It's December, but America isn't in its usual holiday mood. The spirit of our society has been changed forever by the unprovoked attack in which thousands died. The country is at war.
Americans are planning a quiet holiday with family and friends, hoping for peace and grateful for their blessings. Newspapers are already running stories about what sorts of gifts are appropriate for servicemen and women who won't be home for the holidays.
"War Casts Shadow Over Christmas Joy," one headline reads.
"I don't think that it will be possible for any of us to say this could be a 'merry Christmas,' " the first lady has been quoted as saying.
Still, the White House is being decorated with holly, poinsettias and mistletoe. The White House Christmas tree is resplendent in red, white and blue. The East Room will have an all-white Christmas tree, with another, smaller tree on the second floor for the first family.
Stores are busier than ever, filled with holiday shoppers. As one salesgirl says, "You can sell 'em anything this year."
Shoppers can enjoy the music of the season at Stewart's downtown, when a choir of the department store's employees, trained and directed by Louise Spencer of the Peabody Institute, sing carols.
OK, so Christmas 2001 isn't exactly like Christmas 1941, days after the attack on Pearl Harbor drew the United States into World War II. For one thing, the country was coming out of a depression back then, not in a recession after years of unprecedented prosperity.
"They've got the dough, and they're crazy to get rid of it," said the unnamed salesgirl, quoted in a Sun article published on Dec. 23, 1941, when Stewart's and the other now-closed department stores downtown were the place to shop for the holidays.
Some of the hot gifts for Christmas 1941 were Inkograph pencil-pointed fountain pens for $1, scooters with balloon tires, on sale for $2.95, embroidered pillowcases for $1 a pair, and brocaded slippers made in China for $3.95. The Evening Sun of Dec. 3 had a trendy new gift suggestion: "Mugs are more sturdy than cups and saucers, and young moderns find them easier to handle."
The holidays are always a time when we're nostalgic for the past, when we want to celebrate the old-fashioned way. This year in particular Americans are feeling connected to a time when patriotism was a given and the country was united in a common goal. In December 1941, The New York Times defined the American Christmas as "a holiday as well as a holy day, a day dedicated to families, friendship, all men of good-will, all children as well as the one Child."
"We're coming together as a country as we did in the '40s," says Jeanne Benedict, co-author of the just-published Celebrations: A Joyous Guide to Holidays From Past to Present (Penguin Putnam). "When we wrote the book, who would have thought there would be the same mood in the country? It's much more sentimental."
Call it retro or vintage or kitschy, but Norman Rockwell is looking pretty good these days, and "I'll Be Home for Christmas" doesn't seem unduly maudlin.
Norman Rockwell holiday
This year HomeStyle, a sleek New York home design magazine, used a Norman Rockwell painting of a boy with his Christmas trumpet as the inspiration for its holiday cover.
"We felt like it captured the spirit of what people are feeling," says Newell Turner, the magazine's style director. "It's not uncool to be sentimental. It's about being around home, family, children." Turner is planning to spend Christmas with his family in Missouri, he says -- something he doesn't always do. "But I'm driving, not flying."
D. Blumchen & Co., a New Jersey-based catalog company known for its authentic reproductions of vintage Christmas decorations (Martha Stewart uses its supplies), is having a banner year. The best sellers, according to company vice president Diane Boyce, are the items like "scrap pictures" that can be used to make ornaments.
"A lot more people are going to home-craft decorations this year," she says, "and they're making ornaments in groups. People want to be more together this year, there's more community feeling."
To reproduce the look of a '40s Christmas tree, you should use mercury glass balls; fat, multicolored lights; popcorn chains and tinsel. "Tinsel" means garlands, not drippy icicles. Blumchen sells German tinsel roping, which because of its real silver plating has the motto "guaranteed to tarnish." The company, which specializes in Christmas past, doesn't have anything so modern as a Web site or 800 number. To get a catalog, you'll have to call 201-652-5595.
For '40s seasonal music, "White Christmas" is a must. Bing Crosby first sang it on his NBC radio show, the Kraft Music Hall, on Dec. 25, 1941. "I'll Be Home for Christmas" appeared a couple of years later in 1943, but it's entirely appropriate. You can also find various vintage Christmas tapes and CDs featuring Frank Sinatra, '40s big band swing sounds and three-girl harmony groups like the Andrews Sisters.
If you're feeling like a movie, It's a Wonderful Life (1946) isn't the only good vintage holiday film. Pop some corn and gather the family around the television to watch one of these:
* Remember the Night (1940), a romantic comedy set around the holidays starring Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray.
* Christmas in Connecticut (1945), starring Sydney Greenstreet and Stanwyck as a famous food writer who can't boil an egg.
And, of course:
* Holiday Inn (1942), with Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire. The musical that the song "White Christmas" was written for.
Gifts of the good old days
The Internet is a great source for vintage Christmas items for yourself or gifts for someone else. Go to eBay at www.ebay.com; type in "1941 Christmas" or "1940s Christmas"; and you can find things as diverse as The Little Golden Book of Christmas Carols, a 1940s vintage stocking, a box of Christmas mica snow -- which will create instant memories for those of you who lived through the '40s -- period tags and seals, and just about anything else you remember with nostalgia.
For vintage toys, a Maryland-based company called Back to Basics sells reproductions of many of the games and toys children in the early '40s might have dreamed of finding under their Christmas trees. You can get a catalog by calling 800-356-5360.
