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Living Christmas 365 days a year — An American Annual of Christmas Literature and Art

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"The Annual of Christmas Literature and Art became an all-consuming passion for many years," says Leonard Flachman. It's a perfect summer day in Minneapolis, and under the shade of an oak tree former editors Leonard and Karen Walhof reminisce and leaf through Christmas Annuals that have been cherished by so many — including a young thirteen-year-old fresh off the boat from Greece…

The Annual of Christmas Literature and Art, in the words of its founder and long-time editor Randolph Edgar Haugan, celebrated "The greatest event in history… the coming of the Christ child. For the past 50 years, we have attempted to glorify God and to remind us all of this event through music, literature and art." (Clockwise from upper left) Volume Thirty-five, 1965; Volume 1, 1931; and Volume Fifty, 1980 with cover art by Howard Sanden. 

Howard Sanden's superb illustrations caught the eye of a non-English speaking thirteen-year-old — Caesar Augustus dictating, "That all the world chould be taxed." An American Annual of Christmas Literature and Art, Volume Thirty-five, 1965. 
Christmas in Sioux City, Iowa, in 1965 meant the corner of 4th and Pierce Streets where Santa, sitting on a golden throne, held court in the large display window of Younkers department store. Children waiting in line to give their lists to Santa Claus could look across the street at the ornate clock in front of Thorpe's jewelry store and count down the hours until present-time.

Since it wasn't Santa at Christmas, but St. Basil at New Year's that brought presents to Greek children, there was no standing in line for me. Instead, I loved browsing at the Sioux City Stationery store, just down the street.

That's where I first laid eyes on The Annual of Christmas Literature and Art, this oversized, 10.5 x 14 inch, colorful edition (see large image, top of page). Its cover with an eight-pointed, snowflake-like, stained glass window featured the Nativity in the center and biblical symbols on the surrounding trefoils: The Star of David, the Gifts of the Magi — incense, frankincense, myrrh — the symbols of the four Evangelists.

That much I could understand. But the large title at the top in beautiful gold uncial script outlined in a darker shade, or the words on the bottom of the page? It was all Greek to me.

Inside, lavish paintings illustrated "The Christmas Story." The first could have been lifted from my beloved Greek Classics Illustrated: Augustus dictating and pointing to a scribe who records Caesar's command: "And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed."

In a second colorful spread Joseph on foot and Mary, "His espoused wife, being great with child," riding on a donkey, "Also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem."

A third painting shows, "…Shepherds abiding in the filed, keeping watch over their flocks by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid."

In a fourth marvelous spread Mary cradles her baby as shepherds adore, and in a fifth Wise Men with their retinue offer gifts: "Behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him."

Beautifully illustrated Christmas carols in shaped note style became one of the hallmarks of the Christmas Annual — Adeste Fidelis (Oh, Come, All Ye Faithful), Volume Ten, 1940." (Crèchemania photo, courtesy of St. Olaf College Archives.) 
Then, leafing through, I saw that this book also included printed music, elegantly resembling shaped notes in green on a red pentagram.

I was enthralled. Fresh off the boat and desperate to belong, Mrs. Katz' music class is where I could feel as though I could participate — by "Fa, la, la-ing" through songs. Sometimes, after class, Mrs. Katz would teach me to play a simple melody on the piano, one finger at a time. I couldn't wait to show her this book.

And so began — my love affair with An American Annual of Christmas Literature and Art (later to be Christened An Annual of Christmas Literature and Art). And now that I am In Search of the Nativity, the book I'm working on, I knew I would have to write about the wonderful people who brought it to us.

"An American Annual of Christmas Literature and Art? I'm sorry, we don't carry that title."

The young man's voice on the phone is pleasant, but discouraging. Augsburg Publishing House issued it for many decades, I say. Is there anyone in your company who might have worked on it? For fifty years its editor was Randolph Edgar Haugan? It was a popular title, beloved by people all over the country?

But nothing rings a bell.

Randolph E. Haugan was a founder of the Norwegian American Historical Society, and when I call that number it rings at St. Olaf College, in Northfield, Minnesota.

