Each year we add to our list of historical holiday moments of the Christmas holiday season – the good as well as the bad. Here is this year’s edition. Enjoy.
We all have our favorite holiday traditions from decking our hallways with Christmas decorations to the annual viewing of A Charlie Brown Christmas. But when did these traditions start? Who was the first department store Santa Claus? When was the first Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade? What is the most popular Christmas movie of all time?
Here’s a short trip through holiday history from 1823 to 2020 featuring the highs and lows of Christmas pop culture.
Nailing down which was the first song written about Christmas is difficult to do, but according to Billboard, the song “The Friendly Beasts” is one of the oldest songs that is still sung today. The French about the gifts that a donkey, cow, sheep, camel, and dove gave to Jesus at the Nativity was written sometime in the 14th century. Burl Ives is credited for being one of the first American singers to include the song on his 1952 album Christmas Day in the Morning.
The origins of when the first candy cane was made comes from folklore. It is said that the treat was first made in 1670 in Cologne, Germany when a candymaker was asked to make a stick candy that would keep the kids quiet during the Living Crèche tradition of Christmas Eve. Since giving candy to children during a worship service was unheard of, the choirmaster requested that the candymaker create the treat with a crook at the top to help the children remember the shepherds who visited baby Jesus. According to The Fact Site, over 1.7 billion candy canes are produced worldwide each year.
Twas the Night Before Christmas
A Visit from St. Nicolas (aka Twas The Night Before Christmas) was a poem written by Clement Clarke Moore in 1823. The poem has been credited for bringing uniformity to people’s notions on what Santa looks like and some of his personality traits. Before then, views about St. Nicolas varied a lot.
A Christmas Carol
Charles Dickens published the first edition of A Christmas Carol on December 19, 1843. It is said that it was Dicken’s own humiliation of a poor childhood that inspired him to write the story. The story was written in six weeks and since his last three books had been flops, his publishers refused to print it, so he had to self-publish the book. The very first movie based on A Christmas Carol (Scrooge or Marley’s Ghost) was made in 1901. Since then, many have created their own versions of the story. In 2011, The Smurfs: A Christmas Carol was created for home video. Dickens was not pleased.
The very first Christmas cards were created by John Calcott Horsley for Sir Henry Cole of London in 1843. Here is a photo of the first commercially produced card also designed by Horsley. It took Hallmark until 1910 to create its first cards.
1872 Wilhelm Füchtner, known as the “father of the nutcracker,” made the first commercial production of nutcrackers using the lathe to create many of the same design. In 1995, George and Arlene Wagner opened their Nutcracker Museum in Leavenworth, WA. It features over 6,000 nutcrackers.
Electric Christmas Lights
It as was only three years after Thomas Edison invented the light bulb that Edward Hibberd Johnson created the very first string of electric Christmas tree lights. The first string of Christmas lights were created in 1882 and featured 80 red, white and blue lights. Up until this time, families would decorated their trees with candles. However, the first electric lights weren’t cheap. It is estimated that wealthy families would pay up to $300 for an electrician to string the lights on their Christmas tree.
The First Department Store Santa
While it is commonly believed that the very first department store to feature in-person visits with Santa Claus was Macy’s but the truth is, he first appeared at a little know dry goods store located on Main Street in Brockton, Massachusetts. In 1890, James Edgar purchased a Santa costume taylored for him and set up the first Santa meet-and-greet a couple weeks before Christmas. News traveled quickly and within day, children from as far away as Boston and Providence traveled by train to meet the jolly old elf. By the next year, Santa began appearing in major department stores all across the country.
Salvation Army Kettles
The very first Salvation Army kettle was created and used in San Francisco, CA in 1891. Today kettles are used as far away as Korea, Japan and Chile helping over 29 million people each year. In some locations, the ringing of the bells is considered an annoyance so some bell ringers hold a bell-shaped sign that says “ding ding.” In 2019, the charity began taking electronic donations at the kettles.
The Nutcracker Ballet
The two-act ballet, The Nutcracker was originally choreographed by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov with Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky providing the score. It premiered in St. Petersburg in 1892. Initially, it was not a success. Today, just about every city in the U.S. has at least one production performing every year.
Yes Virginia …
In 1897, eight-year-old Virginia O’Hanlon wrote a letter to the editor of New York’s Sun asking him if indeed there was a Santa Claus. Francis Pharcellus Church responded quickly with the famous, yet unsigned, newspaper editorial. It has since become history’s most reprinted newspaper editorial, appearing in part or whole in dozens of languages in books, movies, and other editorials.
