Sunday, December 5, 2021

The Christmas Magazines

and the Inevitable Story of the Snowbound Train

Dorothy Parker (1893–1967)
From American Christmas Stories

Christmas numbers from the late 1800s and early 1900s.
You can credit (or blame) Charles Dickens. After the extraordinary success of A Christmas Carol in 1843, he published four more novellas for Christmas before the end of the decade, thereby inventing the Christmas book as a genre of its own. In 1850 he began editing a new weekly magazine, Household Words and, perhaps taking a cue from the popularity of an 1848 “Christmas supplement” in The Illustrated London News, he devoted all twenty-four pages of the December 21 number to Christmas fare. This special issue contained his latest holiday story, “A Christmas Tree,” as well as stories and essays with titles like “Christmas in the Navy” and “Christmas among the London Poor and Sick,” and even a collection of cringey (to modern ears) carols, such as “The Deformed Child’s Christmas Carol” and “The Blind Child’s Carol.”

The sales of the issue were so impressive that Dickens continued publishing a Christmas number as an extra issue, separate from the weekly one, for the next seventeen years, first in Household Words and, when that folded due to a dispute with his publishers, in his new magazine, All the Year Round. In 1852 the Christmas issue expanded to 36 pages (“containing the amount of one number and a half,” the cover awkwardly boasted); beginning in 1860 it was twice the size of a regular issue. The Christmas specials took on a life of their own, each selling more than a quarter of a million copies by the mid-1860s—well over twice the circulation of the magazine.

Other magazine and newspaper publishers followed suit, as Christmas supplements and special issues and double numbers proliferated in England and crossed the Atlantic to the United States. Soon additional issues were created for other holidays. “The market for conversion and happily-ever-after stories for Christmas and Easter was immense,” Emily Toth writes in her biography of Kate Chopin. “It was also one of the best sources of income and recognition for professional writers”; in fact, a Christmas story, “The Going Away of Liza,” first brought Chopin to the attention of a national audience when it was syndicated as “The Christ Light” in newspapers all over the country.

With the publication of A Christmas Carol and subsequent tales, Dickens reinvigorated an old tradition of telling ghost stories during the holiday season, and many magazines followed his lead and featured supernatural tales in their Christmas numbers. But the typical Dickens classic wasn’t simply a ghost story, it was often about the differences between the rich and the poor—and especially about the stinginess and haughtiness of the privileged versus the worthiness of those less fortunate. American editors especially favored this type of uplifting morality tale, “the familiar, almost stereotypical genre in which poor children stand huddled in the cold outside the home of a rich family, gazing patiently through the window at the latter’s Christmas luxuries,” as cultural historian Stephen Nissenbaum describes it in his survey of the history of Christmas in America. “In the commonest version of this pattern, the poor children turn out, at the end, to be related to their benefactors by blood itself.” Nearly always, the needy prove themselves worthy of kindness by their innocence, honesty, and poignant generosity—a formula that Mark Twain ruthlessly parodied in “The Christmas Fireside (for Good Little Boys and Girls),” which appeared in the December 23, 1863, issue of The Californian.

Sentimental fiction was a mainstay of Christmas magazines through the end of the nineteenth century and well into the early twentieth. Although there were notable, memorable exceptions, “many of the stories were truly awful,” writes the novelist Connie Willis in her introduction to the new Library of America collection, American Christmas Stories, and she notes how “H. L. Mencken railed against stories in which ‘the deserving poor’ were force-fed Christmas dinner and unwanted sermons.” Similarly, in the fall of 1916, when a certain Vogue staff member was scouting around for an idea for a new piece to send down the hall to the more highbrow Condé Nast magazine, Vanity Fair, she lit upon the cloying holiday fare published by other American periodicals.