"You're looking for An American Annual of Christmas Literature and Art?" Edited by Randolph E. Haugan for many years?" Associate College Archivist Jeff M. Sauve knows what I'm talking about. "I came across his obituary just last week, and I could send it to you. We also have all the Christmas Annuals. To access them, please stop in the library and ask to see the Special Collections Librarian, Mary Barbosa-Jerez."

And Jeff emails me other references, among them a tantalizing letter dated January 14, 2009: "I have recently written and given two speeches to the Sons of Norway Lodges in Northfield, and Sioux Falls, S.D. I am enclosing a copy of this speech entitled Fifty Years of Christmas, An American Annual of Christmas Literature and Art, published by Augsburg Publishing House, and edited by Randolph E. Haugan, for a half century." It was signed, "Keith E. Ingbritsen."

The Sons of Norway! Of course, why did I not think of that connection?

A phone call to the Sioux Falls lodge got me in touch with past president Bill Westerdahl, who found in his archives a newsletter dated January 8, 2009: "Mary and Keith Ingbritsen presented the program a "Christmas Annual of Literature and Arts," edited by Randolph Haugan of Augsburg Publishing House. "Mary's father was Randolph Haugan…"

Hallelujah! I now had a name, and Bill also listed the Ingbritsen's phone number and address.

Lee Mero's marvelous illustrations graced The Annual of Christmas Literature and Art, Volume Thirty, 1960. 
But, in the meantime, I had decided to give Augsburg Fortress, as the publisher is known today, another try. This time the woman I spoke with remembered the Christmas Annuals. Would there be any original art to photograph? "No, she said, we have no editorial materials or back issues, but you should give Karen Walhof at Kirk House Publishers a call. She worked on that publication."

"What a joy it is that you called," Karen says. "It seems noone is interested in the Christmas Annual anymore. I know Leonard Flachman — who worked alongside Mr. Haugan and edited the Christmas Annual after Mr. Haugan's retirement — would love to hear from you."

Then comes a note from Leonard: "Is it possible for you to be in Minneapolis this week, Thursday or Saturday? I am in the later days of a year-long battle with cancer and my strength ebbs a little more every day. I would suggest that we allow a couple of hours. We can talk for an hour and you may peruse the Christmas Annuals for an hour. I would like Karen Walhof to be present for the conversation, and this Thursday at 1:30 or Saturday at 10:30 will work."

The next day, I drive to Minneapolis, and with a stack of Christmas Annuals under my arm, I knock on Leonard's door.

His wife, Shirley, opens, says with a smile, "You must be here for the Christmas Annual conference," and shows me to the living room. Leonard is seated in an easy chair, with three or four Christmas Annuals on his lap, breathing through a portable oxygen canister next to his feet. Karen is seated close by him, facing a wall of glass that leads out onto a patio bordered by oak trees.

I can hardly wait to click on my tape recorder. I say how happy I am to be here, how grateful that Leonard could see me, that I have treasured the Christmas Annual since that first day in 1965 — when I couldn't read a word. That, at Christmas, my copies take pride of place on the dining room shelf near my collection of paper nativities, and that, even now, I find nuggets within their pages.

Just last night, in preparing for this visit, I found in the 1960's Volume Thirty, a terra cotta medallion, "Adoration of the Infant Jesus, by Andrea della Robia, that hangs in the Minneapolis Institute of Arts."

In "The Customs of Christmas," Volume Forty-nine, 1979, William Medcalf illustrates the Swedish custom of a white-clad woman wearing a wreath of candles appearing on St. Lucia Day.  
The Minneapolis Institute of Arts? After all those photo shoots in Minneapolis, all those times I visited the Twin Cities these past fifty years, and I thought the Walker Art Center was it!

In fact, I spent this morning at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, photographing an exquisite diptych with a scene of the Nativity, an alabaster sculpture and a painting of the Adoration of the Magi, and a Nativity by Fra Angelico. Even after all these years, there's gold to be found in the pages of the Christmas Annual.

Leonard: We lived Christmas 365 days a year! I wish I could still be doing it, it was so much fun. We became so engrossed in Christmas, as was Dr. Haugan. He really lived it.