Used as a promotional tool for the American Lung Association, Christmas Seals went on sale for the first time on this day in 1907. Emily Bissell came up with the idea after she had read about similar Danish seals used in 1904. Bissell hoped to raise funds for a sanitarium in Delaware. In 1908, the stamps were used nationally to promote the National Association for the Study and Prevention of Tuberculosis (which later became the American Lung Association) and the National Red Cross (which later discontinued their involvement).
Macy’s popular Frango Mints first began as a frozen dessert served at the Tea Room at the Frederick & Nelson department stores in the Northwest in 1918. The candy version of this treat didn’t arrive until 1927. In 1996, Frederick & Nelson closed its doors for the last time but the product was sold to The Bon Marche’ (which later became Macy’s) to continue the tradition.
The Coca-Cola Bears
Some people think that the Coca-Cola bears are a fairly new invention, but they’re not. The first polar bear that showed up in a print ad for Coca-Cola appeared in France in 1922. Since that time, Coca-Cola has used the bears in its advertising sporadically. The first TV commercial using the polar bears didn’t air until 1993 but they have been used every year since.
Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade
Debuting in 1924, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade has become the world’s largest parade and has only been suspended from 1942 to 1944 due to World War II. The first parade featured Macy’s employees marching to its Herald Square location on 34th Street in New York. With an audience of 250,000 people, the parade featured floats, marching bands, live animals from the Central Park Zoo and of course, Santa who became the “King of the Kiddies” at the balcony at the store’s entrance. The first giant balloons to be featured in the parade were shown in 1928 (replacing the animals). The parade was first broadcast on TV in 1948 and Milton Berle was one of the first TV performers in 1949. Broadway numbers were first introduced in 1975. In 2020, Macy’s announced that the parade will go on as usual, but only for a television audience due to the Coronavirus.
The Coca-Cola Santa
Coca-Cola first produced magazine ads featuring a friendly Santa Claus in a red suit in 1931. This depiction of Santa was based on Thomas Nast’s 1881 illustrations used for the poem, The Night Before Christmas. However, up until 1931, the jolly old elf was portrayed in a variety of ways. It was Coke’s contribution that helped solidify what St. Nick really looks like.
Christmas Tree at Rockefeller Center
The very first unofficial Christmas tree ceremony held at Rockefeller Plaza occurred in December 1931 when a group of demolition workers at the Center’s construction site collected money to purchase a 20-foot-tall Christmas tree. The tree was later decorated with handmade garlands created by the worker’s families. Today, it is estimated that more than half a million people will pass by the tree every day. NBC has aired the ceremony live ever since 1997.
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
Rudolph, the 9th reindeer with the red nose, first appeared in a booklet written by Robert L. May for Montgomery Ward department stores in 1939 as a promotional gimmick. The song about the red-nosed wonder wasn’t released until 1949 by both Harry Brannon and Gene Autry. Still later, the Rankin/Bass stop motion TV special first aired in 1964, and has been shown every year ever since.
Irving Berlin wrote the song “White Christmas” for Bing Crosby’s movie, Holiday Inn in 1940, but the movie wasn’t released until 1942. Ironically, the same set from the movie was reused for the Crosby’s other similar movie, White Christmas in 1954. The song remains Crosby’s best-selling recording and the best-selling Christmas single of all-time.
It’s a Wonderful Life
Frank Capra first introduced America to It’s a Wonderful Life starring James Stewart and Donna Reed in 1946 and soon everyone knew that every time a bell rings, a angel earns its wings. Despite how popular the film is today and how Americans feel about the sentimentality, it was initially a financial flop. According to IMDB, it is ranked #1 as the most popular Christmas movie. Die Hard is #2. The movie is shown on NBC once or twice during the holidays.
Frosty the Snowman
Like Rudolph, Frosty the Snowman became known as a part of Christmas when songwriters Walter Rollins and Steve Nelson wrote about how a snowman came to life when a magic hat was placed on his head. The first version of the song was recorded by Gene Autry and the Cass County Boys in 1950 and later by Jimmy Durante who also was the host of the 1969 Rankin/Bass Productions’ holiday special. The animated special was followed by three Rankin/Bass sequels (Frosty’s Winter Wonderland in 1976, Rudolph and Frosty’s Christmas in July in 1979 and The Legend of Frosty the Snowman in 2005) as well as the lackluster non-Rankin/Bass special, Frosty Returns in 1992. In July of 2020, Warner Bros. announced that a live-action adaptation of the story was in development and would star Jason Momoa.
