Christmases Long, Long Ago: The Evolution of Christmas in the 19th and 20th Centuries

Dr. David Childs, Ph.D., D.D.
Northern Kentucky University

Introduction
Popular lyrics from Andy Williams’ song “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of Year” state:

It’s the hap-happiest season of all
With those holiday greetings and gay happy meetings
When friends come to call It’s the hap-happiest season of all
There’ll be parties for hosting
Marshmallows for toasting And caroling out in the snow
There’ll be scary ghost stories
And tales of the glories of Christmases long, long ago.

These lyrics evoke a nostalgia of supposed better, happier and more innocent times gone by. While historians understand that no era was the idealistic, utopian perfect world depicted in songs, films or storybooks, there were times when Christmas observance was simpler and possessed more of a sincere, less complex and even minimalist approach to celebrating. In light of the holiday season this essay will offer a brief history of Christmas in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to help us understand how it has evolved over time in the US and Western society. 

Christmas in the 1800’s
Although Christmas celebrations date back to the third century, many of the Christmas traditions celebrated today have origins in the 1800’s. The nineteenth Century brought about a transformation of the Christmas holiday from a relatively quiet religious observance to a grand cultural celebration marked by tradition, transformation, and the influence of many European traditions. Indeed, Christmas traditions and customs developed during the 1800’s still impact holiday practices in the US and the Western world today. In the beginning of the nineteenth century, Christmas was a primarily religious holiday in many parts of the world. However, as the century progressed, the holiday underwent a gradual transformation, particularly in Western societies.

Many of the holiday traditions that people practice today in the Americas came from Europe. During the Victorian era Prince Albert of England (1819-1961) introduced the Christmas tree to England from his native Germany. It thus became a centerpiece of the season’s festivities and ultimately made its way to being a staple in North America. Christmas trees of the nineteenth and mid twentieth centuries were adorned with candles, sweets, and often elaborate handmade decorations.

Christmas Carols and Stories
Other major European contributions to Christmas holiday traditions during the nineteenth century were the emergence of classic Christmas stories and carols that still make up holiday traditions today. Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” was published in 1843 and became a major part of the Christmas narrative. The story captivated audiences with its timeless message of compassion, generosity, and the spirit of Christmas. Similarly, beloved carols such as Silent Night (1818), We Three Kings (1857), O Little Town of Bethlehem (1868), Away in a Manger (1885) and Hark! The Herald Angels Sing (1840) were written during that same era and found their way into the hearts and homes of people. Community-centered celebrations became more prevalent during this era. Carolers wandered the streets, spreading melodies of joy and cheer, while charitable efforts aimed at helping the less fortunate gained prominence during the holiday season becoming integral to the holiday spirit.

Gift Giving and Holiday Decorations
Also during this time the ancient tradition of gift giving, experienced a resurgence in the nineteenth century. While the exchanging of gifts had been a part of Christmas celebrations for centuries, it became more elaborate and widespread during this period. It was more popular –due to the lack of resources, to give handcrafted presents and small tokens of affection to family and friends, as opposed to contemporary times when most people purchase gifts. Likewise, Christmas decorations were often unique creations made by hand and started out as simple adornments at the beginning of the 1800s. By the end of the century holiday decorations became more elaborate and more prominent in homes and public spaces, including candles, wreaths, garlands, and the classic mistletoe. Accompanying the decorations and gifts were lavish Christmas dinners for those families that could afford to do such a thing. Popular foods for Christmases of the Victorian era included beef, veal, turkey, venison and goose, as well as chestnut pie, fruit cake and Christmas cookies. 

Christmas in Early to mid-1900’s
By the turn of the century Christmas had transformed from a primarily religious holiday to a season that highlighted notions of good cheer, happiness, family and by the mid twentieth century commercialism. During the early part of the 1900’s Christmas continued to be a time of family gatherings and traditional celebrations, but was also influenced by the changing times, thus changing perceptions of Christmas and the way people celebrated.