Here are some examples, with the date they first appeared in parentheses:
* Superman Safe (1938). Bright red, with the Man of Steel on the front. A place to keep treasures. ($19.99)
* Balance Board (1940). Made of hardwood plywood, with wheels underneath at the center. ($54.99)
* Special Edition Madeline (1939). The classic doll in a velvet party frock. ($49.99)
* The Slinky (1943). It walks downstairs; it shifts from hand to hand. Who doesn't love a Slinky? ($7.99)
* Balsa airplanes (1942). Eight classic planes with extra parts kit. ($25.99)
Of course, there are many more sources for vintage toys, but the catalog will give you some good ideas -- and date the toys you have fond memories of.
Food from the Forties
In planning your holiday meals in 1941 you wouldn't have been worrying about calories or cholesterol. Christmas dinner would most probably consist of regional and family favorites; it's unlikely anything very exotic would appear on the menu. Already in 1941 imported foods were hard to come by because of the war in Europe. At a time when fresh turkeys cost 33 cents a pound, olive oil was selling for as much as $11 a gallon.
Fruitcake wasn't the butt of jokes; people actually thought of it as a treat, along with plum pudding and mince pie.
Here's what Time magazine had to say about holiday food in its Dec. 29, 1941 issue:
"Before breakfast was over, women would start thinking about their dinners. The big dish would be turkey or goose or, in the Rocky Mountain States, perhaps venison. In New England there would be squash and plum pudding, in the South rice and yams, in Texas a big cut-glass bowl of home-made, ruby-red agarita jelly.| cm SUPDLR| Too soon after dinner there would be snacks of rich brown fruit cake, baked weeks before and set aside to ripen."
Christmas is always a time for traditional food, but this year you might get more specific and duplicate a holiday menu from 1941. Here's one from America's Cookbook, complied by the Home Institute of the New York Herald Tribune and published in 1941:
Roast Goose With Sage-Onion Dressing
Frozen Spiced Applesauce
Salted Nuts, Mints and Coffee
Maybe this year you could serve plum pudding for dessert instead of the usual cake or pie.
Put on a Bing Crosby or a Frank Sinatra holiday album.
Get the whole family together and play a board game.
Make a chain of popcorn and cranberries for the tree.
Give to Baltimore's Santa Claus Anonymous, the charitable descendant of the Empty Stocking Club, which in 1941 contributed 10 pennies, a pair of stockings, an apple, an orange, a top, candy, nuts, a doll for girls and a truck for boys to 5,000 needy children.
Send a holiday card to a serviceman or woman.
And have yourself a retro little Christmas.
Blasts from the past
Gifts that evoke memories of simpler, more patriotic times will have special meaning this year. Here are a few vintage suggestions:
* Timeless toys, from Raggedy Ann to yo-yos
* Classic books from the period, like Robert McCloskey's Make Way for Ducklings (1941), or his Homer Price books, or the Newbery Medal winners of the time: Armstrong Sperry, Call It Courage (1941); Walter D. Edmonds, The Matchlock Gun (1942); Elizabeth Janet Gray, Adam of the Road (1943); Esther Forbes, Johnny Tremain (1944); Robert Lawson, Rabbit Hill (1945)
* Cassettes or CDs of favorite vintage radio shows
* Forties holiday music
* A piece of colorful Fiestaware
* Reproductions of vintage movie posters from the 1940s
* Small appliances with a retro look, such as a toaster
* Norman Rockwell: Pictures for the American People ($35), the hardcover accompaniment to the current exhibit at the Guggenheim Museum in New York
* Suggestions for the lady of the house from the Evening Sun of Dec. 13, 1941: hostess trays, fine linens ("linens are already scarce"), and a punch bowl. For the young matron, a present designed to help her with informal entertaining: a special fruitcake, a good box of tea, a box of decorated sugar squares
* Finally, the Evening Sun's women's pages suggest you do a little something for yourself, such as a manicure, a perm for your tresses, "which rate a gift too," or a vial of perfume. "Nothing will make you feel so confident and dashing at your own or another's parties as a new perfume."
Christmas cookies a la 1941
If you don't feel like re-creating a whole '40s menu, try making a sweet that might have been served at Christmas 1941, such as, yes, fruitcake or chocolate-covered candied citrus peel or marshmallows dipped in chocolate and rolled in multicolored jimmies.
Here's a recipe from the Evening Sun for "Christmas Cookies," published on Dec. 19, 1941:
"Christmas Cookies are thin, crisp bits of goodness. Cream 1 cup butter or margarine and gradually work in 1 cup fine granulated sugar. When well blended add 2 eggs and beat to a soft, smooth cream. Stir in 1 tablespoon lemon juice, 2 tablespoons milk, 1 / 4 teaspoon anise extract and then add 2 cups all-purpose flour mixed with 1 teaspoon baking powder and sifted twice. Mix to a soft dough, chill for at least an hour and then roll one-third at a time on a lightly floured board. Roll very thin, shape with small fancy cutters and decorate with candied cherries, chopped nuts, shaved Brazil nuts, little holly wreaths made from candied citron and candied cherries, etc. Bake on greased cookie sheets in a hot oven for about 8 minutes or until golden brown."
If nothing else, this will help you appreciate today's newspaper recipes that give you the oven temperature and the number of cookies you'll get.