In 1955, Sears Roebuck and Co. misprinted a telephone number to put children in touch with Santa Claus. The number went straight to NORAD. Colonel Harry Shoup had his staff “check” the radar for Santa for those who called. Today, children (and adults) can check on Santa’s whereabouts when they visit the NORAD website.
The ‘I Love Lucy’ Christmas Special
In 1956, CBS’s I Love Lucy aired a Christmas episode that was never shown in reruns. It was considered the “lost” episode until 1989 when the network aired the episode as a Christmas special. In recent years, CBS has rebroadcast the special in a colorized format along with an additional colorized episode.
How the Grinch Stole Christmas
Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas was first published in 1957. In 1966, it became an animated holiday classic. The Grinch was voiced by Boris Karloff and the hit song was sung by Thurl Ravenscroft who was also the original voice of Tony the Tiger for Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes cereal. A Broadway show based on the story arrived in 1994 and a live action feature film starring Jim Carrey as the green guy was made in 2000. In 2018, Universal released a new animated movie of the story that starred Benedict Cumberbatch voicing the Grinch.
Langston Hughes’ Black Nativity, A Gospel Celebration debuted off Broadway in 1961. Many years later, it continues to be produced annually in numerous major cities throughout the US. In 2013, a new movie that was inspired by the play debuted in theaters. It starred Forest Whitaker, Angela Bassett, Tyrese Gibson, Jennifer Hudson and Mary j. Blige.
A Charlie Brown Christmas
CBS’ A Charlie Brown Christmas TV special aired for the first time in 1965. It was the first of many Peanuts specials. At the time, executives tried to persuade Charles Schulz from having Linus quote from the Gospel of Luke thinking that it would turn off viewers. Instead, 50% of all TVs in the U.S. tuned into the first broadcast. The special continued to air on CBS until 2001 when the rights went to ABC. In turn, ABC aired the special numerous times through 2019. In 2020, AppleTV+ bought the rights to the special removing the special from broadcast TV. Oh good grief!
The term “Black Friday” (the day after Thanksgiving) was first used in the 1960’s by Philadelphia police and cab drivers since they knew that the day would be full of bad traffic. Later in the 1980’s retailers began to embrace the notion that the name came from the date in which shops first began to see a profit, but this is untrue. The term has been watered down in recent years too. “Black Friday” has turned into a term used by retailers wanting to convey Black Friday-like savings throughout the year and many retailers have come to embrace the idea of opening, at least for a few hours, on Thanksgiving Day.
This made up holiday “for the rest of us” is celebrated on December 23. Most Americans became familiar with Festivus from the Seinfeld TV series which aired on December 18, 1997, but this day was actually created in 1966. According to author Daniel O’Keefe, the date celebrated his first date with his future wife. His son, Dan O’Keefe wrote for Seinfeld and included the family tradition in the episode which included the traditions of the Festivus pole, the airing of grievances and feats of strength.
Christmas with the Brady Bunch
On November 2, 1970, Paramount Records released the infamous Christmas album, Christmas from the Brady Bunch. The album featured classic Christmas tunes sung by the six original Brady kids. Given that the children were actors and not necessarily singers, the results are mixed. In 1988, the “family” reunited for the made-for-TV movie, A Very Brady Christmas which aired on CBS. It still airs on a few channels each year.
Hallmark Keepsake Ornaments
Hallmark introduced six glass balls and 12 yarn figures as the first collection of Hallmark Keepsake Ornaments in 1973. Since then, the company has introduced more than 3,000 different ornaments and for many families, they are Christmas tradition.
A Year Without a Santa Claus
Two side characters, Snow Miser and Heat Miser, almost stole the show when Rankin/Bass Productions produced A Year Without a Santa Claus in 1974. The stop-motion TV special featured the voices of Shirley Booth as Mrs. Claus who had to take matters into her own hands when Santa (Mickey Rooney) came down with a cold just before Christmas. But it was Dick Shawn and George S. Irving’s characters that everyone remembers the most. In 2006, NBC won the rights to create a live-action remake starring John Goodman (Santa), Delta Burke (Mrs. Claus), Michael McKean (Snow Miser) and Harvey Fierstein (Heat Miser). While the original continues to be shown each year, the latter is no where to be found.