Karen: The Christmas Annual is a wonderful mixture of sophistication, ethnic appreciation, and home-spun Christmas. That’s what made it special, unique, this mixture of all those things: if you didn’t like this, you’d like that. And I like it all!

Leonard: I was the Director of Product Development for Augsburg (which was the publishing house of the American Lutheran Church) with a long list of responsibilities, when the Christmas Annual was added to them. I worked alongside Dr. Haugan, but it wasn't until after his "retirement," that my and Karen's name appear, under "Editorial Staff" in Volume Fifty-one, dated 1981. Because it was decided that Mr. Haugan, although retired, would remain the Christmas Annual titular editor, and work from home.

Karen: It was a lovely, quaint Tudor, with Christmas art everywhere, things that Dr. Haugan especially loved. A section in the Christmas Annual featured "Christmas in Many Lands," with illustrations of customs from foreign countries, and I remember he had his favorites framed and hung up the staircase. And the walls were also filled with Christmas Annual art.

Leonard: When Dr. Haugan retired he had the next two volumes pretty much sketched out, at least in his mind. From that point on, I started bringing together the ideas, and sharing them with Dr. Haugan. After Karen came on in 1973, he would react to our thoughts and offer suggestions, but I don't remember him ever saying "No" to something we had planned.

Karen: Dr. Haugan respected Len, so Len had a great working relationship with him. If Dr. Haugan didn't respect you, you were in trouble.

The late Randolph Edgar Haugan founded Christmas: An Annual of Christmas Literature And Art in 1931. (Photo courtesy Augsburg Publishing House.) 
Leonard: You couldn't survive. Across his desk was a big square leather chair with wide arms. When you came into his office he’d say, “Sit down.” You sat in that chair and you went down, down, down. Pretty soon, Dr. Haugan was up there, and you were down here looking up at him! So he had you at a psychological disadvantage. But I learned very quickly to always sit on the arm of the chair, never in it!

After he moved home I didn't see him that much, and Karen would go back-and-forth. He also liked and respected her very much. I think we got to do a lot of things that we might not have been able to had Karen not been the go-between.

Karen: He had very high standards and he would not compromise them. If he had any questions it was a definite "No." But you need to keep in mind that he became General Manager of Augsburg when he was 28-years-old! Straight out of St. Olaf. Augsburg was his life.

Leonard: Dr. Haugan grew up with the city. When I arrived in 1967, the only building that stood out was the Foshay Tower, there were no other tall buildings. So you can imagine how small Minneapolis was in 1931. Dr. Haugan knew everyone.

And Augsburg was downtown, at 5th and 5th, a printing and publishing area. Dr. Haugan got to know all those people. The Star Tribune was next door, and for several years at Christmas, if you picked up the second, metro, section of the paper, the whole first page was devoted to the Christmas Annual.

Karen: Dr. Haugan was a visionary. And a promoter. He would send copies to the Pope, and to the Queen of England. In his office he had letters from the President and other prominent people thanking him for their copies. He began the Christmas Annual two years before he became General Manager, and it was an expensive publication to produce at that time. But he had a vision for it, stuck with it, and by 1981 Augsburg was selling 800,000 copies of the Christmas Annual.

Volume Forty-two, 1972 features "Singing Windows" by Louise Walker, six pages of glorious stained glass. 
Leonard: Dr. Haugan was larger than life. When a composer sent in a new composition and wanted it published, Dr. Haugan took the manuscript around the office and said, "Who around here knows music?" When someone said a name, he walked to the person's desk and said, "You're our new music editor."

The challenge was keeping the Christmas Annual fresh and interesting. One of the features that I started was the Philip Gugel presentation. He was a Minneapolis art historian. Every year we'd chose a work of an old master, and he would comment on that painting.

He had insight. Commenting on Bartoloméo Esteban Murillo's Adoration of the Shepherds he informs us, "In painting Jesus with his arms as they would appear on the cross, perhaps Murillo was alluding to Simeon’s prophecy in which he says that Jesus, as salvation’s bearer, will also bring his mother sorrow…" (Pages 30-31, Volume 51, 1981.)

