Posted by: Brad Stanford | November 28, 2009

Norman Rockwell Is Dead. Long Live Norman Rockwell.

Norman Rockwell‘s art documented American history in a unique way. In hindsight, it’s difficult to tell if he recorded history, or simply painted the history everyone thought they were experiencing. And I say that with all due respect: the human tendency is to flee from pain, even in our own memories. Let me put it this way: the scenes of everyday life he painted probably happened just as you see them in his paintings. How much these images reflected the typical lifestyle is what I wonder about.

I suppose I’ll let the historians figure that one out.

What I find interesting is how his portrayal of American life has sometimes been set up as the lifestyle to strive for. Peaceful, innocent America, having Thanksgiving dinner in their Sunday best, is a great example. The image is called “Freedom From Want”, and was published in 1943. This was during a very depressed time in America – during World War II – where everyday food and supplies were being used for the war. The term “Victory Garden” (back in use today) reflects back on this time, where Americans were asked to grow food on their own properties, so that the main food supply could be diverted to the war effort. When Freedom… was published, it was easily the thanksgiving dinner that every American wanted that year. How many actually had one that looked like that is unknown.

There is an interesting revision of this art, created by Will Elder of Mad Magazine. The Redneck Thanksgiving is not the Thanksgiving dinner that everyone in America wants, but it is very honest about the dinner that many Americans get. With the impact of divorce, illness, and financial trouble, the lifestyle of many Americans is much less than the lifestyle they were sold as a child. It’s certainly not poverty, as the working American definition for poverty still remains something to the effect of “that which occurs in third world countries”. But it’s not far from it, either.

Thanks to wars, bailouts, and our own personal spending habits, many who try to achieve a Freedom From Want lifestyle in a Redneck Thanksgiving world end up feeling constantly defeated. In fact, many holiday family arguments are caused by some members having the expectation of Rockwell, while other members are resigned to Redneck. The former, trying to escape into what was, the latter submitted to what is. Neither have stopped to consider what should be.

Many people don’t have the time or inclination to think about what should be, and would be at a loss if one day everything else worked properly:

  • If taxes didn’t take your money, what would you spend it on? Would you save it?
  • If you actually voted in the perfect government, and it exposed your own irresponsibility, would you be willing to step up and fix it?
  • If your kids acted perfectly so as to hide the flaws that you have given them, and indeed the flaws that you have, would that make you happier, or just more able to hide from yourself?

Perhaps the holidays, like Redneck, make us more honest about ourselves than we want to be.

I have taught my kids that every endeavor works until humans are added into the mix. Every government works, every book is a bestseller, every house is perfect until a human comes in contact with the system, the product, the plan, or the layout. Our holiday plans are perfect until we enter into them. Our dreams as a nation are beautiful until we start tying to do them. The idea of open-heart surgery is attractive, until it’s my tun to have it, because only then does the reality set in: it’s quite painful, quite messy, and no one can ever be the same again afterwords.

If you’re chasing a culture-induced vision of how things should be this holiday season, chances are your hangover will be quite painful, but not because of the ingestion of adult beverages. It will be painful because the advertised “spirit of the holidays!” and the actual holidays themselves are so distant, separated by the number of seconds in the rest of the year that are joyless.

  • When you hate your job, it’s difficult to be thankful for anything else other than “not going into work” during thanksgiving. So even when you’re off, work is still on your mind.
  • When our kids don’t behave, and we have to show up at multiple family locations and reveal this fact (once again) to everyone, it reinforces what we don’t want to admit about our daily family lives – the very things we wanted the holidays to help us forget.
  • When the loved ones that we wanted to see during the holidays are no longer close, or even no longer living, we don’t know what to do. Loneliness is not what we want to feel, but it’s all we’ve got. Might as well submit.

Holidays are very stressful, aren’t they? Are they supposed to be? Is that what you want? If not, understand that it’s going to take some serious cutting to fix it. Like open-heart surgery, it’s going to be messy figuring out what holidays should look like from now on.

  • It’s messy to figure out what we’re made to do and pursue it.
  • It’s messy for our kids to reveal our own flaws to us, because we have to fix our own flaws before working on theirs, which are actually ours by proxy.
  • It’s messy to have to create a whole new family through relationships throughout the year, especially with the pain of lost relationships fresh on your mind.

But these are the things that will harvest a holiday season.

Norman Rockwell died in 1978. He left something behind that makes me think, and wonder, and decide, and move, even to this day. His images of the holidays were fueled by observances and wishes from every day life. My prayer is that we will all be brave enough and passionate enough to live every day in a way that will make people think, wonder, decide, and move on a daily basis. The holidays, then, will fit into our image of day-to-day life, rather than the other way around.

However historically accurate Norman Rockwell was in his work, he accurately portrayed the spirit and desire of that era. We must think of our lives in similar terms. What would you want Mr. Rockwell to observe and record of your life? Decide what that is and move to do it. Then watch your holidays be transformed from Redneck to Freedom.


  1. Wow. Heavy.

  2. Now we see things imperfectly as in a poor mirror, but then we will see everything with perfect clarity. All that I know now is partial and incomplete, but then I will know everything completely, just as God knows me now. 1 Corinthians 13:12

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