David Bowie and Bing Crosby
David Bowie recorded a duet for a Bing Crosby Christmas special in September of 1977. The two had never met beforehand and Bowie didn’t even know who Crosby was. The “Peace on Earth” and “Little Drummer Boy” combo became a big hit. However, Crosby didn’t live to see the song’s success. He passed away in October of that same year.
Star Wars Holiday Special
CBS aired the notoriously bad Star Wars Holiday Special in 1978 for the first and last time. To this day, George Lucas barely acknowledges its’ existence and the show has never been re-telecast or officially released on home video. Rare clips from the special can be found from time to time on YouTube, but most fans would just like to pretend that it never happened. Ironically, Disney+ will air a LEGO-themed parody of the special this year.
Cabbage Patch Kids
Love them or hate them, but in 1983, 5,000 parents and grandparents staged a near riot at the Hills Department Store in Charleston, W. VA trying to get their hands on the latest fad for Christmas gifts for their kids.
A Christmas Story
This movie wasn’t a hit when it came to theaters in 1983, but since then it has become a cult classic. Based on Jean’s Shepherd’s semi-fictional book, In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash, the film starred Melinda Dillon, Darren McGavin, and Peter Billingsley. The story focused mainly on little Ralphie’s desire to acquire a Red Ryder Carbine Action 200-shot Range Model air rifle while being told repeatedly that he would shoot his eye out. The comedy is so popular, TBS or TNT has shown 12 consecutive airings of the film back-to-back on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day since 1997.
Disney Christmas Parade
In 1983, Disney Parks created a new tradition for some families creating its first Christmas Day Parade special. The company has run a similar special every year since with the exception of a “Tracking Santa” special in 2000. The 2005 edition won a Daytime Emmy Award. No word yet if a new special will appear this year.
The very first versions of “E-Cards” were created in 1984 and they were all the rage. Many thought the electronic cards would make traditional Christmas cards obsolete. While people are not sending paper cards like they used to, they aren’t really sending many e-cards either.
Folger’s Classic TV Commercial
Folger’s showed the “Peter Comes Home” commercial for the first time in 1986. It aired every year until 2009 when a new version was created. The newer one doesn’t hold the emotional weight of the original, but old one is pretty worn out.
Hershey’s Kisses Christmas Commercial
Ever since 1989, Hershey’s has been ringing those bells. This iconic ad features 11 kisses representing bells and playing the Christmas tune “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.”
Jeanne Pieper practically started a movement when she published her book, A Special Place for Santa that tells about Santa visiting the Nativity. Soon, figures of kneeling Jesus’ were popping up all over the place. While the message being portrayed is that is important for us to not forget the “reason for the season,” some Christians feel that there is “no room in the inn” for Santa.
The Simpsons is not only the longest running animated television series, but also one of the longest running TV series period. In 1989, “Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire” was the first full-length episode of The Simpsons to air on FOX as a TV holiday special. Surprisingly sweet and with a touch less sarcasm than the show it became, it was viewed by approximately 13.4 million viewers.
Tickle Me Elmo
Similar to the great Cabbage Patch Doll fiasco of ’83, Tyco created mass hysteria in 1996 with the creation of Tickle Me Elmo. Based on the cute little monster featured on Sesame Street, when a child squeezed his tummy, he would giggle and shake. The product was a too big of a hit and caused parents to fight for the few left on store shelves weeks before Christmas.
Campbell’s Soup Snowman
While not technically a Christmas-theme commercial, Campbell’s Soup’s “Let it Snow” commercial is aired numerous times through the winter months as has done so since 1995. It features a snowman who goes inside to enjoy a nice bowl of hot soup but he turns out to be a boy who had been outside a little too long.
M&Ms and Santa
The first TV commercial where Red and Yellow, the mascots for M&M candies, meet Santa for the first time was presented in 1996. Both parties utter the phrase, “They do exist” and then both Santa and Red faint because of the realization.
Starbucks’ Red Cups
For some, nothing signals the arrival of the Christmas season more than coffee drinkers sipping from Starbucks red cups. They were first created in 1997. In 2015, there was small uproar from Christians complaining that the coffee giant had given up on Christmas when they decided to go with just plain red cups with no design. At the time, Starbucks said that they wanted to give their customers a “blank pallet” to create their own holiday cups. To many peoples surprise, the company released many of these original designs in 2016.
