From the Archives: Christmas Humor From the 1950s

Three holiday satires poke fun at the materialism of the era

A vintage Christmas catalogue advertises housekeeping toys for little girls, including an ultra-modern dollhouse and a sweeper that "really sweeps!"

"The offerings from the mail-order houses seem wilder this year than ever before," complained Charles W. Morton, a longtime Atlantic contributor, in December 1954. The catalogues of his day were filled with bizarre household gifts like the Denta-Matic, which promised to squeeze out exactly one brush-length with the push of a button. Even cleaning products like Krust-Off Oven Cleaner or Miracle Tub Caulk were being advertised as gleaming gifts that the modern housewife longed to unwrap.

Reading Morton's satire, it's easy to forget that only a decade earlier, American soldiers were celebrating Christmas in the trenches and housewives were baking fruitcakes using rationed butter and sugar. As late as 1947, nylon stockings were still in short supply and designers were saving scarce fabric by eliminating cuffs on sleeves.

By the mid-1950s, there didn't seem to be much shortage of anything, and families were eager to flaunt what they had. An article in the same issue of The Atlantic made fun of the long-form Christmas letter that was just coming into fashion. These holiday greetings, wrote author William Copithorne, averaged 18 exclamation points per page and shared family "news" that was, in fact, barely disguised bragging. The writers dropped references to their new Lincoln Mercury cars and their children's school prizes. No detail -- from home improvements to fish catches at summer cabins -- was deemed too tedious to include.

Alongside these two humor pieces, The Atlantic published a poem called "Epistle to All My Friends." Written by Amherst College professor Walker Gibson, it ridiculed those who pretended not to care about materialism at Christmastime:

I say the hell with that. I'll have you know
This year I want my friends to spend some dough
Not that I'm motivated much by greed,
But there are just some little things I need.
To wit: three new suits, an amphibious watch,
A trip to Europe and a case of Scotch,
A hunting lodge in Maine for weekend flings,
A twenty room cabana in Palm Springs,
A little cruiser with its little crew, 
And, please, a half a million dollars too.

Read Christmas Catalogues, From Us to You, and Epistle to All My Friends from the December 1954 issue of The Atlantic.