Taste of Freedom: Christmas - #103

BURT WOLF: Most of our holidays and celebrations were developed to mark the cycles of nature and they have taken place in traditional forms for centuries.

They bind the past to the present and predict the future. They are a basic part of every society that has ever existed.

But when these ceremonies arrived in America, they started to change. No longer controlled by convention these ancient celebrations began to evolve. They had gotten their first Taste of Freedom and they would never be the same.


BURT WOLF: Christmas is about remembering the past. It could be your actual past or some other past that you just feel like remembering. The sound of sleigh bells, the smell of pine needles, the taste of gingerbread. The toy trains and doll houses that remind us of a time when we thought we could control the world around us—when it looked like all our dreams might come true. In the northern hemisphere, we celebrate Christmas at the coldest and darkest time of the year when the fields are barren. And for that reason, the central message of Christmas is “no matter how dark and how cold it looks now, light, warmth and growth will return”.


BURT WOLF: During the 1500s, German Protestants introduced Christmas trees because they felt that the human images of St. Nicholas, the Three Kings and the Christ Child being used in Catholic communities were inappropriate.

ANTHONY AVENI ON CAMERA: Christmas was never a big deal in America, largely because the Protestant immigrants who came here, many from Germany, mostly from Germany in the early eighteenth century, and late seventeenth century, were not terribly fond of idol worshippers.  And so therefore they tended to downplay the holidays that came, in the course of the Roman Catholic year.  Tree worship goes back a long way.  When I say knock on wood, what do I really mean?  Well, wood is a tree.  And a tree is important to us, for well, let's think, it gives us shade in the in the hot summer.  It gives us fuel in its wood in the winter.  It gives us fruit so that we can eat.  No wonder worshipping trees, was very, very important throughout all culture.  The German form of the tree would be the evergreen.  It was brought here by German immigrants.  And it was decorated with baubles and I think that that decorating of the tree is no different from the reason why we decorate our houses with lights.  We want to be ostentatious.

BURT WOLF: The Christmas tree tradition became popular in the United States in December of 1850, when Godey’s Magazine published a picture of Queen Victoria of England and her family standing around a small Christmas tree.  The image was reproduced around the world.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: The Queen's husband, Prince Albert, was German, and Christmas trees had been part of the German holiday tradition for centuries.  Prince Albert was merely introducing his kids to what had happened in his own childhood, but anything that happened in the British royal household was immediately covered by the British press, and anything that was in the British press was immediately covered in the United States. 

BURT WOLF: One year later, in 1851, a farmer from the Catskill Mountains paid a licensing fee of $1 to the City of New York and set up the first official sidewalk concession for the sale of Christmas trees. The greenery of the forest slipped into town and everybody loved it.

The first set of electric Christmas lights went on to the tree of Edward Johnson, who was the Vice President of Thomas Edison’s electric company in New York. Electric lights were more economical than candles because they could be reused for years and even more important they were much safer than a candle’s open flame.

When I think of F.W. Woolworth, which isn’t that often, I think of him as the man who made a fortune as the father of the five and dime store. But a big hunk of his fortune came as a Christmas present. In 1880, Woolworth was wandering around the warehouse of an importer in Philadelphia, looking for some cheap toys to put into his store. The importer thought that F. W. might also be interested in a series of glass Christmas ornaments that he had just brought in from Germany.

Woolworth thought the importer was out of his mind. The breakage during shipment would be enormous and if any of them got through in one piece, no one would know what to do with them. The importer, however, felt so strongly about the market for these ornaments that he guaranteed their sale. If Woolworth didn’t sell at least twenty-five dollars worth, he could have the whole shipment for free.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: The ornaments came into Woolworth's store just before Christmas and he put them out thinking, boy, am I wasting good retail space.  Two days later, they were sold out.  The next year, he stocked up even more and sold them out and more and more and more until he made twenty five million dollars on those little glass ornaments.  And when the Second World War came along and put an end to trading with Germany, he taught the Corning Glass Works of Corning New York how to make the little Christmas tree ornaments and they didn't do badly, either. 


BURT WOLF: Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina, is the largest private home in North America.  It was put together by George W. Vanderbilt in the late 1800s.  George was the grandson of Cornelius Vanderbilt.  At one time Cornelius was the wealthiest man in the world and the family’s sense of grandeur is clearly visible throughout the estate.  The original property covered one hundred and twenty five thousand acres.  George planted those acres with a working forest and a wooded park.  He also directed the planting of five gardens and the construction of 30 miles of roadway. Cathy Barnhardt is the floral supervisor at Biltmore Estate.

