Christmas and New Year evolved over time, and how the holiday card industry grew to be more inclusive of other end-of-the-year celebrations, like Hanukkah and Kwanzaa.
Closely related to the holiday card is the holiday family letter. While not everyone is a fan of these “brag rags,” the yearly summary of a family’s experiences reveals a lot about the era in which they developed, as well as our personal histories. Since before the days of Sir Henry Cole we have used the final page of our calendars as an excuse to send updates to our friends and family, but before the advent of easy and low-cost duplication methods, most letters were written by hand. By the middle of the 20th century, however, mimeograph machines were inexpensive and ubiquitous. The technology allowed women (and it was and remains almost always women) to create a single personal letter that could be sent to loved ones near and far. As families moved farther away from one and other during the booming postwar years, this point of connection grew in importance.
In the LCHS archive is one such family Christmas letter, compiled and sent by Lola Clyde (shown below). The copy in our collection arrived in December of 1959 in the mailbox of Enos Cornwall, who lived in Tulsa, Oklahoma at the time but had grown up in Moscow. Mrs. Clyde formatted the letter on a legal-size piece of paper and listed highlights from each of the past 12 months. It presents the reader with a delightful glimpse into this family’s joys. February’s entry, for example, reads “Blessed Event number one, Robert comes home from Korea. We wine and dine him the rest of the month.” Robert was enlisted in the Army and had been stationed in South Korea since 1957, and it is clear that his parents Lola and Earl were glad to have him home. October’s entry could only have been written by a farming family. “Erlene, Phillip and children are with us for Homecoming. Such fun! Still it rains. We give up on the last of the fall seeding. Too wet.” In the days before Facebook or even email, the family letter was surely a treat for many far-flung relations missing their family and friends.
Another tradition that makes Christmas feel special is the decorating of an evergreen tree, often placed in a prominent spot in one’s home. Many folks know that the roots of this tradition (pun very much intended) reach back to ancient practices of societies as diverse as the Chinese, Egyptians, and Scandinavians. Evergreen boughs, branches, and whole trees were used as decorations during winter months and around the solstice because they symbolized eternal life and the promise of spring’s eventual return. It seems to have to been enveloped into Christian practices sometime in the 16th century in Germany. Other parts of Europe did not follow suit until the mid-19th century. Queen Victoria and her German-born husband Prince Albert helped to popularize the custom of decorating a tree in honor of Christmas. The popularity jumped the pond, helped along by German immigrants, and Americans began adding trees to their holiday celebrations in large numbers during the last decades of the 1800s. The explosion of commercial manufacturing during this same period made it possible for middle class Americans to afford ornaments and electric lights.
Some people prefer to use an artificial tree, perhaps for environmental reasons like the 19th century Germans who first invented a replacement made of feathers in response to ongoing deforestation in their country. For many, however, Christmas just would not be Christmas without a freshly cut tree. Until the middle of the 20th century, it was common for families to harvest a tree from a nearby forest. As populations began to concentrate in suburbs, however, tree farms developed to serve growing families in America’s post-war boom. Much like the card industry, natural Christmas trees drive millions of dollars of sales each year. According to the Pacific Northwest Christmas Tree Association, in 2017 4.7 million trees were harvested in Oregon alone, which accounted for total sales of more than $120 million.
In the 1960s, the allure of Christmas tree farming called to one young man in Latah County. Larry French, then a student of forestry at the University of Idaho, spent part of his holiday break in December of 1967 transporting a truck load of Idaho evergreens down to Los Angeles. The venture proved so profitable, that French undertook the same project for the next three years, selling trees across the southwest, from Lubbock, Texas to southern California. He invested part of his earnings in planting Christmas tree starts on his father’s farm near Potlatch. The trees were an attractive option for diversifying the family farm, as the majority of the work involved happened during otherwise quite months. Just four years later, French had expanded caring for 30 acres and was doing both wholesale retail and tree lot sales.
In 1975 French sat down with University of Idaho Extension Forester Vernon Burlison to share his experiences as one of the pioneers of Christmas tree farming in north Idaho. In the interview, French described his collaborative work with the Soil Conservation Service, which helped him identify the appropriate varietals for various locations, as well as his working agreement with Bennett Lumber Company. The entrepreneur was given permission to plant and tend to trees on Bennett land without charge, and in return he would leave a stand of timber trees for the company at harvest time. In this way, French quickly grew his stock. In 1974 he wholesaled 6,000 trees, mostly to well-established businesses in Boise, Spokane, and the Tri-Cities.
One of the more striking parts of French’s account comes from his discussion of profitability and pricing trees. He explained that an average cultivated tree cost him $5 to harvest, pack, and haul. He might add a modest profit margin before selling it to a retailer, say for $6. The retailer would generally put a 100 percent markup on the tree, making it $12. Well in 1974, that was simply not an acceptable price for a Christmas tree. In that year, because demand for a $12 tree was so low, French ended up supplying 2,400 “wild” trees from Montana to business in the Inland Empire. This recollection of buyer sticker shock lines up with a short but significant period of economic recession. In that year, even the promise of Christmas cheer could convince Americans to open their pocketbooks.
Today, of course, most folks would leave a store feeling quite jolly if they only had to pay $12 for a 7 or 8 foot tree. In fact, the National Christmas Tree Association reported that the average price for a live evergreen in 2018 was $78. In part, the recent cost increase is due to ongoing droughts and wildfires in the Pacific Northwest. Many producers also point to the recession that began in 2008 as a cause. Much like it was in 1974, the demand for trees dropped as Americans slowed their spending. Some tree farms diversified their plantings and others simply closed for good. Given that Christmas trees take, on average, ten to twelve years to reach harvest, we are only now feeling the effects of that industry shock.
Latah County is still invested in the Christmas tree industry, with growers like Hash Tree Company cultivating several hundred acres for the wholesale market, and others like Spring Valley Family Tree Farm and West Twin Tree Farm providing the opportunity to harvest your own tree.
One final tradition that makes Christmas special, and delicious, is the baking and sharing of holiday treats. From Thanksgiving through the New Year, plates of delicate shortbreads, beautiful gingerbread cutouts, and all manner of sweets get traded between friends, family, and coworkers. Growing up, I remember my mother’s small veterinary clinic be absolutely inundated with homemade treats from her appreciative clients. In a world full of ready-made products, receiving a box of lovingly crafted cookies still feels delightfully special.
Immigrants to America brought recipes for cookies with them from Europe. The Dutch, Germans, Danes, Swedes, and Norwegians all brought their unique take on cookies to the states. Until relatively recently, sugar and spices were still expensive commodities and the sharing of a sweet baked good was reserved for special occasions like Christmas. As culinary historian Michael Krondl has noted, “cookies are special because 100 years ago, 150 years ago, they included expensive ingredients that people would only pull out for these occasions two or three times a year. This is why they become associated with holidays.”
Immigrants also brought with them the traditional shapes and forms of cookies that we enjoy today. Gingerbread houses trace their roots back to Germany, the location of the witch’s home in Hansel and Gretel. Cutout or shaped cookies could be found in various parts of Europe. Italians, for example, had a practice of taking limb-shaped cookies to mass where they would be blessed and, when later consumed, cure the pain that was ailing said limb. Some northern European cultures decorated their evergreen trees with edible items, including shaped cookies. In America, the form exploded in popularity in the late 1800s when inexpensive German cookie cutters became widely available to bakers.