Giving Presents to the People: How Louis Sherry embraced the Christmas Tradition

The Christmas Spirit

There really is nothing like the holidays. A time as integrated into American culture as Christmas can easily be pictured in the mind of any of its citizens. Hopefully they don’t consider it too much as the time draws nearer, lest they be caught up in the anticipation and drive themselves crazy waiting for it to come. No other event has the power to universally motivate people to save their money while simultaneously tempting them into splurging it all, whether that be on a well-deserved vacation, a few gifts to show how much they care, or an indulgent, fresh feast to give them solace from the Winter chills. Nowadays the Christmas spirit is embraced by everything that people have a hand in, and it’s no wonder given how much profit said spirit can bring. However, such revelry and community celebration took a long time to evolve out of what was originally, and still is to many, a religious holiday.

A fine example of businesses embracing the Christmas tradition can be seen with the Louis Sherry restaurant’s 1949 Christmas Dinner menu. Would you look at that, it even says “Christmas Greetings” on it. Compared to the usual menu style, this one leans heavily into visual appeal with a revamped font, color scheme, and some Christmas art thrown in. The great thing is they were only able to do this because of the limited menu which, again, looks nothing like the usual one.

Louis Sherry 1949 Christmas Dinner Menu
Louis Sherry 1946 Dinner Menu

Now, the history of Christmas goes back over 1600 years, and 1949 is pretty far down that timeline. You could probably imagine seeing a menu like this in a restaurant today, so it might seem like the attitude toward Christmas didn’t change too much for the recent part of its history, but that would imply this menu isn’t special. It is.

Louis Sherry

After working as a maître d’hotel, Louis Sherry went to New York to open his first confectionary shop. This is where he got his start, in sweets such as chocolates and ice cream, but Sherry eventually outgrew this phase. His experience serving high society clientele eventually found him the desire to play ball with the big boys. In 1890 Sherry opened his new restaurant in a building with a large and small ballroom along with the actual restaurant, finding success in establishing patronage in the area. However, when he moved his restaurant in 1896 to an even bigger and more extravagant building, Sherry was able to fight for dominance of the New York’s 400, some of the most prestigious clientele in the city, being a rival to the great Delmonico’s restaurant for over 20 years.

“Sherry’s Closes Noted Restaurant; Park Ave. Building Will Be Razed,” The New York Times, 01 Aug 1952
“NEW LOUIS SHERRY’S OPENS: 500 of Society Attend Dinner in Park Avenue Restaurant,” The New York Times, 03 Nov 1921

Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end, and Sherry eventually closed his businesses in the wake of Prohibition and his dissatisfaction with his staff. Despite that, he opened up a new confectionery shop and restaurant only 2 years later. This restaurant at 300 Park Avenue was the last restaurant to open before the formation of Louis Sherry Incorporated, which worked primarily with hotels, and the death of Sherry himself in 1926. That makes this restaurant a very special one, and despite the loss of the visionary behind it, it continued to operate for nearly 30 years after.

300 Park Avenue

Going back to the Louis Sherry menu, the Restaurant was built into an apartment hotel, already a prime spot for business. On the ground floor there was a large formal restaurant as well as a smaller informal one. On floors above, the trend of adjoining ballrooms and banquet halls continued. Being able to appeal to both a formal and informal audience was always a strength of these types of restaurants, but it wasn’t just this that made it easier for Sherry’s to adopt the Christmas spirit. Louis Sherry is quoted as saying “nothing goes further with dainty people than dainty decorations.” He always stressed the novelties of service that he had learned as far back as his days waiting tables. When the Mikado, an opera with the setting of Japan, came to New York, Sherry cornered the market with Japanese parasols and ornaments for decorating cream and cakes. This attitude of appealing to novelty naturally had a hand in encouraging putting on holiday dinner services. Keep in mind that these were not just services open on the holiday, which is already rare enough, but services with a completely unique menu and atmosphere meant to draw people in.

300 Park Ave entrance
Jazz Age Club

There was always a hesitancy from some Christians to commercialize Christmas, especially when it came to more personal and intimate events like Christmas dinner, but if any restaurant had the backlog to prove they could do it, it would be Sherry’s. The ballrooms in their restaurants are not just for show or for people to just hang out in. They are there to put on events, and at the time when his restaurants were most popular, Sherry excelled in a new trend of staging private functions at his ballrooms and dining rooms. He was establishing a new tradition in his upper class clientele. Instead of hosting events that would traditionally be held privately in one’s own home, they would rent out his extravagant dining halls and ballrooms to celebrate in luxury. If an event is special, then it should be treated as special. These events were formal in how classy the decor and environment was while also being informal in how one was able to socialize in a way that was more open than they were used to. And of course, these events were always catered by the restaurant. This precedent, along with the natural development of attitudes towards restaurants, served as the perfect basis to bring Christmas dinner to a restaurant table.

Display Ad, The New York Times, 07 Dec 1937

Let’s also not forget that Sherry’s was first and foremost a confectionary shop. Buying Christmas chocolates and gifts at stores like these had been common for quite some time, and to this day they are still popular and sought after Christmas gifts. Again, Sherry’s was no stranger to marketing to holiday spirit, so serving Christmas Dinner wasn’t too much of a stretch. What’s more impressive is the fact that they were open on Sunday. All of their previous menus clearly say that Sunday is the one day Sherry’s is not open for business. This is not an uncommon feature of restaurants at this time for a number of reasons. Days early in the week were often slower than other days, many people observed Sunday as a day of rest for religious reasons, and for a long time there was a heavy presence of “Blue Laws” which prohibited certain activities on Sundays. This did not stop Sherry’s however, and in fact, it may have been this religious clientele that the restaurant was trying to appeal to. 300 Park avenue is in close proximity to two famous churches, with both St. Bartholomew’s Church and St. Patrick’s Cathedral being less than 2 blocks away.

1930s WPA guide to New York City
(Sherry’s is 4, St. Bartholomew’s is 6)

Because they were only open for dinner and they were fully embracing traditional Christmas food, the menu was kept fairly scarce compared to what was typical for a Sherry restaurant. This works out, however, as they are able to display their most Christmas dish front and center: The Roast Young Turkey with Chestnut Stuffing, Giblet, and Cranberry Sauce. I’ve never seen a dish scream Christmas at me like this before. Well, except for maybe the Giblets.

Louis Sherry’s motto seemed to come to light when he said “I do not let anything go out of my house that was not made in the best possible way, out of the best and most expensive materials on the market.” I believe that, in my cooking of this dish, I can embody this motto completely. After all, it won’t be leaving my house.

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