Frank Leslie - The Meaning of Christmas - Featured

The Meaning of Christmas

The holiday season is upon us! Schools will be closing shortly and students will be looking forward to some time with family and friends.  I can remember when I was a child that our last class assignment before the holidays was to write a paragraph on the meaning of Christmas. Most of the students in class focused on the toys and food, Santa Claus and his chimney escapade, and maybe the fact that we could play all day. But, there were always some students that wrote about other things – peace on earth, thankfulness for a good harvest, or religious views on the holiday.  When these students read their paragraphs out loud to the whole class, you could hear a pin drop. These are the memories that color our holidays. Make memories this holiday season for yourself and those around you. Have a safe and happy holiday.

Frank Leslie's Weekly - The Meaning of Christmas

Frank Leslie’s Weekly – The Meaning of Christmas

The article below from Frank Leslie’s Weekly asks that question that seems to surface this time of the year – “What is the meaning of Christmas?” This question appears several times in Frank Leslie’s and the articles provide a unique perspective on the meanings of Christmas. There are also a wide variety of articles on other aspects of the holiday, such as the Christmas tree, Santa Claus (and Saint Nicholas), toys, and the North Pole.

Students and researchers in American Studies and other academic disciplines will find a treasure trove of primary source information in Frank Leslie’s Weekly on holiday celebrations and their relationship to culture, and identity.

Frank Leslie’s Weekly, published from 1855 to 1922, was an American illustrated news publication started by publisher and illustrator Frank Leslie. While only 30 copies of the first edition were printed, by 1897 its circulation had grown to an estimated 65,000 copies.

Frank Leslie's Weekly - The Meaning of Christmas

Frank Leslie’s Weekly – The Meaning of Christmas

The Meaning of Christmas

By SIGMUND SPAETH

THE FIRST man I addressed was of the brisk business type. He had the gruff air of complete absorption which most business men consider it necessary to assume.

“What does Christmas mean to you?” I asked.

He looked at me sharply and answered, “I have no time for either reporters or lunatics.”

“But this is a serious question,” I insisted. “I desire information. How can I discover the meaning of the whole thing if nobody will answer me?”

He relented a little and replied, in a more friendly tone, “To me Christmas means prosperity. It means the busiest time of the year. It means big sales and big profits. That’s all I know about it.” And he hurried off.

I next accosted a well-known lawyer. He was a big, kindly man, and he listened to my question with interest. But his face clouded as he answered, “Christmas is to me an annual reminder of all the crime and misery in the world. The peace and good-will of the rich only serve to accentuate the wretchedness of the poor. The criminal courts are filled each year with those who would be honorable men if they possessed only a very small share of the Christmas gifts which are a natural part of our own care-free lives. It is a sad thought.”

I pondered over these words, but soon hastened on to find a new victim for my questioning. It happened to be a clerk, a small, nervous man, obviously over-worked.

“What does Christmas mean to me?” he asked. “Well, for one thing it means a holiday—and that is always a relief. I get a chance to see something of my family, to spend a day with the children. But it’s embarrassing, too. It has its unpleasant side. I can’t afford to do what I would like in the way of gifts, and I’m always afraid that the fact is noticeable. My wife and I decided several years ago to omit all presents to each other and concentrate on the children. But even at that our celebration is a very modest affair. I wish the cost of living were not so high.” And he also hurried off, with a feeble imitation of the absorbed air of the business man.

My next question was addressed to a successful physician. He laughed as he answered, “It’s pretty hard for me to get away from my profession. I suppose Christmas means no more to me than so many extra cases of indigestion to be cured and so many more colds to be attended to. It merely adds one more to the many occasions on which the power of medicine can be proved.”

I turned to an actor of world-wide reputation. “Does Christmas mean anything to you?” I asked.

“It means my busy day,” he answered gruffly. “We stage people have no real Christmas. There is always an evening performance and usually a matinee as well. We are worked harder on Christmas Day than at any other time in the year.”

I was disappointed, but hastened to take up the subject with a singer, one who was chiefly noted for church work.

“Oh,” he answered enthusiastically, “Christmas means much to me! There are so many services and the Christmas music is so wonderful. I always look forward to it. There is nothing that brings out the beauties of my voice so well as the Christmas carols, and the more elaborate things give me an opportunity for a really fine display of technique.”

