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In the 20th century, everything that could have been commercialized about Christmas was commercialized, transforming the holiday into a mass-produced American spectacle. This blending of culture, commerce and Christmas ensured the holiday’s place at the heart of our national character, thanks in large part to Jews. American Jewish songwriters penned some of the most popular carols, and what we know as Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade began in 1924 as Macy’s Christmas Parade, with the Straus brothers inaugurating Santa’s debut appearance in Herald Square.
“A lot of what surrounds Christmas is what I call corporate folklore; it’s created by corporations,” Michael Noer, executive editor of Forbes, explained in a telephone interview. Noer won a Watson Fellowship after college, and spent 18 months traveling around the world, studying the history of Santa Claus. Indeed, Santa Claus as we know him today was born in the 1930s, when the Coca-Cola Co. commissioned artist Haddon Sundblom to rebrand Santa for the masses. Even “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” the darling of Christmas storytelling, was the result of a marketing campaign masterminded in 1939 by retailer Montgomery Ward. (Both Robert L. May, who wrote the story, and Johnny Marks, who adapted it into song, were secular Jews.)
“During the twentieth century, the religious and secular character of the holiday merged into the family setting as families created their own home traditions: purchasing a Christmas tree, decorating the tree, exchanging gifts, and attending church services,” Joshua Eli Plaut writes in the new book “A Kosher Christmas: ‘Tis the Season To Be Jewish.” The holiday represented “a festive time in which [German Jews] gladly participated as both a reflection of their status and a means to assimilate into American society.”
Nowhere was this phenomenon truer than in my mother’s childhood. She and her family decorated a tree in the living room with ornaments and lights, set up a Christmas village beneath its branches and scattered cotton balls everywhere to look like snow. “I have magical memories as a little girl of Christmas,” my mother told me. “First, we opened presents on Christmas morning. It was as if they magically appeared under the tree. But we weren’t done yet!”
After opening a seemingly endless bounty of gifts — Pappagallo shoes, petticoats, easels, bicycles, Madame Alexander dolls — she headed into Manhattan for the family’s extravagant Christmas party at the Beresford, where her relatives lived. (in New York magazine Justin Davidson calls the building an “apotheosis of early-twentieth-century domestic grandeur.… Only New York could produce a monument to Jewish home life as imposing as the Beresford, and perhaps only in the late twenties, in the exultant moment before the stock-market crash.”)
The men wore suits and red vests, the women velvet dresses; the children dressed up in fancy outfits of their own. After a sit-down dinner of roast beef, potatoes and vegetables, plus a chocolate Santa at everyone’s seat — all of it served on beautiful china and crystal by a fleet of servants hired for the day — the coveted moment arrived: Santa (my great-uncle Alan Rudolph) appeared with his gigantic bag and, miraculously, a present for each child.