Sunday, December 15, 2013

Christmas at the Turn of the Century

Photo copyright by Library of Congress
Christmas at the turn-of-the-century was a simpler celebration than we know today. Many of the traditions we now enjoy began in the late 1800s.

Families often made Christmas gifts for one another rather than head to the shopping mall or department store. Christmas decorations were typically the natural sort: evergreens, mistletoe, holly, and ivy. Christmas carols were sung in homes with people accompanying on the piano. Imagine a home celebration without the distraction of computers and televisions!

1843 – The first Christmas card was drawn by illustrator John Callcott Horlsley for an English nobleman who wanted to send something different than his typical Christmas letter to his friends.  It was not long before Christmas cards became popular with full-color and embossed illustrations. The first cards were printed in Boston in 1874.

1860 – Thomas Nast, a famous American cartoonist, depicted Santa Claus for Harper’s Weekly. Nast’s Santa was patriotic with stars and stripes on his suit. Nast was also the person told us that Santa lived at the North Pole.

1865 – As Christmas trees became more popular, the manufacturing of Christmas tree ornaments began. Some of the popular ornaments were made of glass, wax, wool and paper. In 1880, Woolworth’s began to sell commercially produced ornaments. Trees were often decorated with strings of popcorn and baskets of sweets.

1880s – Macy’s store introduced elaborately decorated windows filled with dolls and toys from Germany, France, Austria and Switzerland.

1882 – The first electric Christmas tree lights appeared thanks to Thomas Edison. Until then, most people lit their trees with candles.

1889 - Christmas in the White House changed when President Benjamin Harrison’s family put up a Christmas tree. His children and grandchildren decorated the tree with toy soldiers and glass ornaments.

1897 – “Is There A Santa Claus?” An 8-year-old New York City girl wrote to the New York Sun newspaper asking whether or not Santa Clause existed. Her letter made history in this famous editorial response by Francis Pharcellus Church:

“Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus. It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias.”

1901 – Charity continued to be popular. In a letter to the editor of the Boston Globe, one person wrote:

“Every person purchasing a paper on Christmas Eve should pay the newsboy therefore five cents instead of the customary two. The amount will not be missed by the giver and a great good will result.”

As Christmas became more commercialized, people began to head to stores to purchase gifts for their loved ones. Typical gifts might include: (for mom) a fan, scarf or thimble; (for dad) slippers, an umbrella or cigar case; (for grandma) a bookmark or pomander; (for sister) a muff or doll; and (for brother) a stamp album or toboggan.




Jeffrey, Yvonne. “Christmas in the 1900s.” NetPlaces: Family Christmas.

McNamara, Robert. “The History of Christmas: Many of Our Traditions Began in the 19th Century.”

“A Victorian Christmas.” The Complete Victorian website. 2005.

 “Victorian Christmas At the Doll’s House Museum.”  Christmas website. 1996-2013. Victoriana Magazine.

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