Favorite Christmas Traditions — A Historical Perspective

Compiled and edited by Sharla Rae

The holidays are upon us and everywhere you go, there are people rushing as lights wink merrily and Christmas music plays. Have you ever wondered about these treasured songs and how they gained popularity?

The dates and authors of some Christmas carols (red font) and events (green font) are debated but the following information is generally accepted. Where there are contrary dates, I included those too.

1500s:  First decorated Christmas Tree: Martin Luther, in the Black Forest of Germany, brought a tree into the house and lit it with candles.

1780:  Carol,Twelve Days of Christmas: The 12 Days of Christmas start with Christmas Day and finish with the eve of Epiphany on 6th January. The carol, Twelve Days of Christmas dates back to English origins in the sixteenth century although the music is reputed to be French. The “first publication date” was 1780.

1719:  Carol, Joy to the World:  Lyrics Isaac Watts, Music Lowell Mason. It is believed that the melody for “Joy to the World” was partly based on the work of George Frederic Handel, specifically the oratorio Messiah.

1739:  Carol, Hark the Herald Angels Sing: Written by Charles Wesley (1707-1788). It first appeared in hymnbook called Hymns and sacred Poems.

1751:  Carol, O Come All ye Faithful:  Written by John Frances Wade (1711- 1786), a hymnist 1751. First written in Latin and translated to English in 1852 by Frederic Oakeley and William Thomas Brooke.

1809:  Washington Irving (of Dutch ancestry) makes reference to St. Nicholas as the Patron of New York City.

1818:  Carol, Silent Night:  First performed in the Nicola-Kirche (Church of St. Nicholas) in Oberndorf, Austria on December 24, 1818. Priest, father, Josef Mohr composed the words much earlier, in 1816, but on Christmas Eve brought them to headmaster, Franz Gruber and asked him to compse a melody and guitar accompaniment for the service. 

1822:  The Visit From St. Nicholas, now known as The Night Before Christmas written by Dr. Clement Clark Moore, a professor of divinity

1824:  Carol, O Tannenbaum or Oh Christmas Tree:  The best known version was penned in 1824 by a Leipzig organist named Ernst Anschütz. The melody is an old folk tune. The first known “Tannenbaum” song lyrics date back to 1550. A similar 1615 song by Melchior Franck (1573-1639).

1830s:  Poinsettias could be found in select greenhouses in America. By 1870, New York shops sold them at Christmas and by the turn of the century they became associated with the holidays.

1837:  Robert Weir who taught art at West Point painted the first American portrait of Santa, posing the saint as he readied to climb down the chimney. He was depicted as a short, beardless man, dressed in high boots, short coat, and stocking cap. He carried a bag of toys and wore a frightening sneer on his face to scare bad children.

1841:  Christmas trees gained popularity in England when Prince Albert introduced it to the Royal Family. Americans had the tree by the mid-eighteenth century when Hessian soldiers introduced it during the Revolution.

1843:  First Christmas card introduced by John Calcott Horsley in England. Thesentiment was “A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you.”

A Christmas Carol, novel by Charles Dickens published, December 19th, 1843

1849: Carol, It Came Upon A Midnight Clear:  Words by a Unitarian pastor, Edward Hamilton Sears. Lyrics appeared in the Christian Register. Ten years later in 1859, Richard Storrs Willis, an American composer composed the music.

1850s:  (Early 1850s) R.H. Pease is described as the first maker and distributor of Christmas cards in America. He depicted Santa but the sentiment was an advertisement for his business.

1853:  Carol, Good King Wenceslas: Published by Neal and Helmore, originally an old Swedish song dating back to 1592.

1856:  Carol, Jingle Bells: Written by Reverend John Peirpont of Savanna Georgia, it was originally written for a church Thanksgiving program.

1857:  Elves first appeared around 1856 when Louisa May Alcott completed but never  published a book titled Christmas Elves. Thomas Nast depicted elves with Santa but didn’t invent them.

