Christmas is a holiday full of so many traditions — and yet, all of those traditions have to come from somewhere. Traditions easily come from past trends, so it's worth looking at the past 100 years of Christmas trends to help make sense of why we celebrate this holiday in all the ways we do.
Ever wonder why we hang round ornaments on our Christmas trees, or where the idea for stringing up lights came from? How about popcorn/cranberry garlands? Also, why in the world do people put candles in windows during the holiday season? All of these traditions came from celebrated trends back in the day. Although the origin of some of our trends — such as endless movie marathons during Hallmark channel's Countdown To Christmas — are a bit unknown (like most trends that seem to pop out of no where), these are trends that came from a specific time and place, and flourished from those who experienced it first-hand.
Think about it — some of the trends this year could be next year's traditions — such as everyone's obsession with red wine hot chocolate this year. Here are some of the trends that took place back in the day, that have now become Christmas staples.
First, let’s go three years back to 1907 when store window displays started to become a popular way to celebrate the holidays. Specifically, according to Smithsonian Mag, this was the year that Marshall Field and Company in Chicago started to decorate their windows, while also celebrating Christmas with a newly opened restaurant called The Walnut Room (which is still open today, may I add). Years later, Marshall Field’s (which is now Macy’s) went completely all out with their decorations, along with many other well known stores such as Saks Fifth Avenue in New York.
This decade also marks the first film release of the iconic tale A Christmas Carol, written by Charles Dickens. Although there are multiple versions of this story on film today, this black and white silent film — which only lasts 11 minutes — stole the hearts of many and soon became a Christmas watching tradition.
Also, in 1910, this was the year that glass ornaments were manufactured in the United States. Originally, according to PBS, people would hang up handmade ornaments, which were typically made with tinsel, fabric, thread, and other crafty items. Yet, when a man named Frank Woolworth in Lancaster, Pennsylvania discovered that many German immigrants would hang kugels (glass ornaments from Germany) on their tree, he decided to capitalize on the idea.
Although the first artificial tree was made in Germany in the 1800s, having a Goose feather tree was common in the 1920s. Metal wire and sticks were covered with feathers from geese, turkeys, ostriches, and swans. It was also common, given the lavish time period, to douse the Christmas tree with a lot of decorations, ribbons,pom-pom balls, stars, and more.
This was also the decade where stringed electric lights became popular. People were still lighting their tree with candles to mimic the traditional first Christmas tree by Martin Luther. However, when President Calvin Coolidge lite the National Christmas tree with 3,000 electric lights, people started to make the switch.
It was in 1931 when the most iconic Christmas tree of all — the tree at Rockefeller Center in New York City — was first displayed at the building. It wasn’t until a few years later when lights were actually stringed onto the tree, but it was very trendy to rush to New York City to see the tall tree during Christmas time (and, quite frankly, still is trendy). Obviously, many other businesses and cities followed suit.
Since the United States was going through the Great Depression, according to the Daily Mail, it was common for people to use food as a way to decorate their tree — an old European tradition for decorations. This is the decade where stringing a popcorn/cranberry garland became more wildly known.
Also at the time, Shirley Temple was a childhood phenomenon. In only six years she managed to sing and dance her way through 20 different films. Since she was known to be a hope for those through the Great Depression, the Ideal Toy and Novelty Company took that as a business opportunity during the holidays and started selling the Shirley Temple Doll in 1934, which ended up making $45 million for the company over seven years of production.
Back in 1893, a Boston architect by the name of Arthur Shurcliff decided to bring a family tradition into the city by placing a single candle in the windows of businesses within the city between 5 p.m. and 10 p.m. starting on Christmas Eve until New Year’s Eve. The trend caught on in Colonial Williamsburg, whom in 1936 hosted their very first organized Christmas event. People were enthralled by the beauty of these candles, which lead to a mass selling of electronic candles in stores starting in 1941.
In 1946, the famous Christmas tale It’s A Wonderful Life was released — which, of course, is an iconic movie for the Countdown for Christmas through the Hallmark Channel.
Having a train chugging along small tracks around the base of the tree was a tradition that you could easily say went viral in 1953. Lionel Corporation, a bestseller for toy trains, peaked in sales at the time — everyone seemed to want to wake up to a small train symbolizing the “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” effect families were looking for.
This was also the year that patents were actually passed allowing people at home to spray artificial snow onto their trees, giving them a snowy effect in their warm homes.
Hanging tinsel on the tree was also a widely known trend thanks to Brite Star, the top manufacturers of tinsel in the mid-1950s. It continued to be a highly known trend throughout the 1960s, until it came to a full stop in 1972. Tinsel at the time was reported to lead to unnecessary lead poisoning (because, yes, tinsel was made with lead foil), which forced manufacturers to start making tinsel with a lighter plastic. Although tinsel is still well known, the newer and lighter tinsel never gave the same effect.
Along with the boom of tinsel, owning an aluminum artificial tree also became popular throughout this decade. It wasn’t uncommon for people to have a white artificial tree versus the traditional evergreen.
Although creating mini villages and train tracks was not unfamiliar, one particular company decided to make it a Christmas must-have. Department 56, the well-known creator of ceramic winter villages, made the small tradition into a widely known trend. In 1976 they sold their first set of houses (six houses total) known as the Original Snow Village. This year they are celebrating 40 years of business, with dozens of villages to choose from.
With the mass producing of plastic ornaments being sent over from Hong Kong, buying and collecting ornaments was easier then ever before. People were no longer thinking of the design of the tree, but rather placing any and all decorations onto the tree that ever had any significance to the ornament owner. A mix of passed-down family ornaments, new-bought plastic ornaments, homemade children’s ornaments, and all other types of ornaments were often found on the tree.
Unlike the 1980s, this was the year of designer trees. It was common for designers to create trees for different department stores or hotels. People at home would also take time to theme their trees – using matching textures and ornaments.
Oh, and 1994 was also the year of Mariah Carey.
Facing a new century meant seemed to do some people good,because it was the decade that people ditched artificial trees and went for the real pine. Christmas tree farms expanded thousands of decades in order to meet the needs of those looking to decorate a real evergreen. In 2004, Christmas Tree sales averaged at $41.5 million ($1.3 million was actually sales of other Christmas evergreen items, such as wreaths, cut boughs, garlands, and more).
According to a Pew Research Study, it looks like now, people are less inclined to keep up with particular holiday traditions such as caroling, sending cards, even putting up a Christmas tree. Could the widely commercialized time we know as the holidays be finally beginning its downhill journey? Are we all turning into the Grinch?
And there you have it — Christmas over the last 100 years.
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