Culture  /  Q&A

Christmas in the Space Age: Looking Back at the Wild Designs of Mid-20th-Century Holidays

There are two critical periods for Christmas. One is the Victorian era. The other is the 1960s.

Todd VanDerWerff

What was the impetus for your deep dive into mid-20th-century Christmas Americana?

Sarah Archer

I have written quite a lot about the studio craft movements in the postwar United States and the people who were moving to Black Mountain in the ’50s and making pottery and espadrilles. 

I was fascinated by that counterculture, but slowly but surely I was teaching history of design and became more and more fascinated by the mirror universe of that craft counterculture, which is Tupperware and suburbia and [the famous suburban developments] Levittown

I came across an article about people who collect Soviet New Year's cards. It was this bizarre chapter in history, where in the USSR they didn't celebrate Greek Orthodox Christmas, but they celebrated New Year's. There was this character named Grandfather Frost, who's basically Santa Claus. They would have these New Year's trees, which are Christmas trees. They had these fascinating cards that had this Space Age aesthetic. I started Googling. Sure enough, there's an American version of this. I started digging and digging, and I thought, it's much more than just the cards.

There's something really fascinating about the fact that for most of its history, [the modern celebration of] Christmas as we know it, which technically only dates from about 1820, has been steeped in this non-geographical, non-temporal, mythic snowy past. It's kind of Victorian, kind of medieval, sort of Arctic, vaguely Northern European, but it's all very vague. 

[In the mid-20th century], it's like suddenly everybody is almost nostalgic for the future. 

Why did that happen? Why, after at least 150 years of this deep nostalgia for the candlelit world of either an imagined Victorian past or an imagined medieval past, were Americans so keen to marry this nostalgia and coziness with the futuristic quality of the Space Age? 

I was inspired very heavily by the work of a historian named Stephen Nissenbaum. He writes mostly about the 19th century, and I was fascinated by this idea that the root of Christmas, way, way back, the way it was celebrated, is closer to what we would consider Halloween or New Year's. It was this very adult, risqué, not domestic, not cozy, not child-oriented holiday. [Ed. note: Indeed, many churches at the time didn’t observe Christmas because it was thought to be a holiday of bad influences.]

But there's a way in which the Halloween impulse remained, only the thing that's wearing a costume is the house. It's a way of trying on modernism. We're not going to necessarily have a starburst clock hanging over the geometric fireplace, but we could try an aluminum tree, sure.