Carol, We Three Kings: Reverend John H. Hopkins Jr. (1820-1891) wrote music and lyrics. Published in Hopkins, Carols, Hymns and Song in 1863.

1860s:  (Mid 1860s) Glass tree ornaments and icicles introduced to the nation by the Germans.

1863:  Illustrated edition of Moore’s A Visit From St. Nicholas produced by Thomas Nast, a cartoonist employed by Harper’s Weekly. The work closely adhered to Moore’s description of Santa.

1864:  Carol, I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day: Composed by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow as a poem. John B. Calkin composed its music in 1872 though it is also sung to an alternate tune that was originally composed by Joseph Mainzer in 1845. Written during the Civil War, it reflects those stressful times of battle.

1865:  December 25 was legalized as a state holiday by this date by 31 states and territories.

1866:  Santa depicted housed in an ice palace by Artist Nast. Later he specified the North Pole as Santa’s home.

1867:  Carol, O Little Town of Bethlehem Phillip Brooks, a Clergyman wrote poem in 1867. A year later, Lewis Redner, Brooks’ organist at an Episcopal church in Bos­­ton, Mass­­a­­chu­­setts, created the music.

1870s:  Macy’s department store was putting on a good Christmas show in their display windows.

1870:  Christmas made a legal national holiday on June 26. Until this time it wasn’t on the US national calendar.

1875:  Lithographer, Louis Prang, began producing illustrated Christmas Cards. Most of the art was produced by women although he did use some famous artists. Americans were slow to use Christmas Cards and preferred to make their own until the early 1880’s. Later cheaper German cards were produced.

1882:  Edward Johnson, a New Yorker and vice president of the newly formed Edison Electric, claimed to be the first to add electric lights to his tree.

1885:  Carol, Away In The Manger:  First published in a 1885 Lutheran Sunday School book by James R. Murray (1841-1905), but the author of the first two stanzas is unknown. There are at least two major melodies for the song: one, “Cradle Song” [1] more commonly encountered in Britain; the other, “Mueller” [2] more commonly found in the USA. The tune commonly used in Britain was written by William J. Kirkpatrick and was first published in 1895. The tune commonly used in the US was written by James R. Murray and first published in 1887. Stanza three was added in 1904 by Dr. John McFarland of New York City.

1890’s & 1900s:  Americans revived the old English custom of caroling.

1895:  Electric lights replaced candles on President Cleveland’s White House tree. General usage by the populous didn’t come about until the 1920’s.

1899:  Santa had no wife until this date, when Katherine Lee Bates created a Mrs. Claus in her story, Goody Santa Claus On A Sleigh Ride.

1916:  Carol, Carol of the Bells. Composed by Mykola Dmytrovych Leontovych (1877-1921). Originally titled Shchedryk, A Ukranian folk song about a sparrow and the bountiful year that awaits a family. First performed in the Ukraine on the night of January 13, 1916. On the Julian calendar this is considered New Year’s Eve. In the United States it was first performed on October 5, 1921 at Carnegie Hall. “Hark how the Bells, Sweet silver bells . . .

1920:  Ellis Gimbel of Gimbel’s department store, organized fifteen cars and fifty people in the first Thanksgiving Day Parade. The high point was a fireman dressed as Santa, who brought up the rear.

1924:  Hudsons, a Detroit store inaugurated its Santa’s ThanksgivingDay Parade.

1934:  Song, Santa Claus Is Coming To Town, written by J. Fred Coots and Haven Gilespie and first sung on Eddie Cantor’s radio show in November 1934. Original version was recorded on September 26th, 1935 by Tommy Dorsey & His Orchestra.

1935:  Film, Scrooge, Adaptation of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol

Song, Winter Wonderland: Composed in 1934 by Felix Bernard with lyrics by Richard B. Smith. It has been recorded many different times by such artists as Perry Como, Johnny Mathis, Karen Carpenter, Cyndi Lauper, and the Cocteau twins.

1937:  Charles W. Howard opened a Santa Claus School. Students paid $150 each for a week-long course in showmanship, salesmanship and child psychology.

