Martha Stewart’s Christmas is, as they say in academia, a rich text.
On the surface, it looks innocuous enough: a slim, photo-heavy chronicle of Martha’s own preparations for the 1988 Christmas season, beginning with the mixing of 10 enormous plum puddings the day after Thanksgiving and concluding with a sumptuous Christmas Day dinner. Martha builds wreaths and topiaries, bakes cookies and cakes and cans jellies and jams, paints her own wrapping paper, fills gift baskets with homemade goodies, constructs a gingerbread mansion with a gilded roof, makes ornaments and bows to decorate the trees (plural, of course), whips up a croquembouche and a vat of cassoulet for her annual holiday party, and, after all that, wakes up early on Christmas morning to cook brunch. She beams from the cover, surrounded by pine cones, looking flushed and happy. She has achieved Christmas perfection!
Martha Stewart’s Christmas was not just a book, of course. Because it was Martha, and because it became a bestseller when it was published in 1989 (300,000 copies in hardcover, at a time when most lifestyle books sold between 25,000 and 40,000), and because it spawned magazines and an annual TV special and Stewart’s eventual coronation as the self-described “queen of all things Christmas,” not to mention a new holiday aesthetic heavy on gold and Victoriana, it was an attack on American women, feminism, and the inalienable right of Americans to be lazy if they felt like it.
“Some people are so full of themselves that they present an irresistible target,” wrote a reviewer in the Boston Globe. “For me, Martha is one of them... What can you say about a woman who makes not a gingerbread house but a gingerbread mansion?”
Well, maybe you could say this is a woman who took architectural drawing in high school and really likes a challenge? Nah, that would be too generous. People, especially women, took the whole Martha Stewart enterprise personally. They saw it as an attack on themselves and their individual choices. (Male journalists mostly saw it as a foolish waste of time — unlike, say, watching football.)
“It’s entirely logical that as more women have less time to do anything around the house, Martha Stewart and her fellow sisters in sadism would become the nation’s household gurus,” complained the Salt Lake Tribune. “Perpetual guilt demands a perpetual lash, and Martha, blessed with the brisk, no-nonsense soul of a dog trainer, is just the woman to wield it.”
And homemaking was so anti-intellectual. “What Stewart works at is so ephemeral!” bitched a letter to the editor of the Orlando Sentinel. “Curious that we both are from Nutley, N.J., yet I would prefer to read one page of Spinoza (called the ‘radiant philosopher’) than find 14 ways to prepare spinach.”
In the late ’80s and early ’90s, a woman simply couldn’t read Spinoza and get excited about new ways to prepare squash (there are no spinach recipes in Martha Stewart’s Christmas). Martha Stewart caught hell for devoting time and effort to creating a perfect Christmas and then writing a best-selling book about it. Two years later, during the 1992 presidential campaign, Hillary Rodham Clinton also caught hell for declaring, “I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas, but what I decided to do was to fulfill my profession.” It was impossible to win. (Except for the infamous Family Circle First Lady Bake-Off. Hillary won that. Twice. Then Bill cribbed the recipe in 2016.)
What most of Stewart’s critics appeared not to notice was that she put all that effort into gilding pine cones and making hundreds of plum puddings because Christmas was her actual job. Well, maybe not Christmas itself, but throwing parties and making things look nice. Martha Stewart’s Christmas was her eighth book, the successor to Entertaining and Weddings, among others. Before Stewart started writing books, she was a caterer. And long, long before that, she was the head of the junior prom decorating committee and a 10-year-old birthday party planner. You might say she had a calling.
She even had a philosophy, though perhaps not as radiant and intricate as Spinoza’s: “Presentation is important,” she informed the Boston Globe during the publicity tour for Martha Stewart’s Christmas. “You can’t just throw pasta on a plate and slop some sauce over it. You place pasta on a plate. You spoon sauce gently over the middle of it. Food should be a feast for the eye. Guests don’t come to your home just because they’re hungry. They come for the sociability. When you present food carefully, the preparation becomes a fete rather than a chore.”
