Christmas in the United States, as we know it today, has a long history of commercial development stretching all the way back to the mid-1700s. But the juggernaut that is Christmas today really did not get rolling downhill, like a giant snowball coming down a mountain, until the 1920s and 1930s.
By the 1950’s Christmas, as a commercial behemoth, was firmly established, growing into a core aspect of the American psyche that is so fundamental that each year it seems like Christmas ornaments and paraphernalia keeps coming out earlier and earlier in the year.
The First Christmas Trees
Long before mass marketing and popular culture, the Christmas tree made its first recorded appearance in 1747 in the United States in Bethlehem, PA. Reportedly, it was a wooden triangle with an evergreen garland.
Commercial History of Christmas in the United States – Gift Giving
Gift-giving was not an early part of the Christmas tradition because the holiday was not celebrated by the Puritans who first colonized and shaped American culture.
But as their influence waned in the late 18th Century and the Victorian era began to grow in the early 19th Century, the holiday and gift-giving started to become a tradition in America.
Sinter Klass Becomes Santa Claus
In the late 1770s, Saint Nicholas began to make inroads into American culture through Dutch immigrants. His popularity spread into the early 1800s, especially with the publication of The History of New York, in 1809, by Washington Irving, which described him as a playful character.
Before this publication, in 1804, John Pintard, a member of the New-York Historical Society, distributed woodcuts of Saint Nicholas at the annual meeting. These woodcut engravings contained the first images of stockings filled with toys and ornaments of fruit hung over the fireplace.
Sometime in the mid-1850s, the name Santa Claus became a common reference in New York City, along with Saint Nicholas. The Dutch Sinter Klass became “Americanized” around this time and in that specific location. As New York was the hub of economic activity and the leader of trends for the 19th and early 20th century, the origin of Santa as we know him today started there and then.
The Beginning of Commercialization
Sometime in the 1840s, the exchange of gifts shifted from adults (in higher classes giving gifts to each other and members of the lower classes, their servants and servant families) to children. German immigrants and German imported toys and novelties started the shift to Christmas as a child-centered holiday.
The first Christmas card dates to 1843 and they would grow in popularity, along with the arrival of ornaments and an increase in gift wrapping, all happening simultaneously in the mid to late 1800s.
The new department store chain F. W. Woolworths added glass ornaments from Germany to its stores. In 1880, he purchased $25 worth of the ornaments and they sold out in two days. Within ten years over 6,000 different designs and 200,000 ornaments were being imported into the United States.
Gift Wrapping Paper
Gift wrapping is present in the rich history of Asian countries, especially Japan and Korea. As the department store began to emerge as a central buying location in the largest American cities (throughout the mid to late 1800s), gift wrapping paper started to become as important as the gifts.
The department stores also became the cultural centers that would pump up and pump out most of the staples we now associate with Christmas.
Department Store Santa, and Window Displays
In 1862, Macy’s was the first department store to feature an in-store Santa that children could meet. Later, in 1874, Macy’s was also the first retailer to put up a window display, which featured porcelain dolls from around the world, as well as scenes from Uncle Tom’s Cabin, by Harriet Beecher Stowe.
Santa, As We Know Him Now
The version of “jolly old Saint Nick” in the red costume, with the full white beard, came to life in the 1920s, originating in the work of illustrator Haddon Sundblom, making appearances in Coca-Cola ads in the Saturday Evening Post, starting in 1920.
By 1931 the more jolly Santa appeared in National Geographic, Ladies Home Journal, and the New Yorker.
The above ad is considered one of the seven great ads that changed the world.
From 1930 on, the explosion of Christmas was fully underway.
Rudolph, the red-nosed reindeer arrived in 1939. Rudolph was part of a massive advertising campaign launched by Montgomery Wards, one of the leading department stores of the time. It was written by Robert May and given away in stores. More than 2 million were distributed at a time when 50,000 similar giveaways were the highest mark.
Rudolph then became even more of a staple of Christmas with a TV special launched on network NBC on December 5, 1964.
The first push for mass advertising of Christmas, Santa, and all the visuals that came to represent traditional Christmas in America emerged between the 1920s and 1930s when advertising realized its full potential as a propaganda tool. New psychological theories about how to manipulate, con, and persuade people became part of the advertising zeitgeist of this era.
By the 1950s the full-throttle Christmas experience was all across the United States, not just in the major cities. In the 1960s, with the expansion of broadcast and commercial television advertising could not get enough of Christmas.
The first indoor shopping mall arrived in 1956, in Edina, Minnesota. Shopping Malls began to spring up everywhere, introducing the mall Santa, who would take over for the department store Santa. By 1975 shopping malls accounted for 30+% of all retail sales.
The term first appeared in 1961 but did not garner its current meaning until the 1980s, when retailers made it clear that sales the day or two after Thanksgiving took retailers from the red (debt) into the black (profit). All the programming for social/commercial behavior was firmly in place.
The weekend after Thanksgiving was the time to put up the Christmas tree and start Christmas shopping, with fantastic deals on every kind of merchandise and the must-have toys for the year.
Cyber Monday and Small Business Saturday
With the arrival of Amazon and online shopping Christmas sales morphed with the times; and in 2005, Cyber Monday was created to offer the best deals for online purchases. Then we got Small Business Saturday in 2010 to promote purchases from small, independent retailers instead of the “big box chains” and Amazon.
Where are We Now?
If the current shipping crisis off the California shore is any indication, Christmas, as a commercial holiday, is as powerful as ever. Commercial History of Christmas in the United States
Another sign of the Commercial History of Christmas in the United States, are the Christmas ornaments and paraphernalia are now showing up in October near Halloween and are full-on by November 1st when the Halloween decorations go on deep discount to make room for Christmas decorations.
Not so long ago, Christmas did not really arrive in stores until the end of November, and after Thanksgiving.
Christmas has mostly become an homage to commerce, industrialization, globalization, and accumulation. It will be interesting to see if its elevated status will be maintained with the next generation, which is being shaped by the pandemic, a diminishing middle-class lifestyle, and climate change concerns.
As well, the Baby Boomers are beginning to enter their period of decline, and one may wonder if Christmas, as it has been known largely since the 1950s, and maybe as far back as the 1930s, will also enter retirement, and eventually die off with the generation that made it a centerpiece of American culture for the last, nearly 100 years.