By Jim Trautman
When our girls were growing up one Christmas tradition we shared was to read a different Christmas story each night before turning out the lights. When we were finished reading, we would open the appropriate door on the advent calendar and enjoy the tiny piece of chocolate. The girls are grown and have moved away, but when I walked into my daughter Amy’’s room recently, I noticed all the Christmas storybooks were still on the bookshelf in a neat row. With the holiday season approaching, I sat down and looked at each one.
My wife, Tina, and I started the Christmas books on December 1st every year. The last one read on December 24th was, of course, *The Night Before Christmas or A Visit From St. Nicholas written by Clement C. Moore in 1822 for his children. Many of the books belonged to Tina and I when we were children in the late ’40’s and ’50’s. Some came from one of my favourite gifts each Christmas, a big stocking from the local 5&10 cent store. It was a treasure trove of kid items, filled with small toys, whistles, candy, a Christmas colouring book and usually a Christmas storybook.
In 1843 the famous **A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens, was published in London, England. Over the years it has been made into many different movie versions. It was not a story that we read to the girls when they were small since it has dark overtones of poverty and greed. The story was published in the same era that the first Christmas cards were printed in England. It was in the mid-1800s that many of the Christmas traditions we still practice today began. They included the singing of carols, Christmas decorations, and a charitable concern for the vast number of poor people who had nothing for the holidays.
The British continued the tradition of Christmas stories in various types of books including the Chums Annual. In the 832 pages of the 1921 and 1922 Annual, they included Christmas stories and black and white drawings depicting the holiday season. The 1922 issue has an illustration entitled “Christmas Chums” showing boys throwing snowballs at one another. It was followed by a selection of Christmas stories.
The publication of comic books with a Christmas theme made an appearance around the time of the Great Depression in the ‘30s. Many of the Christmas comic books were giveaways at department stores when you visited Santa Claus. Walt Disney recognized that the comic book was a valuable marketing tool for other collectibles. Each year the December or January issue of Walt Disney Comics and Stories would feature a Christmas theme. The 1941 issue featured Donald Duck putting up a Christmas tree. The Christmas issues of comic books were filled with advertising products to assist the young reader in making out his or her Christmas list to take on their visit to Santa Claus at the local department store. Starting in 1945 the comics were filled with ads for toys that were in demand at the time; Lionel electric trains, A.C. Gilbert Erector sets, chemistry sets, Daisy Air Rifles.
Tina was a member of the Dell Comic Book Club and the back page of the December 1958 issue of Little Lulu’s showed Santa Claus declaring, ““For the best Christmas, ask mom and dad for the exciting bike all the kids want! Schwinn.” There was an offer for a free Bike Book filled with pictures of movie and television stars, especially actors who had roles in the Westerns that were highly popular at the time.
Many publishers printed unique Christmas comic books for Macy’s, Woolworth, J.L. Hudson, Firestone and the Eaton’’s Department stores. In 1948 Eaton’’s introduced Punkinhead Bear who appeared in giveaway comic books and other items offered at the time.
The first major store giveaway was issued by the Montgomery-Ward Department Store chain in 1938. Robert May, who worked for the department store had written “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” for his daughter. The story had been written to assist his young daughter in coping with the death of her mother. The company purchased the story from Robert May after hearing him read it at a party. The company had the story printed in a comic book that was given to children who visited the store’s Santa Claus. Over the years it has been republished by Little Golden Books.
Many Christmas storybooks were published by Little Golden Books. Little Golden Books was the idea of Georges Duplaix, who was the head of Artists and Writers Guild, which was a division of Western Publishing Company. The company was involved with the Simon and Schuster publishing house. In 1940 Duplaix put forward the idea of publishing a series of children’s books in a format that would allow children to hold the books in their small hands. Each book would be 42 pages in length, 28 printed in two colours and 14 in four colours. The bright pages were appealing to children and would draw them into the story. The books became big sellers due to the size of the book, the stories, the brightly coloured pictures, and the 25-cent price. The company cleverly marketed them in grocery stores and variety stores where there was little competition. The idea was to allow the child to see and pick out a storybook by themselves. The covers of the books were wipeable and a nameplate, placed inside, invited children to write in their names so they could call the book their own. It was a small step to help teach a young child how to be responsible and take care of one’s possessions. The first print run of 50,000 sold out quickly in a few months.
There were originally twelve different titles published that focused on nursery rhymes, children’s’’ prayers, and educational themes. The best selling book of the group of twelve became The Poky Little Puppy written by Janette Sebring. In 1950 The Poky Little Puppy’’s First Christmas book was published with a letter to Santa printed on the brightly coloured back cover. ““Dear Santa, Please bring us warm sweaters, rubber balls, and lots more toys, signed the five little puppies.” In the panel the puppies are seen dragging a present for their mother to put under the Christmas tree. With the success of the early Little Golden Books each year the publisher would release a new title with a Christmas theme. There was Frosty the Snowman, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, The Santa Claus Book, Christmas in the Country, Tom and Jerry’’s Merry Christmas, and old favourites like The Nutcracker.
The Wonder Books of New York City published Kewtee Bear’s Christmas in 1950, which included a song for children to learn at the happy ending. Of course there was a message, ” “I will promise to obey, do my best in every way, I will think of others, too, not just today, but the whole year through.” Keeping this promise meant that you could be a member of the Kewtee Bear’s Santa’s Helper Club. Merry Christmas Mr. Snowman was another.
The Christmas story books had a common theme that even when things looked grim there would be a happy ending.
In December 1966, the Jack and Jill magazine published How the Grinch Stole Christmas by Dr. Seuss. It was in conjunction with the first airing of the television show which has become a tradition. Things appear grim, but then the Grinch discovered the true meaning of Christmas and grew a giant heart.
The children’s Christmas books of the period included artistic work from some of the best illustrators of the day, Richard Scarry, Eloise Wilkin, Tibor Gergely, and top-notch writers. The books were works of art, and they all still hold a special place in our home at Christmas time.
Wishing you a Merry Christmas
& Happy New Year!
* Each year on Christmas Eve groups gather at the Trinity Church Cemetery located at Broadway and 155 Street, Manhattan, New York City to read The Night Before Christmas. The tradition goes back to the 1800s and photos of the large groups that gathered for the event in the 1920s can be found online. In the beginning, a lantern procession marched to the site. Usually, these days, a famous individual or sports star reads the book.
** A Christmas Carol was such a well-loved Christmas story that in the late 1930s the Kansas City Southern Train Line gave each passenger traveling over the Christmas holidays an abridged version of it as a gift.