That didn’t mean everyone had to do all the things in the book. Actually, everyone probably shouldn’t, at least not alone. As Stewart explained in the acknowledgements, 16 people helped get her Christmas together, including her mother, her siblings, and various friends and neighbors. And as she admits later on in the book, she has a tendency to go a wee bit over the top:
“When I decided to create this year’s holiday decor without relying on the red and green theme that has dominated our Christmas aesthetic,” she wrote, “I thought it would be interesting to try gilding a few decorations. Two weeks later, almost everything in the house — from pomegranates and pine cones and evergreen boughs to homemade wrapping paper — has been dipped and brushed in dense, rich metallic paints and my sister Laura has renamed this book Martha’s Gilt Trip.”
(And here! Evidence that even back in the days before she started making green Christmas brownies and rapping with Snoop Dogg, Martha Stewart had a sense of humor.)
Stewart happened to be one of the rare American workers who actually liked what she did. Her pleasure in her work, however, manifested itself not in giddy joyfulness but in cool perfectionism. She was a workhorse and an insomniac, capable of clocking 20-hour days, and she had high standards. Zacki Murphy, who spent five weeks at Stewart’s house in Connecticut working on Martha Stewart’s Christmas, described the experience to the St. Petersburg Times as “boot camp” and said she “would not want to be employed by Martha Stewart on a regular basis.”
Stewart herself was aware of her lack of cuddliness. “I’m less mother than teacher,” she told New York magazine. “Hardly anybody I know thinks of me as a mother. Everybody loves their mothers, but not everybody likes their teachers. Teachers can be too hard on them.”
Maybe she just found it hard to relax. She was a striver. She had indeed grown up in Nutley, New Jersey, in a Polish Catholic family with six kids. Her mother was a teacher and her father was a salesman and they were thrifty out of necessity. But the whole family, at least according to Martha Stewart’s Christmas, loved the holiday and took an active role in the preparations, starting in the summer when her mother, known as Big Martha, began gathering flowers and herbs for potpourri and pomanders.
Stewart worked her way through Barnard College by modeling and also cleaning for two old ladies who lived in a 12-room apartment on Fifth Avenue. She married into WASPiness her sophomore year, to Andy Stewart, a lawyer and later a publisher. It was her first great career move. “Can you imagine my real name, Martha Kostyra?’’ she asked USA Today. “I think it would be very hard to say Martha Kostyra’s Gardening. It all fits... It’s all been very fortuitous.’’
After graduation and the birth of her daughter, Stewart worked as a stockbroker. She quit after a downturn in the market in 1974 and retreated to Connecticut. “What shocked Martha was that she saw people lose money on her advice,” her former boss explained to the Wall Street Journal. “She thought home entertaining was a less blood-letting occupation.”
It may not have been as bloody, but that didn’t mean Stewart didn’t take it seriously. In many ways, she’s a successor to the early-20th-century home economists who, after failing to find a place for themselves in the male-dominated world of science, channeled all their knowledge and industry into counting calories and finding endless uses for baking soda. Stewart did the same, except she built a business empire on sugar cookies and a hot glue gun.
This may have been why she annoyed so many people. Homemaking was women’s work! It was frivolous and unimportant! Hadn’t women been fighting for decades to get out of the house? And why did she have to take it so seriously? Why couldn’t she just relax?
Such criticism took on new life during Stewart’s 2004 insider trading trial and subsequent imprisonment. The media coverage carried a distinct scent of schadenfreude, epitomized by a gleeful Newsday report about how Stewart celebrated Christmas in prison: Dinner would be a military-sized portion of turkey, ham, or chicken, depending on donations. Decor would be “minimal” to avoid fire hazards. “Contrast this,” the story continued, “with Martha Stewart Living’s December 2003 suggested Christmas menu, which included roasted turkey breast with fennel herb stuffing or a maple-glazed smoked Vermont ham.”
