Remember when the holiday season was all about a break from school, spending time with family? That’s because you were a kid.
The “commercialization” of Christmas isn’t a new thing. Adults, even those with a hearty helping of cheer, have been contending with financial stress at this time of year since before Christmas was celebrated in the United States.
That’s right. BEFORE America celebrated Christmas.
Winter celebrations have almost always been a critical part of helping humans get through the long winter months. Examples include:
- Yule – In Scandinavia, the Norse would pick out a special piece of wood and set it on fire at the winter solstice. They would then celebrate until the fire went out in about twelve days.
- Winter Solstice – In most of Europe, the time around the solstice was when fresh meat was plentiful, as the majority of cattle were slaughtered to avoid having to feed them throughout the winter. It was also the period in which the wine and beer had finished fermenting and was ready to drink. As a result, the weeks following were full of feasting and drunken merriment.
- Saturnalia – For a full month beginning December 21st, the Romans celebrated by allowing slaves to act as the masters and the city government be run by peasants.
It was not until around 350 AD that Pope Julius I declared December 25th as the Feast of Nativity. Two hundred years later, the holiday had reached the majority of Europe, where it was celebrated with a raucous, drunken party similar to Mardi Gras.
So, when the Puritans came to America in 1620, they very purposefully did not bring Christmas with them. The holiday and any displays of celebration of the event were illegal in Boston from 1659-1681.
However, as the US received more immigrants from other countries and religions, they brought their celebrations and traditions with them. While not a recognized holiday, the raucous celebration of Christmas seen in Europe resulted in yearly vandalism and mob-like activity. In 1828 New York implemented the first-ever police force in response to an exceptionally violent Christmas riot.
Marketing “Saves” Christmas
In response to the escalating issues around winter celebrations, some influential groups enacted a series of marketing and public relations campaigns to change the way Americans celebrated Christmas.
- 1819 – “The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, gent.”, written by Washington Irving, depicted a Christmas celebration in which a squire invites the local peasants into his home for the holidays. The event is depicted as a peaceful, heart-warming celebration. Historians agree the book is a work of complete fiction which “invented” traditions while implying they were the actual customs intended for the holiday.
- 1843 – “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens was designed to impart the holiday with a meaning of kindness and charity to all. The message appealed to a society already becoming more focused on family and the emotional needs of children.
- 1822 – Episcopal minister Clement Clark Moore wrote the poem, “An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas”. The poem introduced the modern idea of Santa Clause from its very first line ‘Twas the night before Christmas…
- 1848 – Godey’s Lady’s Book, the most widely-read magazine at the time, published an illustration depicting Queen Victoria and her family gathered around a decorated tree, popularizing the decoration of pine trees.
- 1841 – A department store in Philadelphia created a life-size Santa model to attract children and families into their store.
- 1862 – Macy’s introduces the first real-life Santa greeting display.
- 1875 – Print shop owner Louis Prang introduced the first mass-produced Christmas card. Many people collected the original versions similar to how people currently collect coins or stamps. Each year’s latest renditions were critically reviewed by experts in the local and national newspapers.
- 1880 – Department store owner F.W. Woolworth arranges to mass-produce sphere-shaped ornaments in Germany to sell them at lower prices in the US.
- 1881 – Popular cartoonist Thomas Nast creates the first well-known renditions of Santa Claus based on the poem by Clement Clark Moore.
- 1931 – Coca-Cola hires artist Haddon Sundblom to create the jolly red-and-white wearing Santa Clause we know today.
- 1939 – Robert L. May pens a poem about a strangely red-nosed reindeer saving Christmas for Montgomery Ward Department Store. The story of Rudolph helped entice children with free coloring books. The poem was turned into a song in 1949. General Electric would pay to turn the song into a claymation movie in 1964.
The result was a completely new, wholly American Christmas designed to focus on family and generosity – while down-playing the rabble-rousing violence and excess of past celebrations. While arguably “saving” Christmas from continuing to be a wild and dangerous ride, the entrepreneurs and artists of the 19th and 20th centuries took the opportunity to create new, wholesome family traditions while also building a holiday from which they could continue to profit for years to come.
The truth is traditional American Christmas has always been hard on the pocketbook. But, with a little planning, it is possible to enjoy the holidays. Find out more here.