Sometimes I was called to perform non-editorial duties, like the time when I trimmed the painted styrofoam of 1977's Volume 47 from a rectangle into a circle. I placed this "carved" sculpture of Mother and Child in a wreath of holly, and it made a beautiful cover. We used a large-format camera for our photos, so the images were nice and crisp.

I was always going to New York because of my primary responsibilities, but I'd also visit photo agencies looking for Christmas art, and spend Saturday and Sunday in museums looking for ideas.

As word about the Christmas Annual spread, we'd run into people, like this man who had an eight-foot-long apothecary's cabinet of Christmas ornaments, and a story for every one. He ended up writing about them in the Christmas Annual.

Almost every Sunday in December I’d go to Schidler’s downtown newsstand and buy the Sunday papers for Boston, New York, Washington, D.C., San Francisco, Los Angeles, Seattle, Minneapolis, and Chicago. I’d come home with a stack of Sunday papers this high and see what was happening by way of Christmas events in all these cities.

"The First Christmas," part of "Scenes From The Life Of Christ," watercolor by R. J. Norman, Volume 4, 1934." (Crèchemania photo, courtesy of St. Olaf College Archives.) 
When we wanted to do an an article on Christmas in Manhattan and needed photographs, we found out that professional photographers in New York can be very expensive. Through an agency, we connected with a member of a camera club in Greenwich Village. He put the whole club to work, and we got hundreds of photos of Christmas in New York! We gave them a stipend…

Karen: And they got published in the Christmas Annual, which was a thrill for them. ["Manhattan Christmas," pages 50-57, Volume Fifty-two, 1982.]

After Len took over, we would look to see if there were any special anniversaries we could write about. One year it was the 50th anniversary of Gian Carlo Menotti's Amal and the Night Visitors. We had a friend with whom we had worked in the past, Richard Hillert. Talking with him one day I said, “Richard, do you know anyone who can write an article about Amal and the Night Visitors? And he said, 'I will, because that’s very special to me.' Every year he and his family would sing the whole opera together! It was a wonderful article. ["A Christmas Miracle," pages 40-44, Volume Fifty-one, 1981.]

In 1976, Dr. Haugan decided to use the Bicentennial as a theme for the Christmas Annual. He wanted the stained glass window of the chapel at Mt. Vernon of George Washington kneeling in prayer to be on the cover, but the marketing director didn’t like that idea. Word had gotten back to Dr. Haugan, and the story is that he walked into the marketing office, pointed at the marketing director with his cane and said, “What do you have against George Washington?” The answer was, “Nothing,” to which Dr. Haugan replied, “Then he’s going on the cover!”

Then there was the time when, somehow, Len found out about this enormous, fascinating Christmas store in Frankenmuth, Michigan. The people there came from Bavaria, and the town is filled with charming old-world buildings. The store is open 363 days a year, and busloads of people come every day to look through their hundreds of nativity sets, and acres of ornaments.

Leonard: It was unbelievable. So of course we did a story on Bronner’s Christmas Wonderland. We also went there so I could photograph our article about Nativity sets.

Karen: The Christmas Annual was printed in March, it was always so exciting to see it hot off the press. I'd hold my breath, making sure that every page was exactly right. We took great pains, never cut corners.

Augsburg would give each employee a copy of the Christmas Annual as a Christmas present, and we all treasured them, from the pressmen to the marketing people.

Volume 51, published in 1981, was the first issue under the editorial direction of Leonard Bachman and Karen Walhof.  
Len and I loved working on the Christmas Annual, but when new management came, we decided to leave.That was in 1993, and the Christmas Annual ceased publication sometime after that. We now run Kirk House Publishers, issuing about 30 titles a year.

Leonard: It was part of the corporate culture at the time: sweep out the old, bring in the new. But sometimes what happens is you take ten steps back — and you never catch up.

Are you familiar with A Christmas Classic? Its an anthology that Karen and I were asked to edit after we left.

Karen: But by then there was no original artwork, so we had to scan old issues.