CATHY BARNHARDT ON CAMERA: Of course we have the winter garden decorated for Christmas right now.   We have very typical Christmas plants in here and some maybe that aren't so typical.  Poinsettia I think most people can identify as Christmas.


CATHY BARNHARDT ON CAMERA: But why?  You know, we have bright red bracts these are actually bracts rather than the flower.  The flower are the small yellow pieces here in the center and those represent the Crown of Thorns for Christ and the bracts are the blood of Christ.  So that that's where the Christian symbolism comes into using poinsettias in your home and church.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: They're not native to America, are they?

CATHY BARNHARDT ON CAMERA: No, they were collected in 1829 by Joel Poinsette who was the U.S. ambassador to Mexico.  And of course in Mexico poinsettias are just roadside weeds they're growing everywhere.  But quite exotic at that time.  This is an Olmstead basket what we call an Olmstead basket a miniature garden in a basket.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: And it's named after the garden architect


BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: its landscaper who built the place ...

CATHY BARNHARDT ON CAMERA: Frederick Law Olmstead who also was the landscape designer for Biltmore Estate. And it has all those little garden elements in it.  As well as traditional plants but I especially like to use the twigs. And again there's a little symbolic reason to use that you see the buds about to


CATHY BARNHARDT ON CAMERA: Burst, you know?  So spring is coming there's renewal there.  Another plant typical of turn of the century decorating is ivy and I like to use that one at Christmas time because of its symbolism as well. It was used in ancient times to protect from evil spirits.


CATHY BARNHARDT ON CAMERA: Yes planted around the house and growing up over the cottage the vine-covered cottage to protect the inhabitants from evil spirits.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Oh, I never heard that that's fascinating.

CATHY BARNHARDT ON CAMERA: Yes. And then the Christian belief takes it a step further and talks about the strength of ivy because once it does cling to something it doesn't let go.  So that strength that fidelity that belief is reflected in the ivy.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: I am going to plant ivy this spring and ...

CATHY BARNHARDT ON CAMERA: Protect yourself and be strong.  Another plant typically found in winter gardens otherwise known as palm courts are palms and we have several varieties here in the winter garden.  This is a fan palm we have eureka, fish tails, lots of different textures of greenery.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: And they're also associated with Christ.

CATHY BARNHARDT ON CAMERA: They certainly were that's another nice tradition that we can tie in with Christmas we all think about the palm tree being or palm fronds being laid at Christ's feet.


CATHY BARNHARDT ON CAMERA: on Palm Sunday and that represented humility and also honor for Christ.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: So all of the plants in this room besides being beautiful plants have additional meaning that relate to Christmas.

CATHY BARNHARDT ON CAMERA: Yes. Many, many of the plants that we use do relate right back to Christmas.  And I think it's important that we here at Biltmore try to hold onto those traditions.  We may not convey to every guest what those traditions are. But I think that it's important that we keep,  putting it out there so people think about it.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: You need to know what you're looking at.



BURT WOLF: For over a hundred years the dominant image of Christmas in the United States has been Santa Claus. But as it is with so many superstars, the general public usually doesn’t realize how long the guy had been in the business before he was “discovered”. Santa is a perfect example.

His early work was as a bishop during the fourth century in Turkey.  He was a real person and his name was Nicholas. His thing was to give gifts to kids and dowries to young ladies who wanted to get married. Later he became a minor folk hero in northern Europe, and eventually arrived in New York City with the early Dutch settlers. The name Santa Claus comes from the Dutch for St. Nicholas.

His first significant media exposure came in the 1860s, when Thomas Nast, an important artist of the time, showed him in a series of illustrations for Harper’s Weekly.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: At the time, people were interested in the explorers who were heading to the North Pole and it was Nast who decided that Santa Claus lived at the North Pole.  Nast's drawings showed him in a sleigh pulled by reindeer, big sacks of gifts behind him and stockings hung by the chimney with care.  Nast got those ideas from a poem by Clement Moore called "A Visit From Santa Claus."  And Moore got those ideas from Washington Irving, all of which is to say that our picture of Christmas started with the work of Washington Irving.

BURT WOLF: Santa, in his present form, is an all-American invention. The size of his stomach, his ruddy complexion, his fur-trimmed suit and his desire to share his stuff all speak to the image of America as a nation of abundance.

We also present Santa as an entrepreneur. He’s got a factory filled with workers. He developed an airborne delivery system a century before anyone heard of Federal Express. And he is one of the leading authorities on the advantages of the “not for profit business”.


BURT WOLF: Originally, Christmas presents were simple gifts for little children. The tree was the holder and they hung from the branches—the gifts, not the children. As the trees got bigger, the presents got bigger. And when the presents began to get too big to hang on the tree, they started getting placed under and around the tree. In the old days, the present was clearly visible—no wrapping—what you saw was what you got.  And most often they were hand-made.