1938:  Film, A Christmas Carol:  American film adaptation of Charles Dickens’ novel.

1939:  Song, Rudolph The Red-nosed Reindeer. Written by a Montgomery Ward Department Store employee, Robert L. May. The store distributed copies of it to the children of its customers as an advertising gimmick. In 1949, it was set to music by Johnny Marks and Gene Autry recorded it. Two million copies sold during the first Christmas season.

1941:  Song, The Little Drummer Boy, also known as Carol of the Drum, written by Katherine K. Davis. Henry Onorati and Harry Simeone have been credited with writing the song even though they were only the arrangers for their recordings of it starting in 1957. In 1963, 20th Century Fox Records retitled and reissued it as The Little Drummer Boy. In 1965 a new version was recorded by Kapp Records.

1942:  Film, Holiday Inn. Irving Berlin’s song, White Christmas was first sung by Bing Crosby, winning it an Oscar. Also starring Fred Astaire and Virginia Dale. Written by Irving Berlin & Elmer Rice.

1944:  Song, Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas: Written by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane for the MGM musical, Meet Me In St. Louis.

1946:  Film, It’s A Wonderful Life.

Song,  All I Want For Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth, by Don Gardner.

Song, The Christmas Song (Chestnuts roasting on an open fire), sung by Nat King Cole, written by Mel Torme. King recorded versions of this song through 1961.

Film, It’s A Wonderful Life with Jimmy Stewart as George Baily and Donna Reed as Mary Hatch, his wife. Lionel Barrymore played Henry Potter.

1947:  Film original of Miracle On 34th Street with John Payne, Maureen O’ Hara and Natalie Wood.

1950:  Song, Frosty the Snowman. Penned by Steve Nelson and Jack Rollins and then recorded in 1950 by Gene Autry and the Cass County Boys. Although a popular Christmas song the word Christmas is not in this tune.

1952:  Song, I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Clause. Original recording by Jimmy Boyd; Commissioned by Neiman Marcus to promote their Christmas card for the year, featuring an original sketch by artist Perry Barlow, who drew for the New Yorker magazines for many decades. When first released, the record was banned by the Catholic Church in Boston on the grounds it mixed sex with Christmas. Boyd was thirteen and was widely photographed meeting with the Archdiocese to explain the song.

1953:  Song, Santa Baby. Sung by Eartha Kit, co-written by Joan Javits

Song, Merry Christmas Baby. Sung by Charles Brown

1957:  Dr. Seuss’ (Theodore Geisel) wrote How The Grinch Stole Christmas.

Song, Blue Christmas recorded by Elvis Presley. Originally recorded by Doyle O’Dell in 1948 & in 1949 by 3 other artists — Russ Morgan, Hugo Winterhalter and Ernstein Tubbs who all had hits with it.

Song, Jingle Bell Rock. By Bobby Helms

1958:  Song, Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree, sung by Brenda Lee

Song, The Chipmunk Song, sung by David Seville and the Chipmunks.

1961: Song, Please Come Home For Christmas sung by Charles Brown

1964:  Song, A Holly Jolly Christmas, sung by Burl Ives, written by Johnny marks

1965:  Animated TV film,  A Charlie Brown Christmas, Written by Charles Schulz

1966:  Animated Film: How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Adaptation of Dr. Suess Book

1969:  Animated Film:  Frosty the Snowman

1970:  Animated Film, Santa Clause Is Coming To Town. A television special based on the song, with narrator Fred Astaire telling the original story of Santa Clause Is Coming To Town.

1983:  Film, A Christmas Story. Written by Jean Shepherd about a 1940s family at Christmas.

Animated Film, Mickey’s Christmas Carol: Disney adaptation of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.

1989:  Film, Christmas Vacation. Starred actor Chevy Chase, written by John Huges.

1990:  Film, Home Alone. About a child who having been left behind behind at Christmas, fights off robbers.

1992:  Film, Home Alone II

1993:  Tim Burton’s film, The Nightmare Before Christmas.