“In 1915 a small, dark-haired pixie, treacle-sweet of tongue but vinegar-witted, joined our staff,” Vogue editor Edna Chase later recalled. Her marriage to Edwin Parker two years in the future, the pixie was still known as Dorothy Rothschild. (“My God, no, dear! We never even heard of those Rothschilds!” she responded to the inevitable inquiry.) “After my father died there wasn’t any money,” she told The Paris Review years later. “I had to work, you see, and Mr. Crowninshield, God rest his soul, paid $12 for a small verse of mine and gave me a job at $10 a week. Well, I thought I was Edith Sitwell.” Frank Crowninshield was the editor of Vanity Fair and the job he found for the young poet was writing captions for Vogue. It turned out to be one of most decidedly mismatched hires in literary history. “It looks just like the entrance to a house of ill-fame,” Parker said of the magazine’s reception area. Later she recalled the dowdiness of the “plain women” who became her colleagues: “They were decent, nice women—the nicest women I ever met—but they had no business on such a magazine. They wore funny little bonnets and in the pages of their magazine they virginized the models from tough babes into exquisite little loves.”

Parker’s work for Vogue was notoriously offbeat. She wrote many captions that had to be removed by the staff, such as “When she was good she was very, very good, and when she was bad she wore this divine nightdress of rose-colored mousseline de soie, trimmed with frothy Valenciennes lace.” Another caption, “From these foundations of the autumn wardrobe, one may learn that brevity is the soul of lingerie,” made it past her censors into the pages of the magazine. As did, much to Chase’s mortification, an infamous piece on “Interior Desecration,” about an entirely fictitious tour of a house redecorated by a garish decorator (“No matter how anything began, it ended in a tassel”). By the winter of 1918, both Chase and Crowninshield agreed that Dorothy Parker should migrate down the hall to work instead at Vanity Fair, the magazine that had, in fact, been publishing the bulk of her poetry and prose over the previous two years anyway—including her story on Christmas stories.

Notes: Published from 1912 to the early 1930s, Snappy Stories: A Magazine of Entertaining Fiction was a popular pulp magazine, known for its saucy contents and for covers featuring pin-up girls. It was an unlikely venue for the type of Christmas story detested by Parker. Harrison Fisher was a book and magazine illustrator whose full-color drawings of elegant women frequently appeared on the cover of Cosmopolitan. His illustrations were collected annually in wall calendars and on calendar plates.
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The Christmas Magazines
and the Inevitable Story of the Snowbound Train

Every year I buy them,—the Christmas magazines. Every year I say, hopefully, “Perhaps this time.” And every year I say, wearily, “Never again.”

But I’ll go on buying them, and I know it. Hope does die so hard within me. Somewhere, some time, possibly here, perhaps in Heaven, I shall find a Christmas magazine without the story of the snowbound train.

You know it, don’t you? The lonely old millionaire who snorts at the mere mention of Christmas, and, on the same train, the little golden-haired child who is going to spend Christmas out at Grandma’s in the country? You know how the snow piles up, and the wires are blown down, and the anxious train-hand says that there is no chance of going on? And then, don’t you remember how the lonely old millionaire always sees the pathetic little stocking dangling out the berth occupied by the golden-haired child? So the l. o. m. (who has perhaps made his millions as a conjuror) immediately produces an elaborately decorated Christmas tree and a seething mass of toys. Maybe it isn’t conjury, though. Perhaps all millionaires can do it. I don’t know any regular millionaires, you see. I knew a man once who was supposed to be a millionaire, and he couldn’t even do card tricks, but, then, the reports of his income were probably exaggerated. According to the writers of snowbound train stories, this feat of producing Christmas trees from thin air is a very common one among millionaires.

It seems to be a trait they share with actresses. For the snowbound train story sometimes has an actress in it instead of a lonely old millionaire,—though he is first choice, I suppose on account of the child’s future. If it’s an actress, she is always a self-made blonde, a member of a traveling burlesque troupe, and she unfailingly has a little golden-haired child of her own, hidden away in the West. Sometimes, to make it harder, she has two little golden-haired children, but the story goes just the same,—stocking, tree, toys, etc., etc.


That’s the story. If they have ever published a Christmas number of any magazine without it, it must have been before I was born. Words are powerless to convey the loathing which I have for that story. It ruins the holidays for me. I buy hordes of magazines in the hope of finding one—just one—without it. But there it always is. Even “Snappy Stories” has it,—the actress version of it, of course. And the horrible part of it is that when I see the title “Christmas on the Train,” or “A Snow-Bound Santa Claus,” or “A Little Child Shall Lead Them,” or any of the hideous titles under which it masquerades, I cannot drop the book and run. No, a morbid fascination makes me read every word of it. Perhaps I shall have my reward, some day. Perhaps it will be my lot to discover the radical spirit who will give that child dark hair.