Things began to change however and one of the great forces for change in the history of American business was the Civil War. Suddenly, the Union army was placing huge orders with manufacturers. Industry had to learn to mass-produce what was needed. Instead of getting a suit cut to the precise size of your body, you got a 52 regular and hoped it did the job.

The war created a need for foods that were easy to carry. The canning process for food had been developed in 1825 but its growth was slow until 1858. That was the year when the can opener was invented. Having both the can and the opener made all the difference and the industry took off in response to orders from the Union Army.

Demand from the troops was also responsible for the success of condensed milk, and canned pork and beans. The troops were introduced to commercially made soap and candles. We even learned to mass-produce our Christmas presents.

During the 1860s the first wrapped gifts showed up. The paper was always plain and held in place with ceiling wax or pins and later with string and tinsel cord. By the middle of the 1870s, everybody was wrapping. But fancy wrapping paper only arrived during the First World War when Joyce Halls' little shop in Kansas City, Missouri, ran out of the solid color tissue and filled in with some French envelope lining paper that he used in his greeting card business. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: He sold out.  Next year he bought some more and sold out again.  So, he decided to start printing his own wrapping papers.  Wanted a brand name.  So he called it Hallmark.  Some historians believe that the idea of wrapping a present is part of the Victorian passion for enclosing things, for disguising all intimacy, for holding off the anticipated.  But to tell you the truth, that's kind of a stretch for me.  I tend to think a cigar is just a cigar.  Nevertheless, 96 percent of all Christmas presents given in the United States are wrapped.


BURT WOLF: The unofficial beginning of Christmas is the unveiling of the holiday displays in     the department store windows. Every year they try to outdo the windows of the past year. The tradition got started at Lord & Taylor in 1938. They were the first department store to devote prime retail space to the celebration of the Christmas season rather than their merchandise. Manoel Renha is Lord & Taylor’s creative director.

MANOEL RENHA ON CAMERA: I'm an architect. That's my background.  So, I have the technical background to develop the sketches.  And I usually do a lot of set designing.  So, when you see our windows, you can tell, they are nothing less than a Broadway production.  Maybe in a smaller version, but, where the, the actors or the characters are, are little figurines. 

BURT WOLF: These Lord & Taylor windows interpret the story of the Nutcracker.

MANOEL RENHA ON CAMERA: The first one is, is, is kind of creating the atmosphere of what should expect, is the Christmas Eve, where you have the guests arriving, to the mansion, the celebrating the Christmas Eve party, and then, one of the things we did, that we thought would be very interesting, was to, to give a twist to the story, and treat it more, almost like a story board, so we are zooming in from the first scene to the next scene, where you see the inside of the mansion, in right there, we create this split level, with this giant Christmas tree, with the, the main characters, where Drosselmeier is presenting Clara with her Christmas gift, then the Nutcracker, and right underneath, we have a second level, the mice world, and the mouse king is taking a bath while the other little mouse are spying and seeing what's happening in the upper level. In, in each window, we are very particular with the detailing.  So make sure you, you analyze, and you really take the time to see every single window.

Well, the mouse king is taking a bath, in his copper pan, having a drink, holding with his tail and moving around, he's relaxing.  You can see his stomach going up and down.  And, before he decides to take his bath, he made sure he took his fake teeth, and put it off the side.

Well now, we're literally underneath the sidewalk.  In Fifth Avenue.  So, this is how a hydraulic lift system, that was installed here in this store, in 1914.  And still works.  Let's bring it down.  The great thing about this system is that, enables us to create a, to play with the levels in the windows.  So you will see in order to hide all the mechanics, for the figures, the mechanical figures, we create this three, three to four foot platform.  In all the, the mechanism underneath, in case you have to go back and fix something.  You don't have to literally destroy the window you just crawl underneath, and fix everything, there.

People always asking me, what do you like the most about your job?  I always say, when everything is done, when the windows are complete, and I finally have the chance to go upstairs and just kind of mingle with the crowd, and, and hear the comments, and then listen to the oohs, and aaahs, that's a great feeling, and that pays off all the long hours and the hard work.


BURT WOLF: One of the most important rules in any festival is that the festival itself and most of the objects within it must be temporary. A festival, by definition, is something out of the ordinary, different from everyday life. If it stays around too long it loses its impact. For that reason, food and anything made of edible material is always a mainstay of any festival. 

The Christmas meal varies from place to place, even within the United States. The core of the meal is usually a big bird either a goose or a turkey. But if you go down south you will also find ham.

