The Second World War had a profound and lasting impact on the holiday season. Some social critics believe that the holiday shopping madness that now begins months before Christmas -- as well as the emphasis on gifts over religious observance had its origin in World War II. But the separation of family members caused by the war also gave the holidays a new depth of meaning.
Both Christmas and Hanukkah had been relatively minor holidays in American history. According to David Greenberg, the Puritans who settled Massachusetts made it a crime to celebrate Christmas. The punishment for offenders was a fine of five shillings. Even just before World War II, Christmas was an important religious and family event, but was generally held close to the bosom of the family and community. It was not a major commercial opportunity.
The idea of exchanging gifts for the holiday came from a blend of German, Dutch and English customs. The Christmas tree itself is a pagan custom that originated with the Germans and was Christianized in the early years of the church in Europe. German settlers introduced it to America, where it became popular after the American Civil War.
Gift giving was not originally part of the Hanukkah celebration and only later became a tradition for children. Greenberg added that American Jews were not all that comfortable with their traditional celebration evolving into something "fundamentally Christian. But parents couldn't very well deprive their kids of gifts or seasonal merriment, and Hanukkah benefited from convenient timing."
Charles H. Glatfelter -- professor emeritus of history at Gettysburg College -- has written extensively on the history of south-central Pennsylvania and its social and religious customs. He has said that during his youth, in the decade of the Great Depression, Christmas was an important, if intimate, celebration.
"I think if you look at Gettysburg newspapers leading up to Christmas, you'll find churches had special services for the holiday," explained Glatfelter. "The church where my wife grew up . . . had services on Christmas morning. The church was usually full on that day. In fact, it was one of the best attended services of the year."
When the war came, so one theory goes, it took a long time for packages to reach servicemen scattered across the globe, and merchants were only to happy to urge people to shop early for the season. After the war ended in 1945, the extended shopping season took on new meaning. In the space of a few years Christmas, and Hanukkah to a certain extent, had evolved from homey religious observances to retail extravaganzas with a thin religious veneer.
"It is possible that much of what Christmas is today is a byproduct of the unprecedented prosperity that followed World War II," says Glatfelter. "The view of a lot of people toward the end of the war was that we were going to relapse into the Great Depression. It was difficult to imagine the prosperity that was coming. Nobody realized the purchasing power that veterans and veterans' families had, and the GI Bill of Rights provided means to go to college and easy terms for purchasing homes."
Hanukkah had changed, too. Paul Meistrich, who had served in the Navy during the war, explains. "It's a post-Biblical holiday, and more of a family holiday. It was mostly for the children, because you gave out gifts, like Christmas. We used to taunt the Catholic kids by telling them that we got presents for eight days, not just one. Hanukkah is mostly social, unless you're very committed."