(Interestingly, there are a few intimations of this chapter of Stewart’s life in Martha Stewart’s Christmas. During the trial, Stewart’s personal assistant recounted receiving a gift of the very same plum pudding that appears in the book. And on the final page, “beneath a collection of Copland’s china,” Stewart’s daughter Alexis is seen smooching her then-boyfriend Sam Waksal, who would later be known as the CEO who gave Stewart insider information.)
The beautiful thing about Martha Stewart is that she has never given a damn about the mockery. In 1989, amidst the harsh criticism of her Christmas book, she told USA Today, “If I were more sensitive, my life could be ruined by all this. I have inured myself to this kind of criticism. I don’t care anymore. But I do care that my readers like what I do.”
If Martha wants a house full of gold pomegranates and a gingerbread Baroque church (her most ambitious gingerbread structure to date), she will have them. If she wants Christmas stockings for all of the household pets, she will have those too, regardless of how anyone else feels about such things. “My donkeys — Rufus, Clive, and Billie — will receive embroidered jute bags filled with apples, carrots, hay, and sugar cubes,” she wrote on her website. “The animals’ silhouettes were cross-stitched on premade stockings with wool-and-silk floss.”
I studied Martha Stewart’s Christmas carefully. Christmas has always fascinated me, and even now, partnered with a person whose family celebrates Christmas, I still feel like an anthropologist (but oh, the joy when I got my first Christmas stocking with my name on it!). At first, I pretended that it would be possible for me to make a wreath or gather up a few pine cones and dip them in gold leaf. I tried to imagine what the plum pudding — which, incidentally, contains no plums — would taste like and fantasized about having a kitchen large enough that I could mix up Martha’s recipe for 10 in one go. I wondered if I could construct nice gift baskets for my family and friends. Then I got to the cassoulet recipe and the headnote that reads “Serves 100” and I laughed. Martha Stewart’s Christmas is, emphatically, Martha Stewart’s Christmas and no one else’s, though I suppose if you were feeling ambitious, you, too, could attempt a gingerbread mansion.
I was not, so I made her sugar cookies with royal icing. They were fine, although the multicolor tie-dye effect I was going for didn’t quite work out. (Translation: they looked disgusting, and did not change my opinion that sugar cookies are the worst cookies.) I also made the sour cream cake; I was attracted by the lime juice and zest in the batter, but it didn’t really come through in the finished product. I also doubt Stewart intended these recipes for solo late-night snacking over the sink.
Then I realized that maybe I, like all the Martha haters, was concentrating too much on the substance of the book and not enough on its spirit. Martha Stewart’s Christmas is about enlivening one of the darkest and dreariest parts of the year by filling the house with things that sparkle and smell nice and serving elaborate feasts and making sure that everyone, even the donkeys in the barn, feels special and loved.
Yes, she kind of overdoes it. She knows she overdoes it — she’s a perfectionist and Christmas is her job! But, as Judith Shulevitz pointed out in a 2001 New York Times essay, “the very over-the-top-ness of Martha’s productions testifies to her deep understanding of the holiday. Christmas has always been a time for extremes ... If there is such a thing as an authentic Christmas tradition, it would have to be overdoing it — spending and drinking and eating too much and hanging out with friends, a habit that goes back to the Romans, if not before, and that Christianity has only intermittently managed to stamp out.”
Stewart finds her bliss in making wreaths. I find mine in lighting the menorah and in constructing a gift-giving Catalonian poop log for my dog. Maybe you find yours by stirring up an extra-boozy eggnog and participating in a family singalong of “Dominick the Donkey (The Italian Christmas Donkey)”. What is so wrong with making the extra effort to put a little more joy into the world?
Aimee Levitt is a freelance writer in Chicago. Read more of her work at aimeelevitt.com.