Perhaps the greatest single influence on Christmas dinners in the United States came from the meal that was described by Charles Dickens in “A Christmas Carol”. He took the grand family feast of the Old English Christmas and shrunk it down so it worked for a single household. His book was first published in 1843 and became a Christmas instruction manual for the American homemakers.

CATHY KAUFMAN ON CAMERA: The most detailed meal is the meal of the dream with the ghost of Christmas present.  In it, Bob Cratchett is at home .There is a roast goose with gravy.  There is potato and onion and sage stuffing for it.  There's certainly gravy for the goose, applesauce and some mashed potatoes, interestingly enough.  The interesting thing, we tend to think today of goose as being a fairly elegant bird.  A fairly expensive bird.  And turkey being relatively inexpensive.  And some how as slightly less elaborate than a goose.  That was not the case in the nineteenth century, both in England and in this country.  Goose was the much more plebeian bird.  Turkey was the luxury bird.  When Scrooge wakes up the following morning and realizes he has a chance to repent, he flags down a little street urchin says "is there that big turkey still in the poulter's window?"  The little boy says "the one as big as me?"  And Scrooge, who was a changed man says "Ah!, very bright fellow, yes, that's the one."  And sends him off to buy that turkey to send to the Cratchett family.  The fact that he chose a turkey rather than a goose, was a real step up to the Cratchett family in terms of the fair on their table.

BURT WOLF: Each year, Andreas Hauk at the Hotel Nassauer Hof in Wiesbaden, Germany prepares a traditional Christmas goose. He starts by chopping onions, apples, and oranges and putting them into a bowl and seasoning them with salt and pepper and dried thyme. The mixture goes into the goose which is sewn up. The legs are tied together and the outside of the bird is seasoned with salt and pepper. Oil goes into a pan and the bird is browned on all sides. The giblets go into the pan, some water and into the oven. It cooks in a 350-degree Fahrenheit oven for one and a half hours and then another ten minutes at 500 degrees to crisp up the skin. The goose is then ready to be carved and served.

Red and green are always the colors of Christmas and Christmas foods. Red is for warmth and brightness; green is the promise that the leaves of the trees will return in the spring. Red cabbage is often on the menu.

Andreas starts his recipe for red cabbage by cutting the core of the cabbage out and then slicing it. He adds cloves, juniper berries, bay leaves, a cinnamon stick, and salt and pepper. Red wine is poured on top. The cabbage is covered and refrigerated for 24 hours to marinate.

Goose fat goes into a pan or you can use oil. Sliced onions are added. The red wine is squeezed out of the cabbage and the cabbage is added to the onions. Red wine from the pan goes in, followed by some sugar. The cabbage cooks on low heat for an hour. Apples are grated and put into the pot and it’s ready to serve.

Christmas is also a time for bread and cake baking and cookie making. Special Christmas breads are introduced like the German Christstollen. Andreas starts by soaking raisins in rum. Then warm milk is poured into a bowl, and yeast is whisked in. Flour is slowly blended in by hand. Almonds, butter, candied citron, and candied orange peel are added. The dough is worked together. In goes the sugar, salt, baking powder, and raisins. A cloth goes on top and the dough is put in a warm place to rise for an hour and a half. A form is floured, the dough is pressed in and it’s off to the oven for 45 minutes at 350 degrees Fahrenheit. When it’s baked, it’s sprinkled with confectioner’s sugar.

Gingerbread is also part of the Christmas tradition. Ginger is an ancient spice that originated in Asia. During the Middle Ages it was the second most popular spice—right after black pepper. And during the 1500s, bakers started adding it to breads and cookies. German bakers were particularly attracted to the taste of ginger and the city of Nuremberg, which was one of the spice trading centers of Europe, became the gingerbread capital of the world. The town’s sculptors, wood carvers and goldsmiths began forming gingerbread into hearts, angels, men, animals and houses.

In the United States, the traditional beverage for Christmas is eggnog. Eggnog is related to a series of drinks made from milk and wine that go back for hundreds of years. When the wine and milk drinks arrived in colonial America, we dropped the wine and replaced it with rum. Rum drinks were called grog and one particular recipe was known as egg and grog, which eventually became eggnog. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: In 1897 eight year old Virginia O’Hanlon the daughter of a New York City doctor wrote to a local newspaper and asked was there really a Santa Claus.  Francis Church, a correspondent for the paper, answered with his famous column “Yes Virginia, There is a Santa Claus.”  The column recommended that Americas be generous of spirit, love their fellow man, and even in the darkest days of winter trust that the Sun – which was also the name of the newspaper – would return.  It recommended that we all have a positive vision of the future.  And Merry Christmas to all.

For Taste of Freedom, I’m Burt Wolf.