2002:  TV movie,  It’s A Very Merry Muppet Christmas, released by Jim Hensen

2003:  Film, Elf. Written by David Berenbaum. Actor Will Ferrel plays the elf.

2004:  Animated film, Polar Express. Written by Chris Van Allsburg & Robert Zemeckis. Depicts actor Tom Hanks in voice an form as the conductor.

Everyone has their favorite Christmas movies, carols, decorations and traditions. I hope you enjoyed seeing how long all of these have been enjoyed over the years.

What’s your favorite Christmas carol or movie? Do you have any special traditions?

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16 Responses to Favorite Christmas Traditions — A Historical Perspective

  1. Liz Flaherty says:

    Love this post! Of course, I love anything Christmas, but am fascinated by these dates.

    • Sharla Rae says:

      Christmas is my fav holiday too. Would you believe I collect books on Christmas history and traditon. I keep looking for on celebrations in the Old West, maybe a diary of sorts.

  2. Chris Devlin says:

    God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen. I luvs me a minor key. I love to go caroling, but like with karaoke, it’s tough to find fellows who aren’t embarrassed to join me.

    Great list, cheers.

    • Sharla Rae says:

      I love all the old songs but I get tickled everytime I hear Christmas Cookies by George Straight — all the kissin’ and huggin’ while the cookies bake. So cute! Better add that one to my list.🙂

  3. timlobrien says:

    What an impressive list. I can’t imagine the number of hours it took to put this together.

  4. Okay, you missed these: Irving Berlin’s White Christmas, the movie debuted in New York at the Radio City Music Hall in 1954. I was there🙂 It starred Bing Crosby, Rosemary Clooney, Vera Ellen and Dan Kaye. The Bishops Wife, 1947 starring Loretta Young, Cary Grant and David Niven. Blue Christmas, originally recorded by Ernest Tubs in 1950, and by Elvis Preseley in 1957 on his Elvis’ Christmas Album … and the same year Elvis did I’ll Be Home For Christmas. It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas, written by Meredith Wilson in 1951. Recorded by several, the most popular version, also 1951 was done by Perry Como.

    Thanks Sharla, for all you research and hard work. My favorite movie and song? All of the above. A tradition I love? Christmas week open house, Christmas day with my older brother and both families. Have a joyous Holiday🙂

    • Sharla Rae says:

      Thanks for the updates! I look those up.🙂

      • Sharla Rae says:

        Found this and thought you might find it interesting:🙂 Blue Christmas (of Elvis Presley fame) first recorded by Doyle O’ Dell in 1947 popularized by Ernest Tub a year later. It was released as a single by Elvis in 1957. Stand corrected as the 1964 date is an album. Thanks.

  5. You’re a wealth of information!
    Love Christmas history.
    So, it wasn’t even a legal holiday until 1870 in the USA.
    How things have changed.

    Thanks for the fun post.

  6. Thanks so much for this post! I love Christmas and history–fascinating! I start playing Christmas music in October. Yule (as in yuletide carols being sung by a choir) originated from the Scandinavian fertility god of the same name. Traditions our family has: opening at least one present on Christmas Eve, buying one new ornament for the tree every year, and playing Manheim Steamroller on Christmas Day. And now we’re making new ones with our five year old son Nicholas! Yes, jolly St. Nick. That was our first Christmas card, lol.

    • Sharla Rae says:

      Melissa, how wonderful. Children are the heart of Christmas. I love to see their eyes light up.🙂

  7. Great list, Sharla Rae! Thanks for sharing. Happy to Tweet and spread the joy just reading about these carols brings to me. I really, really love Bette Midler’s “Somewhere In My Memories” song from the Home Alone II album. And of course, ALL of Mannheim Steamroller’s Christmas CDs. Chip Davis is brilliant.

  8. Sharla Rae says:

    Thanks for sharing. I’ll have to add those to the list for next year.🙂

  9. Fabulous and a very impressive (and informative) list. Thank you so much for sharing such an abundance of Christmas facts!🙂
    I am so glad Jenny Hansen recommended your post to me, Sharla Rae!

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