Tis the Season at the Smithsonian

How the Smithsonian celebrated the holidays in 1977, and what traditions continue today!

Smithsonian employees hanging Christmas ornaments, 1977In many families, prepping for the winter holidays starts as soon as the Thanksgiving table is cleared. Whether it’s finding the perfect spot on the tree for your favorite Christmas ornament, stocking up on Hanukkah gelt, or traveling to see far-flung relatives, it’s a time for traditions. So, what were the Smithsonian’s winter traditions nearly forty years ago? The Torch, the Smithsonian’s employee newsletter, covered all the 1977 holiday happenings

If you stopped by the Museum of History and Technology—now known as the National Museum of American History—you’d be treated to “An Old-Fashioned Christmas” celebration. Music filled the museum halls, complete with Renaissance-era samplings, chamber music, and barbershop quartets. Docents led visitors through exhibits of interior rooms (designed to reflect different American historical periods) for discussions on holiday celebrations of decades past. You could even see crafters working on holiday designs: casting lead soldiers, decorating gingerbread houses, or sewing ragdolls. 

Children might have enjoyed demonstrations by dancers, jugglers, and mimes. Or, the whole family could stop in on the museum’s holiday film festival, featuring “The Wizard of Oz” (Dorothy’s ruby slippers were donated to the Smithsonian just two years later). Christmas music boxes and phonographic records in the museum’s collection were also brought out and displayed for the holiday visitors. 

Christmas ornaments displayed at the Smithsonian, 1977The celebrations extended to the other Smithsonian museums, too. At the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, kids could view a Picasso-inspired puppet program, or take in “The Animal in Art” exhibit, showcasing art inspired by the creatures at the National Zoo. If you stopped by the National Air and Space Museum or the National Museum of Natural History, you were likely to hear some holiday tunes performed by carolers, or a “strolling accordionist.” 

The holiday spirit made its way to New York City as well at the Cooper-Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum. Their exhibit “To Celebrate the Moment” looked at objects designed to celebrate holidays. These included Hanukkah menorahs, Christmas stockings, decorative dishes, and even commemorative wallpaper patterns. 

No matter where you went at the Smithsonian, however, you’d find the hard work of the Smithsonian Gardens on full display! Then called the Office of Horticulture, the staff began growing four hundred poinsettias for December display as far back as July. Altogether, eight hundred poinsettia plants decorated the Smithsonian museums and galleries, in addition to numerous Christmas trees. At “The Trees of Christmas” exhibit at the National Museum of American History, Smithsonian staff decorated twelve live trees with different history themes like a pioneer tree, or a Victorian tree. Trees decorated to reflect other countries’ histories were on display, too—with paper flowers on the Brazil tree, and gilt fans on the tree of Japan. 

Decorating for the holidays is a tradition that still exists at the Smithsonian! Now, nearly forty years later, the Smithsonian Gardens decorates our museums for the holidays and special programming continues to entertain and educate visitors at Smithsonian museums and research centers.

Holiday decorations at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, 2016

Holiday decorations at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, 2016

Related Resources

Record Unit 371, Smithsonian Institution Office of Public Affairs, The Torch, 1955-1960, 1965-1988Smithsonian Institution Archives

Archiving Family Traditions, The Bigger Picture, Smithsonian Institution Archives

Holidays at the Smithsonian, Smithsonian Gardens Blog 

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