Elf on the Shelf
The first “official” Elf on the Shelf book was written in 2004 by Carol Aebersold and her daughter Chanda Bell. However, this elf wasn’t exactly a new idea. In 1946, similar elves called “knee-huggers” were first imported from a company called Yuletide of Japan. Not to be outdone, years later Gill Hoffman created the “Mench on a Bench” for Jewish kids.
The term “Cyber Monday” was first used to describe one of the biggest online shopping days of the year in 2005. It is held the Monday after Thanksgiving. In recent years, Black Friday has become less popular. 2015 became the most profitable Cyber Monday to date for retailers. So much so that Target.com shut down due to the overwhelming response from shoppers.
The War on Christmas
Some non-profit organizations petitioned for boycotts of various retail stores demanding that they use the term “Christmas” rather than “Holiday” in 2005. Many retailers have refrained from using “Merry Christmas” in their advertising so that they wouldn’t offend some customers. By doing so, they did exactly what they didn’t want to do. Today, it is still tricky for some retailers. For instance, Target stores proudly say “Merry Christmas” when you enter their stores, but they still sell “holiday” trees.
The Nativity Story
New Line Cinema released The Nativity Story in 2006. The film is one of the few focused solely on the events leading up to the birth of Christ. It also made history as being the first film ever to stage its world premiere in the Vatican City.
Small Business Saturday
In 2010, knowing that smaller stores and businesses really couldn’t compete against larger, national chain stores on Black Friday, American Express came up with the idea of promoting local small businesses in 3010 with Small Business Saturday. The idea has caught on and today, many shoppers do just that.
Christmas Myth Billboards
American Atheists began producing “myth” billboards to bring home the point that they don’t believe in God and that others shouldn’t either around 2011. This stunt continues to annoy and sadden Christians everywhere each year.
GivingTuesday was created in 2012 as a national day of giving and was added to the calendar on the Tuesday following Thanksgiving, Black Friday and Cyber Monday.
The World’s Largest Nativity
In 2014, audiences at Rock Canyon Park in Provo, Utah might have possibly seen the most impressive live nativity reenactment since the real thing. Breaking the Guiness World Record, 1,039 volunteers showed up for the non denominational Christian ceremony which also featured The Piano Guys and The Mormon Tabernacle Choir. The previous record contained 898 people.
In 2016, Disney and Intel were the first in America to use 300 drones for a new show experience over the skies at Disney Springs at the Walt Disney Worlds Resort. “Starbright Holidays – An Intel Collaboration” invited guests to wish upon a holiday star and enjoy the choreographed show.
The Doughboy and Santa
Pillsbury has created at least two endearing holiday commercials that feature Pop-n-Fresh (aka The Doughboy) and Santa. In 2009, the Doughboy offers a cookie to Santa and later in 2017, the company created one where Santa would poke the little fellow in his tummy and Pop would say, “Hee, hee, hee.” Then Pop would poke the Big Guy in his stomach and he would respond with “Ho, ho, ho.”
Produced by Sony Pictures Animation, with a partnership from Walden Media, Affirm Firms and The Jim Henson Company, The Star, the first animated movie about the nativity story was released in theaters in 2017. It starred the voice talent of Steven Yeun, Gina Rodriguez, Zachary Levi, Keegan-Michael Key, Kelly Clarkson, Patricia Heaton, Kristin Chenoweth, Tracy Morgan, Tyler Perry, and Oprah Winfrey. The film’s main song was sung by Mariah Carey.
Pizza Candy Canes
In 2013, the “big” gift idea were giant versions of favorite candy bars such as Snickers and Reeses Peanut Butter Cups. In 2019, Archie McPhee’s introduced the world to pizza-flavored candy candy which are supposedly baked in candy-fired oven by Sicilian elves. If that flavor doesn’t excite you, the Seattle-based company also offers other flavors including ham, kale, clam, mac ‘n cheese, dill pickle and bacon.
2020: Another Year Without a Santa Claus
Due to the Coronavirus pandemic, the department store chain Macy’s announced on this day in 2020 that Santa Claus would not be making an appearance in its stores ending a 159-year holiday tradition. Since 1947, children have climbed up on Santa’s lap to tell him what they wanted for Christmas, but not this year. But Santa will still make an appearance through a “virtual engagement” on the company’s website from November 27 through December 24 and Santa will appear in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade but that too will be limited. It will be shown for television audiences only.
For more pop culture history, visit This Day in Pop Culture.
I write about pop culture, arts and entertainment in the greater Seattle area.