Leonard: All of the original art was gone. Augsburg had moved out and sold their building — that area is now the jail, so there was nothing left. Gone were all the Lee Mero illustrations that he cut on amberlith himself, and all the optic glass four-color plates. In the early days, up into the 50's at least, closer to the 60's, film was not stable enough to make registration for four-color printing. There was a whole rack of optic glass, and we're reasonably sure that when they moved they hauled it all to the dumpster. It's gone.

Along with the racks and racks of Christmas material, but we did manage to save five paintings by Howard Sanden. These 30 x 40 inch canvases are now at the Lutheran Seminary in St. Paul, and on display at Christmas.

Howard Sanden was one of the acclaimed artists who worked on the Christmas Annual. When president George W. Bush unveiled his portrait at the White House, Sanden was the artist. Dr. Haugan had an eye for talent.

Karen: My favorite story about Dr. Haugan was told at his wife's funeral. He was sharp as a tack to the end, and in a nursing home with his wife, Kathryn. Shortly before he died, he called one of the nurses over and said, “You take good care of Kathryn; I’ll be back for her in a year.”

He died around Christmas, and a year later his wife died. We all said, if anybody could do that, it’d be Dr. Haugan. He was a force of nature!

Leonard: Shall we look at the collection of Christmas Annuals? If I fall, I'll yell, and you two can catch me!

Horn Nativity scene carved by Leonard Fluchman in Ethiopia. 
Leonard picks up his oxygen tank and joins us outside in the patio shaded by an oak tree. On a round table are stacked issues of the Christmas Annual, and he and Karen look through them, as a visiting photographer snaps away. (See photo, bottom of page.)

Looking at a page with nativity sets, Leonard remembers Christmas in Ethiopia: "I was sent there to establish a publishing house for the church," he says. So Christmas came — and no Nativity. There were lots of nice icons, but no figurines, so I needed to do something about it; you can’t have Christmas without a Nativity! We had thought of just about everything else, but a Nativity wasn’t on our list. I found a couple of cow's horns, one black and the other white, and I carved Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus."

For a while, as Leonard and Karen leaf through Christmas Annuals, it seems as if they're back at Augsburg.

"I was on a many year quest to photograph the nativity," Leonard says. Only I was photographing the art of the old masters from transparencies in the archives of the New York Agencies. I was going to use PowerPoint to make an art history presentation and make the rounds to churches. The project was never completed. I don't know how many slides I have. These last days I have been trying to figure out what I might do with the collection. My sons will not want it and I hate to throw it away. Do you want it?

"And do you have a complete set of the Christmas Annuals, Alexis? No? I've promised to give the Archives of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America the 20 issues that they're missing, but you can have the rest."

I can't believe my ears. This day has been present enough. A planned hour has turned to a wonderful four, and now Leonard is giving me his Christmas slides and Christmas Annual collection? Unbelievable. Words fail me, but Karen comes to the rescue.

"Thanks for coming, Alexis," she says. "This has been an exciting day. Len had such a long commitment to the Christmas Annual, and it has, in some ways, been forgotten."

A spring of thyme, from Shirley Flachman's garden, to remember the day. 
As I gather my camera equipment Leonard's wife, Shirley, who has been quietly tending her garden walks over and looking at the stack of Christmas Annuals says, "Each of them is beautiful. Our family tradition every Christmas is to pull one off the shelf, read the Christmas story, and look at the pictures."

She hands me a sprig of thyme tied with a tiny red ribbon and says, "This is for you. To remember the day."

With everything loaded into the Mini Cooper, I wave goodbye saying, "Love your trees! What a beautiful setting."

Leonard looks up, and says with a grin, "I hope they put me in the forested part of heaven, Alexis! I don't like clouds."

Pastor Leonard Flachman didn't just give me some wonderful presents: he also gave me contact information for Randolph E. Haugan's granddaughter (the daughter of Keith and Mary Ingbritsen) who, when we spoke on the phone, was most cordial about arranging a meeting with her parents.

But, most important of all, in those few short hours Leonard also gave me a life lesson.

— Alexis

Reminiscing with Christmas: An American Annual of Christmas Literature and Art — Leonard Flachman and Karen Walhof in Minneapolis, August 2013. (Photo © Crèchemania.) 

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