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CW Journal : Christmas 2005 : Betokening Christmas

rides a cast-iron sleigh made in the United States

Santa rides a cast-iron sleigh made in the United States in the latter part of the nineteenth century. When pushed across the floor, the reindeer move up and down as if leaping from roof to roof.

Betokening Christmas

photography by Tom Green

captions by Jan Gilliam

America accumulates Christmas customs, symbols, artifacts, ideas, practices, and paraphernalia like a child rolling up a snowman on the family front lawn. As the season winds, year after year, across the landscape of popular culture, its girth expands like Santa Claus's belly.

Celebration has long been the core of Christmas in this country. But it took time to pick up things as simple as evergreen wreaths and as elaborate as homes hung with icicle lights. It was not until the nineteenth century—1842 in Williamsburg—that the Christmas tree became the altar of Yuletide hopes. Our image of jolly old Saint Nick didn't stick until a couple of decades after that, when Thomas Nast drew him for a Civil War issue of Harper's Illustrated Weekly.

It took time for what answers to our idea of a toy—miniature sleighs, dollhouses, rocking horses, locomotives, and more—to become a holiday appurtenance, and longer for it to become so highly manufactured as tricycles or Tickle Me Elmos.

The collections of Colonial Williamsburg's Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum help illustrate the progress of the festivities. In their inventories are objects and images that betoken the ever-expanding joys of Christmas. A few of them are exampled on these pages.

Suggestions for further reading: