During her childhood, Caroline Kennedy would always
find such Victorian-era gifts as walnuts and oranges in her Christmas stocking.
But by the time her own three children were old enough to write to Santa, her
mother had succumbed to the "era of plastic," giving her grandchildren such
items as a plastic shopping cart, miniature kitchen and talking phone.
"She had a great sense of fun," says Kennedy of her mother, Jacqueline.
And, "she would give books as well."
Jackie O likely would have presented to all on her list her daughter's
newest offering, "A Family Christmas." In an introduction to the handsome
volume, Kennedy writes about her own family traditions - and the nation's - and
includes a trove of surprising historical notes about the importance of
Macy's, Coca-Cola and Thomas Alva Edison in the evolution of the holiday's
modern celebration. The rest of the book is full of essays, poems, lyrics and
other passages as personal as the old-fashioned gifts she and her late brother
John received from their parents.
When her editor first suggested compiling a Christmas book, "At first I
thought it was a bad idea," Kennedy says in a phone conversation on the morning
of her 50th birthday, Nov. 27 (lunch with friends and dinner with her
children, 14, 17 and 19, was on the day's agenda).
A different Christmas book
"I thought it would be the same old stuff you see all the time. Then I
looked on it as a challenge, to see if there was anything out there that was
not the same." This is the seventh book for Kennedy, who graduated from Harvard
College and Columbia Law School and is vice chairwoman of the New York City
Fund for Public Schools. Her first two books were law-related, the last five
anthologies were like this one.
With this project, she discovered that Christmas is "a gigantic historic,
cultural, economic phenomenon," she says, closely intertwined with the growth
of department stores, soft-drink advertising and the invention of the electric
lightbulb. The holiday was also tied to major social changes - several
selections describe the accommodations immigrant groups, including Jews, must
make to America's tinsel landscape - and wars.
"I really learned a lot," she says, way beyond what she got at the Catholic
schools she attended as a girl. Among the more unusual entries are a letter
from Groucho Marx about his bad luck with holiday tipping, recipes from the
kitchen of Martha Washington and the lyrics to "Christmas in Hollis" by rappers
Remembering the soldiers
"Because we're currently at war, and there are soldiers away from home, I
thought it important" to include writings on war, she says, starting with
George Washington's description of crossing the Delaware on Christmas Day,
There's also a 1961 letter from her father, President John F. Kennedy, to a
After writing that he shared her concerns about atmospheric testing, he
concluded: "However, you must not worry about Santa Claus. I talked with him
yesterday and he is fine. He will be making his rounds this Christmas." She
hadn't known about the letter until the Kennedy Library came upon it for her
book, Kennedy says.
Her own childhood letter
Among her own papers was a letter she had written to Santa in 1962, when
she was 5, in which she asked for - among other things - silver skates, a real
pet reindeer, a basket for her bicycle and a farm. The letter is in her
mother's handwriting, but she can't recall dictating it, let alone what some of
the items - "one of those horse wagons with lucky dips - and Susie Smart and
Candy Fashion dolls" - are. "I'm waiting for some other 50-year-old to tell
me," she says.
She probably got at least some of the items, she says, but what she
remembers more is that she and her brother were encouraged to make their own
decorations and cards, something she continued with her own family. Even though
her eldest child is in college and her other two in high school, she hopes
they'll create cards for their parents, she says. She plans to give away jars
of blueberry jam she made this summer. "And I made this book," she adds.
Until recently, she owned a house in Sagaponack and often spent
Thanksgivings there. "We celebrate Christmas more in the city," she says.
Because her husband, museum designer Edwin Schlossberg, is Jewish, she says,
"We incorporate Hanukkah.... We light the menorah and play dreidel and sing
songs at our holiday party." Along with all the fun, they also do some "reading
and thinking, which helps the kids to really connect."
She learned from her research - much of which didn't make it into her book
- that, starting in the 1830s, special books were often printed for people to
give at Christmas. "The idea that I'm continuing in that tradition - I like
that," she says. "People should give books for Christmas - though kids don't
like to get them." Including her own children. "But they do get them."
Unbottling lesser-known history
Here are some tidbits Caroline Kennedy uncovered as she researched "A Family
In 1659, the Puritans of Massachusetts banned the celebration of Christmas,
"which had become known for public drunkenness, licentious sex, and gambling."
The American vision of Santa Claus was created by Clement Clarke Moore in
his 1822 poem that starts "'Twas the night before Christmas" and was later
exported to the world largely via Coca-Cola ads.
Department stores - invented in America - "contributed greatly to the
economic growth of Christmas." Macy's began decorating its windows in the 1870s
and launched its Thanksgiving Day Parade in 1924. Rudolph the Red-Nosed
Reindeer was created for Chicago's Montgomery Ward stores in 1939.
"The first electric Christmas-tree lights, eighty hand-blown red, white,
and blue glass bulbs, festooned the 1882 tree of Edward Johnson, an executive
in the Edison
America's first public Christmas tree was lit in 1912 by Caroline Kennedy's
great grandfather, Boston Mayor John F. Fitzgerald, at 5 p.m., beating New
York's Madison Square tree by half an hour.
WHEN&WHERECaroline Kennedy signs "A Family Christmas" at 6 p.m. Saturday at
313 New York Ave., Huntington, 631-271-1442, bookrevue.com. At 12:30 p.m.
on Friday, she'll sign at Barnes & Noble, 555 Fifth Ave., Manhattan,