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CONNECTIONS: The real Norman Rockwell Christmas

Norman Rockwell did not paint us as we were but as we wished to be. He did not paint memory, he painted desire. He illustrated our highest goal, our dream of us.

About Connections: Love it or hate it, history is a map. Those who hate history think it irrelevant; many who love history think it escapism. In truth, history is the clearest road map to how we got here: America in the 21st century.

It is a Rockwell: a specific image with a universal quality. We understand the little girl comparing herself–with dissatisfaction–to the movie star on the cover of the magazine; the skinny boys in the football uniforms a size too big braving the opposing team; and the couple, girl on tiptoes, signing the marriage license with joy and trepidation.

Yet Norman Rockwell did not paint us as we were but as we wished to be. He did not paint memory, he painted desire. He illustrated our highest goal, our dream of us. Nowhere was that more true than in his images of Christmas.

We yearn for a Rockwell Christmas: the bustling shoppers on Main Street, the happy family welcoming the oldest son home, even the little boy discovering the Santa suit in his father’s bureau drawer. They are pictures we want to step into.

"Christmas Homecoming," Norman Rockwell © 1948 SEPS: Licensed by Curtis Publishing, Indianapolis, Ind. Norman Rockwell Museum Collections.
“Christmas Homecoming,” Norman Rockwell © 1948 SEPS: Licensed by Curtis Publishing, Indianapolis, Ind. Norman Rockwell Museum Collections.

“Christmas Homecoming” 1948: with his laundry bulging out the side of his suitcase, a son returns, home for Christmas. He is hugged by his mother as his father, brothers, friends and family look on. It is a Rockwell moment filled with love and good cheer, absent stress and conflict.

The model for the son was son Jarvis Rockwell. The mother is Mary Rockwell. Norman is there with his pipe. The brothers Thomas and Peter (with glasses) stand to the left on either side of family friend Grandma Moses. It invites the question: was that what Rockwell’s Christmas was like?

In 1939 Rockwell and his family moved to West Arlington, a Vermont farming community, population 1,400. In 1943 Rockwell bought the house next door to the Edgerton family. The Rockwell and Edgerton families were friends and neighbors for the next 10 years.

James “Buddy” Edgerton called it “two families in one.”

They were in and out of each other’s homes. The children played together and attended school together. Three generations of Edgertons modeled for Rockwell.

Buddy was the oldest of all the children. He was born in 1930, one year before Jarvis Rockwell. Thomas Rockwell was born in 1933 while Peter and Buddy’s sisters were both born in 1936.

The Edgerton property was a working farm. Buddy explains, “Christmas or not we were up a 5 a.m. to milk the cows and finish our chores before we got our presents.”

They had Christmas breakfast, opened their gifts and, by 9 a.m., they were next door in the Rockwell living room.

The Rockwell boys’ gifts were “pretty elaborate compared to ours. We were poor farm kids,” Buddy explains. “And then there were the Christmas goodies.”

Rockwell’s publishers and clients – for whom he illustrated advertisements and calendars – sent food and candy.

“We filled our bellies while there and filled our pockets before we left,” Buddy says.

Soon after opening presents, Norman went back to work. From his window he could see the covered bridge, the church and the natural pond behind the house.

“If the ice was good, we kids would go outside and skate,” Buddy says, “but Norman had deadlines. He would work right through Christmas.”

Edgerton has put his cherished memories in a book, “The Unknown Rockwell.” Reading it creates the same warmth as a Rockwell image, the same sense of being connected to something familiar and quintessentially American. The book will soon be a motion picture.

Today, the West Arlington home of Rockwell is an historic site. For the dedication, Jarvis returned home again just as on the 1948 Saturday Evening Post cover. However, this time, an 85-year-old gentleman slept in his boyhood bedroom creating a true Rockwell image. His illustrations were imbued with something “Norman”: something unique to him, and yet something that speaks to all of us.

In 1953 the Rockwell family moved to Stockbridge. It was there in 1956 that Rockwell did a Saturday Evening Post cover called “The Discovery.” A young boy with an indescribable expression – a mixture of a-ha discovery, disbelief and great dismay at the meaning of what he has found – stands facing us. We know he was looking for his Christmas presents when he should not, and we know that, when he found the Santa costume, his belief in the jolly old elf was shaken.

Rockwell did 322 covers for the Post from 1916 to 1963, and they say “The Discovery” was the most controversial. When it ran, mothers and fathers wrote the magazine, outraged that Norman Rockwell had destroyed Christmas. Children all over the country would see the cover, they raged, and their belief in Santa Claus would be ruined. The man who did more to create the image of an American Christmas was being accused of destroying the dream and breaking the hearts of small children.

The model was a small child. He was 6-year-old Stockbridge resident Scott Ingram. Many years later he was asked by a reporter if it had ruined Christmas for him.

Scott replied, “I was a firm believer in Santa Claus going into that shoot, and I was a firm believer when I left.”

Rockwell made firm believers of us all; believers in the best that we can be.

Norman Rockwell’s scenes and favorite holiday illustrations that capture the essence of the American Christmas can be seen in a special exhibition “Norman Rockwell: Home for the Holidays” on view at Norman Rockwell Museum now through January 29, 2017.

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