‘Tis the Christmas season, the time when so many of us trot out the evergreen tree, string it with lights and, even in Florida, dream of a snow-filled Christmas. We declare the “official” start of the holiday season as the day after Thanksgiving. All of these are modern traditions, but why?
Many of our traditions have been passed down through the ages and from other cultures; others sprouted from the clever minds of successful entrepreneurs. Let’s take a quick step back in time and discover where some of our more commercialized holiday traditions originated.
Most folks consider the period immediately after Thanksgiving to be the traditional start of the Christmas season. Why is that? Look no further than your TV set and the annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Macy’s kicked off its first event, then called the Macy’s Christmas Parade, in 1924 to celebrate its newly expanded, 1-million-square-foot flagship store in Manhattan and to whet consumers appetite for the upcoming holiday season. While not the first department store-sponsored parade (New York Public Library archives mention a “Raggamuffin Parade,”) it was more spectacular than previous efforts, making Macy’s synonymous with Thanksgiving and the beginning of the Christmas shopping season. Check out the timeline for the Macy’s Day Parade.
Along with Santa, a character from Christmas central casting we regularly pay homage to is Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.
According to some sources, people first associated reindeer with Santa’s preferred mode of transportation with the 1821 publication of a children’s book by New York writer William Gilley, according to the Ohio State Library.
Then, in 1823, the Sentinel, a Troy, New York paper, published the famed poem, “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” better known as “The Night Before Christmas,” cementing the idea of flying reindeer as part of Christmas lore.
But what about Rudolph in particular?
Rudolph first bounded into the public’s consciousness in 1939 when Montgomery Ward began distributing booklets featuring the crimson-nosed success story as a promotional effort, according to the Smithsonian Institution, which also says the department store distributed an estimated 2.4 million copies of the book during the first year alone.
In subsequent years, the brother-in-law of Rudolph’s creator would pen lyrics and music to celebrate the now-famous reindeer. In 1949, cowboy crooner Gene Autry took to a microphone to record the second best-selling Christmas tune of all time.
And what is the top holiday anthem? That honor belongs to “White Christmas.” The best-selling Christmas song of all time was written by Jewish composer Irving Berlin. Berlin claimed he intuitively knew he had a hit on his hands – and he was right. In fact, the Guinness Book of Records notes that not only is it the top-selling Christmas tune, but at 50 million copies sold it is the best-selling recording single ever.
And why do folks dream of a white Christmas even in the Sunshine State? Partial credit can go to Currier & Ives, a nineteenth century company that produced popular lithograph prints of winter wonderland scenes. These images have been reproduced through the years on everything from cookie tins and calendars to dishes.
For those who stand on tradition, it’s good to know the digital age hasn’t done away with buying and mailing printed Christmas greetings. The first official Christmas card originated in England in 1843, sent by the founder of the Victoria and Albert Museum, Henry Cole. The Kansas City-based Hall Brothers (now Hallmark) created a folded card/envelope set in 1915. According to the Greeting Card Association, more than 1.6 billion holiday cards continue to be sold annually.
It was 1962 when the U.S. Post Office first introduced Christmas stamps for those holiday card envelopes. The first stamp, priced at 4 cents, featured a simple red-and-green design of a wreath and candles. Sales were robust, encouraging the postal service to continue the tradition.
While school history books credit entrepreneur Thomas Edison with numerous inventions, they may not mention that he and partner Edward Hibberd Johnson first lit up a New York Christmas tree in 1882 by stringing one with electric bulbs, according to Jamie Malanowski via Smithsonian Magazine. By 1914, the lights were being mass produced. Today, Americans buy approximately 150 million sets of lights each year.
Perhaps no discussion about the commercialized Yuletide season would be complete without mentioning one of the newer holiday traditions: wearing ugly Christmas sweaters. Legend has it that we can thank our Canadian neighbors for establishing this modern custom that took off during the 1980s. Thanks neighbors! For more information on how to celebrate with this festive sartorial custom, you might want to pick up your own used copy of “The Ugly Christmas Sweater Party Book.”