How ’40s and ’50s Holiday Films Helped Define the Quintessential Christmas “Look”

A slew of classics from the Golden Age of Hollywood popularized rural New England architecture as the typical backdrop for holiday domesticity.
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Picture the quintessential Christmas scene: A warm glow coming from fresh logs on the fire. A towering tree decked with twinkling lights and colorful homemade decorations. Rustic stone or wood walls covered in holly and ivy. On the windowsill, a thin layer of frost. Outside, nothing but snow-covered fields and secluded woods for miles. The idyllic scene might conjure images from the classic 1954 holiday musical, White Christmas—and there’s a good reason why. During the Golden Age of Hollywood, a slew of 1940s and ’50s Christmas films, now timeless holiday classics, popularized a specific rural backdrop as the typical cinematic Christmas "look"—the New England lodge.

"Iconic films like White Christmas [1954], Holiday Inn [1942], Christmas in Connecticut [1945], and Miracle on 34th Street [1947] all helped set the stage and tone for what Christmas should look like," says Alexis Peters, a former indie film production designer turned interior decorator. She has a hunch that, much like Jennifer Aniston’s culture-defining ’90s haircut from Friends, the New England lodge depicted in holiday films from Hollywood’s Golden Age had a huge influence on our collective imagination.

Tom Christie, film historian and author of The Golden Age of Christmas Movies: Festive Cinema of the 1940s and 50s, agrees. "The Golden Age of the Christmas movie was really situated between the mid-1940s and early 1950s, and it was during that period that all of the major themes and conventions that have come to characterize the genre—including ‘the look’—were established," he says. "You probably find yourself thinking about images of restrained elegance, tasteful decoration befitting a subtle, understated period aspect, and a warm and welcoming space that offers cozy comfort on cold winter nights."

"Think wood walls, stone fireplaces, logs lined up just outside the patio door awaiting their turn to burn," Peters adds.

The New England lodge style depicted in classic 1940s and ’50s Christmas films takes influence from common elements—like decorative fireplaces, textured wallpaper, and tall windows—of real 20th-century accommodations like the Grand View Lodge in Greenwich, Connecticut.

The New England lodge style depicted in classic 1940s and ’50s Christmas films takes influence from common elements—like decorative fireplaces, textured wallpaper, and tall windows—of real 20th-century accommodations like the Grand View Lodge in Greenwich, Connecticut.

This enduring look is characterized by turn of the century features commonly found in rural New England vernacular architecture: giant windows, decorative fireplaces, a grand central staircase, and natural materials like wood and stone. It’s an aesthetic that appears and reappears in many midcentury Christmas flicks. In one instance, Christie says, the same set was actually repurposed for two classics: "The famous Vermont hotel in White Christmas was a remodeled variation of the Connecticut inn set which had appeared in Holiday Inn over a decade earlier. In fact, it’s often thought that the reason why the hotel interior shown throughout White Christmas seems so visually drab [compared to the vibrant VistaVision colors of the rest of the film] was because it would initially have been decorated with the black-and-white palette of Holiday Inn in mind." Both inns have huge, arched windows that look out onto a snowy driveway, a grand open stairway to the guest rooms, and a sloping, beamed attic—in White Christmas, the latter is where Bob Wallace (Bing Crosby) sings the iconic titular song.

In some ways, the New England lodge aesthetic depicted in these holiday classics seems to exist in a timeless, festive bubble. "What I find really interesting on looking back at those Christmas movies was the way that filmmakers used those idealized New England interiors as a kind of shorthand for the perfect festive environment," says Christie, noting that another common element of the film settings—secluded idyll—was often "emphasized through juxtaposition." In Christmas in Connecticut, for example, Elizabeth Lane (Barbara Stanwyck), a career-minded writer and New York City girl through and through, finds herself at a picturesque Connecticut farm for the holidays posing as the ultradomestic cook she pretends to be in her magazine column. The film opens with shots of Elizabeth’s charmless city apartment—it’s cramped, messy, and wholly unappealing. Piles of papers line her desk; outside, pigeons fly amongst drying laundry. The farm, on the other hand, has a rustic wood-and-stone interior with a spacious, open living area where a baby grand piano and Christmas tree near a crackling fire seem to say, you’re going to feel at home here.

