December 23, 2021

Christmas Greetings, 1962

About ten years ago, I wrote about a magazine I’d stumbled upon in an antiques store. It was the kind of magazine I love to look through, because it tells us so much about, as Paul McCartney would say, the world in which we live in.

The magazine is called, appropriately enough, "The Community Magazine," and it's from Albert Lea, a town in southern Minnesota. "The Community Magazine" is one of those free magazines you get in supermarkets, and it's about what you'd expect: television listings for the month, a few local columnists and notes, and advertising. Mostly advertising. Which, in this case, is a real treasure trove for the cultural archaeologist. It became, almost immediately, a cherished possession of mine, and even though I shared this with you a decade ago, I realize that many of you might have missed it back then, so I'm here to offer you a condensed version.
As I’ve said in the past, one of the great treasures of TV Guide is that it shows us how life used to be, and often gives us tantalizing hints as to the shape of things to come. “The Community Magazine” isn’t TV Guide per se, but as a TV Guide substitute it delivers the same payoff.

This is the January 1963 issue, which means it would have come out sometime in December 1962, and as such represents the last chance for advertisers to wish their customers the greetings of the season. And herein lies the tale. Taken collectively, these ads present a remarkable slice of life from the early 60s: a time when religion was an accepted—no, a necessary—part of the public square, and when the PC police hadn't ridden Christmas out of town in the name of "diversity." This isn’t to say that the advertisers themselves shared those theological sentiments, but they believed strongly that this was appropriate to the season.

And this is the value of television as a cultural mirror—in looking at these ads, just as in watching the shows of the time, we see not just what people of the era believed, but what it was reasonable to expect them to believe. In other words, while things might not have been as idyllic as all that, it was reasonable to think it could have been that way, and that it was something people would recognize and be comfortable with.

Granted, we're talking about what might be referred to as "Small-Town America," but Small-Town America is where I live now, and no matter how you look at it, it's a real document from a real time, one that sadly seems far away today. One of the added benefits of combing antique stores in search of TV Guides is that in the meantime you can run into the most fascinating things.

This ad is mind-boggling for a couple of reasons. First, it's brought to you by "your servants in government"—that sounds kind of quaint, doesn't it? What's even more stunning is that it not only specifically wishes people "Christmas Joy," but it features the Three Wise Men. Can you imagine a government agency using this kind of symbolism today?

Religious symbolism is a running theme throughout these ads. I'd go to this company for a loan, wouldn't you? (Do you think it was an accident that a financial institution would go for images of gold, frankincense and myrrh?)

Here's another example. Sorenson Lumber is doing more than advertising their business; they're telling you something about the kind of people that run the company. I don't know anything this company (a quick Google search didn't tell me much), but I wouldn't be surprised to find out it was a family business.

This ad is from the local Skelly gas station. Werner Wittmer doesn't leave you in any doubt as to what they think Christmas is all about.

Not every ad in this issue has an explicitly religious motif, but it's hard to look at a candle without thinking of "The Light of the World." By the way, we don't see candles in Christmas decorating like we used to—when you find them nowadays, it's mostly as part of retro-themed advertising.

You often get "Merry," "Happy" or "Greetings" wished you, but "Joyous" is kind of nice, isn't it? Easy to forget nowadays that this is supposed to be a joyous time of the year. I hope De Soto Creamery had some joyous sales.

This is also a nice sentiment. With all the PC police, it's harder to find that part about "Good will toward men" than it used to be.

Here's not only a very nice sentiment, but a very stylish one as well. Look how they've worked the numbers 25 into the sleigh. Look even more closely, and you can see December in there somewhere. Makes you wonder if Al Hirchfeld worked on it.

I like the sentiment in this—"Let us thank you for your past patronage." Remember that the customer is doing you a favor. A lot of businesses forget about that.

Christmastide—now there's a word you don't hear very often. Sounds vaguely liturgical, doesn't it? Also serves as a reminder that Christmas is more than one day. They could have been talking about the lead-up to Christmas, or they could mean the whole twelve days, leading up to Epiphany. Or even Candlemass, if you prefer. 

Remember when carolers used to come to the front door? Maybe they still do. Back where we used to live, they would have been afraid of getting shot.

Another ad with candles—I really wish we saw more like this. Notice too how many advertisers wish us something along the lines of "health and happiness"? And they weren't talking about the virus, either.

"Best wishes of the season"—with an image like this, there isn't much doubt as to what season they're talking about. Remarkable how many of these ads had a religious motif. Or maybe not so remarkable, for the time. I guess we just weren't tolerant enough back then. 

Reddy Kilowatt wishes us all a Merry Christmas. And, by the way, don't forget to use that electricity!

And let's finish with this serene portrait of a small town in the stillness of a winter night. Sadly, the hopes for a lasting era of "Peace on earth, goodwill to man" would pretty much be wiped out by the end of 1963.

I don't know about you, but I enjoyed going through these ads immensely. There was only one sour note in the issue (aside from the sense that this is a world lost to us forever), and that comes in what I suppose we'd call the "predictions" section of the magazine. The column concludes with a prediction of "a year that lies before us clean and untouched. May it bring joy and success to us and to you." Indeed, the year was to bring the death of a pope, the overthrow of the president of South Vietnam and continuing U.S. involvement, the assassination of President Kennedy, the murder—live on national television—of his accused assassin, the death of C.S. Lewis; well, you get the picture. Knowing how the year turns out adds an extra note of poignancy to the optimistic hopes for the year. When, in 50 years, historians look back at 2021, I hope they'll see better news. It may be an impossible dream, but dreams never come true if you don't have them.  TV  

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