Christmas in Crisis

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Retailers rightly see Christmas shopping as the crowning moment of a year’s consumption. In December 1932, they were understandably nervous, all across the capitalist world. After a tough year in commerce, a boost in sales would be eagerly welcomed.

In the Communist world, meanwhile, crushing Christmas became a new priority, Time magazine reported. Russians were destroying Lutheran churches in sections of Finland that had been seized after World War I , despite official proclamations of religious tolerance. Henceforth, Christmas observances would be clandestine.

In Germany, the approaching holidays did little to relieve the economic crisis. Ludwig Heck, the director of the Berlin zoo, tried to provide some novelty for hard-up parents seeking high-tech gifts for their children. Heck’s "talkie book" included phonograph records full of "the roars, yelps, and grunts of East African beasts." Time magazine reported that it was selling briskly.

The run-up to Christmas in the U.S. was mixed. As usual, the postal service told those "millions of persons who do not mail packages at any other time, but mail at Christmas" to "shop now and mail early," the New York Times reported.

Everyone had a shopping list, even the five men who robbed a Brooklyn trucking and storage company in mid-December. Although they extracted $500 from a cash box and the staff’s wallets, they left grumbling that the loot wasn’t "even enough to do our Christmas shopping with."

Nationally, retailers savored the announcement that some $440 million in Christmas Club savings -- sums set aside in a bank account during the year for use during the holidays -- was being distributed by 7,000 banks to 10 million club members, but that this total was a quarter below the 1931 amount was surely unsettling. Still, store owners were optimistic, running diverse promotions on luggage, jewelry, toys, decorative furnishings and women’s clothing.

Greeting card and chain store sales fell, but Christmas tree prices soared after dealers ordered far less than they had in 1931, then profited from the resulting shortage. Philadelphia sellers reported on Christmas Eve that inventories were nearly exhausted, but total receipts still hadn't matched those in 1931.

On Christmas Day, 1932, Britain’s King George V gave a global radio address to wish his subjects throughout the empire a “Happy Christmas,” inaugurating a practice that has become a royal tradition. Yet his brief address, drafted by Rudyard Kipling, had a sober tone. He reflected on the uncertainties ahead.

“It may be that our future may lay upon us more than one stern test. Our past will have taught us how to meet it unshaken. For the present, the work to which we are all equally bound is to arrive at a reasoned tranquility within our borders; to regain prosperity without self-seeking; and to carry with us those whom the burden of past years has disheartened or overborne.”

Worthy thoughts for year-end reflections.

(Philip Scranton is a Board of Governors professor of the history of industry and technology at Rutgers University, Camden, and the editor-in-chief of Enterprise and Society. He writes "This Week in the Great Depression" for the Echoes blog. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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