"Part of the reason the New England lodge style has come to inform a traditional evocation of Christmas is due to the way it presents so many immediately detectable elements which, when taken together, demonstrate all the hallmarks of an ideal domestic interior."  

Miracle on 34th Street follows a similar blueprint. "Maureen O’Hara’s Doris Walker is a top corporate executive with an exclusive but rather clinical New York City apartment, who later comes to share her daughter Susan’s enthusiasm for a dream home in the suburbs, which offers a much more conventional and comfortable interior that’s considerably more reflective of Christmas domesticity as we’ve come to identify it," says Christie.

Another commonality in these festive classics is the trope of making a house a home for the holidays. While many of the New England buildings depicted on-screen are rather grand, with dozens of bedrooms, imposing ceilings, sizable stairways, and even hired help, by the end of most, the ornate houses have invariably been transformed into intimate spaces filled with family photos and personal knickknacks. In It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), for instance, Mary Hatch (Donna Reed) transforms a decrepit mansion with a leaky ceiling, boarded up windows, and loose bannister knob into a Christmas paradise with a tinsel-covered tree, kids singing around the piano, and homemade snowflakes hanging in the windows. The 1947 film It Happened on Fifth Avenue brings home the message that houses come to life at Christmas because of the people who inhabit them. "The swanky interior of a shuttered Fifth Avenue mansion gradually becomes occupied by a variety of larger-than-life characters at Christmas who transform the well-appointed but impersonal home into a much more inviting (if unorthodox) setting for yuletide celebrations," says Christie.

The 1946 classic film It’s a Wonderful Life takes place in the fictional town of Bedford Falls in rural New York at the gateway to New England. 

The 1946 classic film It’s a Wonderful Life takes place in the fictional town of Bedford Falls in rural New York at the gateway to New England. 

Perhaps the reason the New England midcentury lodge "look" became synonymous with Christmas during this era is the fact that people were eager to embrace this idyllic brand of domesticity at the time. It was, after all, a period defined by a financial depression and the Second World War. "Part of the reason why the New England lodge style has come to inform a very traditional evocation of Christmas is largely due to the way it presents so many immediately detectable elements which, when taken together, demonstrate all the hallmarks of an ideal domestic interior," Christie says. "We think of colonial-style painted window shutters, textured wallpapers, and elegantly restrained wooden furnishings: all of these elements add something to that overarching evocation of the kind of festive home environment that we would like to enjoy ourselves and welcome our family and friends into."

The appeal of this cinematic setting continues, thanks in no small part to nostalgia. "There’s no question that the design choices from the 1940s and ’50s Golden Age of festive moviemaking had a monumental impact on the visual aspect of the genre, and this artistic influence has continued through the decades," Christie says, citing National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation and Santa Claus: The Movie (both ’80s films) as examples. Then, there are holiday classics from the late 20th-century and early aughts, such as The Santa Clause, Jingle All the Way, Elf, Love Actually, and The Holiday. While the settings are all over the map—Elf, for instance, opens at the North Pole home of one of Santa’s elves, and in The Holiday, Iris (Kate Winslet) swaps her cozy cottage in Surrey, England, for Amanda’s (Cameron Diaz) Los Angeles mansion—the details, like wood walls, grand pianos, and crackling fires, are consistent. "All of these films hark back to the idealized Christmas sets popularized by those formative postwar motion pictures," says Christie.

"It seems a safe bet that as long as Christmas movies are being made, the New England design aesthetic will have an important part to play in articulating the archetypal elements of an ideal festive environment," he adds. "One which exudes domestic comfort, brings people together, and presents a welcome refuge from the hustle and bustle of everyday life."

Top photo courtesy of Hulton Archive/Stringer/Getty Images.

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