And the rest of the average Christmas number is no better than that terrible story. Look at any one of the magazines. They are just the same this year as last. The verses may be a bit freer, but that’s all.

The first page is always given up to a highly decorated poem. You know the kind, one of those poems with mediæval spelling. It is one of those hearty, good-cheer things, and it usually contains frequent requests to “let the welkin ring.” Just what is a welkin, anyway? I wrote one of that kind of Christmas poems a week or so ago, just to see if I could do it. I sent it to a poor little magazine that hadn’t many friends, and I had such a nice note from the editor, saying that he would be most glad to accept it. That was all. I shook the envelope, but nothing fell out. Do you know what I am going to do? I shall give him one more week, and then I shall write to him and tell him that he is under a misapprehension,—my contribution was not meant to be free verse.


Then come the stories. The one about the burglar whom the child thinks is Santa Claus,—you know that one, don’t you? Then the strong, red-corpuscled one about the half-breed’s Christmas. And the misery story that starts, “She counted them again. Seven cents,—seven worn, thin, sweat-stained pennies, and to-morrow would be Christmas!” And the sweet, sweet, sweet little tale of Christmas in the old South. And the one about the erring wife who comes back to her husband, or the erring husband who comes back to his wife,—it depends on whether a man or a woman writes it—just as the Christmas chimes ring out on the old village clock. Then there are the “Christmas in the Trenches” articles, and the masterpiece in Harper’s which is always called “Christmas in Many Lands.”


Then there is the double-page spread about how certain actresses spend their Christmas at home. There they all are—the vampire lady, the heroine of the glad play, the musical comedy star, and all the rest of them, photographed at home, exclusively for every magazine on the news-stands. One gathers from the photographs that these ladies carry their art into their home and holiday life. The vampire lady, for instance, wears one of those home-wrecking gowns, drapes herself over an evil-looking divan, and spends a merry Christmas leaning on her elbows and looking at a skull. The heroine of the “glad” play is perched girlishly in the middle of her dining-room table, hugging a Teddy bear and smiling sunnily—for it is Christmas, and a blizzard is raging, and all the trains are tied up, and thousands of people are freezing and starving to death, and she is glad, glad, glad. And the musical comedy star is photographed in pink silk pajamas (the picture isn’t colored, of course, but you just know they’re pink). She is on her way to enter her holly-wreathed bath-tub, but she has paused for a moment to gloat over the brimming stocking which hangs by the fireplace,—though goodness only knows why a filled stocking should be any treat to her.

Then the pages and pages of What to Give. Oh, how I skip those pages! That awful page headed “Gifts for Her,” with its scentless sachets, and its timeless wristwatches, and its Harrison Fisher calendar with the lady and gentleman executing a different kiss for every month in the year.


And always there is that page of jokes. “Christmas Jests,” they are called, instead of the usual “Sense and Nonsense” or “Verse and Worse.” They are the customary little parlor anecdotes that you cannot remember even while you’re reading them, made timely by the use of such phrases as “said Willie, passing his plate for more plum-pudding,” and “Mother asked, as she trimmed the tree.” There is nothing on earth so serviceable as a joke. Later on, these same jests may be successfully used for the July number by the simple method of changing the Christmas phrases to “said Willie, as he stooped over the lighted firecracker,” and “Mother asked, as she bandaged Baby’s eye.” I read the jokes through quickly, dread in my soul. I always expect to find the snowbound train tale among them, considerably condensed, and with the fun lying in the train-hand’s remark to the Lonely Old Millionaire.

I bought all the Christmas numbers this year. Just at present I am deep in the “never again” stage. But I shall probably buy them again next year,—I feel it hanging over me. Oh, is there no great public-spirited soul, no intrepid reformer working for the future of the race, who will found a Society for the Suppression of Christmas Issues?

Originally published in the December 1916 issue of Vanity Fair.