Again I was disappointed, but again I turned hopefully, this time to a teacher. Here at least, I thought, I shall find a deeply spiritual reply, full of a mystic meaning. So I asked my question confidently, and I listened with hopeful attention as I saw the gleam of pleasure in his eyes.

“The meaning of Christmas?” he fairly shouted. “It means joy! Joy! Joy! Two full weeks of vacation! No classes to teach! No papers to correct! No unruly boys to reprimand! Could anything be pleasanter? Sleigh rides, theaters, books, dinners! Oh, the joys of Christmas are countless!”

I left him to his ecstatic ravings and sought out a social worker of long experience. This man, at least, must have some truth to impart. “Christmas,” he said slowly, “to me means simply hard labor. It means days of unpleasant begging, sometimes on the street corners, sometimes at the homes of the rich. It means the stupendous task of feeding and clothing thousands of the poor. And it means that when our work is done we get very little gratitude, very little appreciation. It is expected of us. Some keep their cheerful faces year after year and imagine that they really enjoy their work. To me it has become mere drudgery.” Even after this rebuff I did not give up hope altogether. But I said to myself, “I must find a real interpreter of Christianity. I shall ask a minister of the Gospel.” The reply which I received proved most disappointing of all.

“Yes, I like Christmas,” said the clergyman pleasantly. “It is what I may call my easy day. The sermon requires almost no preparation. The congregation enters into the spirit of the day and helps me in every way possible. I receive many substantial evidences of the generosity of my parishioners, so that, on the whole, I am always happy, contented and possibly a little lazy on Christmas Day.”

The unexpectedness of this answer so upset my calculations that I jumped at once to the opposite extreme. I picked out a miserable tramp, the very type of neglected humanity, arguing that all my attempts so far had been directed too much toward the higher and more prosperous classes. The tramp grinned cheerfully as he answered my question.

“Christmas? That’s somethin’ like Thanksgivin’, ain’t it? Them’s my two big feed days for the year. You can work a graft so as to eat three full charity dinners in the same afternoon, if you can hold ‘em. I generally fills up fer about a week, countin’ what I stows in my clothes. But it makes the rest of the year all the worse. Rich people seem to think that us poor guys don’t have to eat no more than once or twice in twelve months. If it wasn’t for the cold weather, I’d want Christmas every day.”

I might have foreseen this. My first track was the right one, after all; yet I seemed to have exhausted all the possible sources of information. No; there was one left. “Out of the mouth of babes,” I said to myself, and hunted up a child.

“Christmas? Don’t you know what Christmas means?” the child asked, in wide-eyed wonder. “I guess you haven’t been educated very well. But I’ll tell you all about it. Christmas is the day when Santa Claus was born and all the angels sang a song for the shepherds to listen to. And they told them to go around and give presents to each other forever after, world without end, amen. That’s why I always go to two Sunday schools a whole month before Christmas. They have trees and lights and candy and oranges in pink tissue paper, and Santa Claus is there himself and gives the things out, and the superintendent tells us what good children we are, and everybody eats a lot, and we get presents at home and turkey and hang our stockings up and everything. Didn’t you know that?”

“Well, not quite in that way,” I answered, catching feebly at a straw. “Isn’t there anything else?”

“Oh, parties and ice cream and candy canes and dolls and holly berries and mince pie and— —”

“And the people are just the same as any other day?” I interrupted.

“Well, no,” the child answered reflectively. “I think everybody tries to be a little extra nice. Papa doesn’t say a cross word to mamma all day, and I let my little brother play with my toys if he wants to, and the cook doesn’t chase us out of the kitchen when we come to smell the turkey roasting. She gives us little heart-shaped ginger cakes instead. I guess everybody loves everybody else on Christmas Day.”

“At last!” I breathed, with a sigh of relief.

Frank Leslie's Weekly - The Meaning of Christmas

Frank Leslie’s Weekly – The Meaning of Christmas

Source: Frank Leslies Weekly, December 5, 1912
Top image: Frank Leslies Weekly, December 10, 1913
Middle image: Frank Leslies Weekly, December 10, 1908
Bottom image: Frank Leslies Weekly, December 13, 1906

All images included in blog posts are from either Accessible Archives collections or out of copyright public sources unless otherwise noted. Common sources include the Library of Congress, The Flickr Commons, Wikimedia Commons, and other public archives.

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