IF YOU'VE GOT the pre-Christmas jitters -- worrying about too much to do in too little time -- I suggest you count your blessings. If you'd been living a hundred years ago, you might really have been out of sorts around this time of year.
Take the holiday season in 1883. In Philadelphia, the Association of Methodist Ministers adopted a scathing report from its Sabbath committee deploring "the circulation of Sunday newspapers and the fearful demoralization they occasion in many Christian families, where they take the place of the Word of God and good wholesome reading."
In Washington, employees at the Navy Yard were up a creek, uncertain as late as Christmas Eve about their getting a full day's pay for the holiday. In the White House, not a creature was stirring, not even President Chester A. Arthur, who had decided to forgo Christmas shopping for his son Allen, giving him instead a check for $150.
New Yorkers, on the other hand, were coping with advertising doggerel like this:
When you plan to give a present
To your friend on Christmas Day,
Don't buy a foolish trifle
Of lace or ribbon gay;
Get something solid, useful,
Something enduring, too,
And something to remind her
Each rising day of you.
For this there's nothing better,
More truly excellent,
Than fragrant Sozodont, for which
Your money can be spent.
Then, every night and morning
With it she'll brush her teeth,
And they will soon like silver shine,
Her rosy gums beneath.
Worst of all, the Christmas tree was under siege. Considerably fewer trees had been sold for the holiday. It wasn't that they were expensive: it was that they were dangerous, according to The New York Times: "The Christmas tree, dropping melted wax upon the carpet, filling all nervous people with a dread of fire, . . . diffusing the poison of rationalism thinly disguised as the perfume of hemlock, should have no place in our beloved land."
To be sure, there was a back-up symbol to take the tree's place. Long in disuse, the Christmas stocking was gaining a toehold, despite some difficulties. The New England stocking had been considered too small, too skimpy for recipients of any age; the Chicago stocking was much too big, which meant that only high rollers could fill it to the top.
Then in 1883 The Smith Christmas Stocking hit the scene. It was a better idea because it was elastic. And its major promoter was The New York Times: "The economical parent can fill it at little more than double the cost of filling a New England stocking, while the wealthy and generous parent can crowd into it more than could be forced into the largest Chicago stocking."
The Smith Stocking was also equipped with a water-tight metallic toe compartment, which could receive and hold molasses candy without fear of sticky meltdown and crushing. And it could be used year after year. All these features simply overwhelmed The Times, which couldn't say enough good things: "Let us welcome back the stockings of our fathers -- that is to say, of our female ancestors . . . The Christmas tree has had its day, and the glorious reaction in favor of the sacred stocking will sweep it away forever."