I enjoy reading old newspapers, not just to get a sense of history when it was news, but to experience the texture of the time in which that history was made. We learn as much from the feature stories and display ads as we do from the legendary headlines—and we learn as much from the papers published on ordinary days as we do from those published on historic dates. It’s all about the context. Context allows us to better project ourselves back into time, to better map our own journey from those days to this one.
On the front page of the Wisconsin State Journal dated December 24, 1994, one headline is “Student radio joins Internet; Carolina station goes global.” The student radio station at the University of North Carolina had become the first to offer its programming on “the World Wide Web, a part of the Internet that has become popular because of the development of sound, graphical and video features.” The story goes on to say: “The development marks a step toward the time when the physical limits of a radio signal become irrelevant to broadcasters. Many telecommunications experts believe radio stations will eventually rely on wires to reach most listeners, as TV stations do now with cable.” I would spend that Christmas Eve on the radio, having found out at the last minute and entirely by accident that I was scheduled to work 7-to-midnight on the 24th in addition to an early shift on Christmas Day. For this reason, Christmas 1994 will be the only one I do not celebrate with my family at some point around year’s end.
On the State Journal dated December 24, 1983, the main headline is “Cold Worst in 50 Years.” The high temperature in Madison the day before was 12 below, and the forecast for Christmas Eve was similarly bitter. There would be an NFL playoff game on this Christmas Eve: 9-and-7 Seattle would host 9-and-7 Denver in the AFC wild-card game. (Seattle would win easily, 31-7.) The Mrs. and I probably watched some of the game that afternoon, although it would have been small consolation for the trip home we couldn’t make because of the weather.
On the front page of the Madison Capital Times for December 24, 1976, there’s a story about House Select Committee on Assassinations, which learned of new evidence pointing to a conspiracy in the assassination of Martin Luther King. A feature tells of a Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, man who works as a mall Santa while hunting for a job in hopes of getting his family off welfare. Real-estate classifieds show that the best homes on Madison’s west side are topping out close to $70,000, but others around the city are selling in the $30,000 to $50,000 range. I spend the 24th and the morning and afternoon of the 25th with my family as usual, but will spend the evening of the 25th with my girlfriend, celebrating Christmas together.
More Christmas Eve newspapers are on the flip.
The State Journal‘s front page for December 24, 1971, is devoted entirely to Christmas, with a photo of some local church singers, a story about President Nixon’s Christmas message to the nation, and the Christmas story from the Gospel of Luke, which various newspapers used to run on their Christmas Eve front pages. Several of Madison’s radio stations—WTSO, WISM, WIBA, WIBU, and WLVE—joined with the city’s TV stations to sponsor free showings of the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine at the Capitol Theater that day. I knew that there were radio stations in Madison, but my favorite was still WLS from Chicago, and I would have spent much of this Christmas Eve enjoying the Holiday Festival of Music.
On December 24, 1966, the Capital Times headlined an attack on Marines in Vietnam that broke a 48-hour Christmas truce. The TV listings feature an ad from the local ABC affiliate touting “Christmas Eve color viewing,” with The Lawrence Welk Show, Hollywood Palace, and midnight mass. We wouldn’t have been watching TV on that Christmas Eve; we’d have bundled off to church, probably—although maybe not that year, since we had a three-month-old baby in the house.
On December 24, 1960, the State Journal featured the reassuring headline, “Santa Will Visit Each City Home,” detailing the success of the paper’s annual Empty Stocking campaign to raise funds for the needy. A cold wave, which had taken temperatures to 11 below on the morning of the 23rd, would ease on the 24th, with the high temperature forecast into the 20s. A feature story tells about Eleanor Waddell, a Madison woman who has become, despite her gender, a popular Santa Claus around town. The Uptown Liquor Store would deliver your order, even the special $2.75 gallons of “California aged wine, sweet 20% alcohol: port, white port, sherry, muscatel.”
Fifty years ago was my first Christmas, and now, Christmas has come again. Years from now, we’ll look back at this one, too—probably not because of any one thing that will happen (unless North Korea and South Korea get into a war), but because on Christmas, it’s in our nature to look back. Remembering the way we were is how we know who we are.
I wish you a hopeful Christmas
I wish you a brave New Year
All anguish, pain, and sadness
Leave your heart and let your road be clear