The Commercialization of Christmas
As Christmas celebrations became more popular and widespread, business minded individuals quickly saw ways to monetize the holiday season. In this way, one of the notable shifts from the 1800’s to 1900’s was the commercialization of Christmas. The popular era known as the roaring twenties saw the rise of consumer culture as many middle-class families had more disposable income. As such, Christmas became less centralized, simplistic, small town oriented, and folksy and became increasingly intertwined with marketing and advertising. Retailers took advantage of the season, promoting gift-giving and creating a festive ambiance to encourage shopping. This commercial aspect of Christmas began to permeate popular culture, shaping the way people approached the holiday. But even in the midst of commercialism there was still a sense of family orientation and closeness that was cultivated with new technology.

Advancement of Technology and Christmas
The rapid advance of technology played a significant role in how society began to define and experience Christmas. For example, as radio became more popular it helped bring holiday traditions such as carols and Christmas specials into homes more frequently. Radio and later television solidified traditional notions of family togetherness, bonding, happiness and holiday cheer, actions that define what is called in modern times, the Christmas spirit. Along with the radio and television, other technological advances in the twentieth century also changed the way we think about Christmas. As electricity became more and more available in people’s homes, electric Christmas lights replaced traditional candles, adding a new dimension to the festive decorations. These new traditions merged with old ones redefining modern ideas of Christmas.

Santa Claus
As the century progressed, the holidays became a blend of emerging cultural influences with iconic symbols associated with Christmas. Even centuries old traditions of the mythological figure of Santa Claus (Also known as Father Christmas, Papa Noel, Krampus, Kris Kringle and St. Nicholas, amongst others) was merged with more modern practices. In the 1930’s Coca-Cola’s depiction of Santa Claus in a red suit solidified the image of the jolly, gift-giving figure we recognize today. Along with televised versions of the famous poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas” by Clement Clarke Moore and other cartoons and films, the Santa Claus myth helped contribute to the holiday spirit and became ingrained in Christmas traditions.

Conclusion
The nineteenth century witnessed a marked transformation in how people celebrated Christmas in the US, shaping many of the traditions and customs that persist today. It was a period when the holiday evolved from a quiet religious observance to a vibrant cultural celebration and looked completely different by the turn of the century. As the twentieth century progressed, Christmas became a blend of timeless traditions and emerging cultural influences. Families continued to gather for festive meals, exchange gifts, and partake in religious services. However, the holiday also became more diverse, incorporating elements from various historical and sociocultural ideas as the US and the Western world became more diverse. In this way, tradition intertwined with progress, reflecting the changing face of society. Despite the shifts, the underlying spirit of Christmas — a time of love, generosity, and togetherness — remained steadfast, transcending the changing times and shaping the holiday as we know it today.

Teacher Resources
The history and culture surrounding the holidays is a topic that is often very exciting to students. Teachers can build upon this excitement to teach a little-known aspect of the history of the US and Western civilization, namely the history of Christmas traditions. Below we have included lesson plans and resources for teachers to use in their classroom in teaching about the history and culture surrounding holiday traditions. 

PBS Learning Holiday Activities
PBS Learning Holiday Videos
Holiday Lesson Materials from Edutopia
Teaching about Different Holiday Traditions
Nearpod Holiday Lessons
Christmas Around the World
Kwanza Activities and Lesson
7 Kwanzaa Activities for Elementary Students
Kwanza Lesson Ideas for Middle Schoolers
Lesson Plan Booster: Surprising Origins of Modern-Day Christmas Traditions
Christmas History Activity: Naughty or Nice?
Christmas History and Culture Lesson Plans
Christmas History & Activities for Kids
Christmas | Origin & Traditions

References
History of Christmas
The History of Christmas Traditions
Christmas in 19th Century America
America’s 19th Century Christmas Traditions: A Connection Between the Past and Present
A History of Santa Claus 
Christmas Through the Decades: Best Christmas Traditions From 1900 to Today
What Was Christmas Like in 1900?
The History of Christmas
History of Christmas Music
History of Christmas Lights
Gifts unwrapped: The history of Christmas presents

Please share what resources you find useful for your teaching.

We are open to feedback and discussion. If you see any typos or grammatical errors, please feel free to email the author and editor at the address below:

childsd1@nku.edu

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