Christmas is a brand hand-crafted by and for the people. It is a diverse stew of traditions… many of which are thousands of years old… while others surprisingly quite contemporary. Did you know there are a slew of Christmas traditions invented and/or made popular by marketers?
- Jesus’ birthday picked by church to put the kybosh on pagan partying?
- Santa was Turkish and named by the Dutch?
- Santa created by pin-up artist to drive beverage sales?
- Rudolf the red-nosed comp sales driver?
- First tree lot in NYC?
- Ornaments drive dime-store sales?
Thousands of Years Ago
In the olden days people would celebrate the winter solstice – knowing that the shortest day of the year was passing and longer days were to return. It was winter, the harvest was complete, and there was time to enjoy and celebrate.
In Scandinavian countries, traditions included bringing into the house a large log to serve as the base for the holiday fires. For twelve days the Yule log flames burned and they partied on.
The Romans would honor Saturn, the god of agriculture by celebrating Saturnalia – a Marti Gras-like party of drinking, singing, and feasting. They would also honor the children of Rome by celebrating Juvenalia and observe their most sacred celebration the birth of Mithra, the infant god of the sun, on December 25.
The pagan songs mentioned above would later be replaced with Christian songs – the beginning roots of Christmas carols.
The name Christmas means “mass of Christ” from the Old English “Cristes Mæsse.”
Forth Century A.D.
MARKETING MOMENT: In the forth century, church officials decided to make the birth of Jesus a holiday. The bible doesn’t indicate the date of Jesus’ birth, so Pope Julius I chose December 25. Purposely chosen to replace the pagan celebrations mentioned above.
1223 – St. Francis of Assisi began performing nativity plays in Italy. Parts of the story were told with songs that became popular and spread across Europe. These became the roots of popular carols.
“In 16th-century Germany fir trees were decorated, both indoors and out, with apples, roses, gilded candies, and colored paper. In the Middle Ages, a popular religious play depicted the story of Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden.
A fir tree hung with apples was used to symbolize the Garden of Eden – the Paradise Tree. The play ended with the prophecy of a saviour coming, and so was often performed during the Advent season.” (Source: All Things Christmas)
1500s – Legend has it that Martin Luther began the tradition of decorating trees with light celebrate Christmas. While walking home one December evening he was struck by the beauty of snow on the branches of an evergreen shimmering in the moonlight. When he got home, he set up a little fir tree indoors and decorated it with candles.
1647 – Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans came to power in England; the celebration of Christmas and singing carols was stopped.
1659 – Massachusetts created a law making any observance of December 25, other than a church service, a criminal offense that included fines for hanging decorations.
Dutch colonists in New York brought with them their traditional celebration of Sint Nikolass, (Saint Nicholas). He was a monk, born in 280 AD in Turkey, known for his kindness to children and for helping the poor and sick. He is celebrated on the day of his death on December 6. (Again, back in the day December would be the end of the work associated with harvest and time to relax and celebrate – the feast of Sint Nikolass was timed perfectly).
Santa Claus’ Dutch Name – The Dutch spelling of his name Sint Nikolaas was eventually transformed to Sinterklaas. Dutch children would leave their wooden shoes by the fireplace, and Sinterklaas would reward good children by placing treats in their shoes. It is name of Santa Claus emerged.
Christmas Stockings – (hung by the chimney with care) are said to have originated when Sint Nikolass dropped bags of gold down the chimney to land in the drying stockings of three peasant girls. It seems that their mother died and then the father lost all of their money spent on bad inventions. (Another bad tale of innovation, huh?) Well, the dad no longer had money for his daughters’ dowries – making it impossible for them to marry. Sinterklass provided enough gold for all three to get married.
1747 – German settlers in Pennsylvania known to first erect community Christmas trees.
Early 1800s – In the United States Christmas was considered a solemn and sacred day. Celebrations including trees, drinking, singing and partying were considered pagan.
1818 – In Austria, a young priest named Joseph Mohr had written a poem called Stille Nacht (Silent Night). He asked his musician friend, Franz Gruber, to add music to his poem. It was first sung on December 24, 1818.
1822 – Clement Clarke Moore wrote a poem for his daughters entitled, “An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas.” (Twas The Night Before Christmas). He identified Saint Nick as a smaller character (an elf) with a miniature sleigh. And was the first to make us aware that he used reindeer to propel the sleigh – eight tiny reindeer to be precise. He also helped establish that the chimney was the favorite mode of entry to the home.
1846/48 – Christmas trees become accepted when the London News featured an illustration of Queen Victoria, Prince Albert, and their children standing around a Christmas tree. The royal tree was decorated with glass ornaments from Prince Albert’s native land of Germany. Because the British and “fashion-conscious East Coast American Society” considered what royalty did fashionable Christmas trees became popular.
1847 – MARKETING MOMENT: The National Confectioners’ Association officially recognizes August Imgard as the first ever to put candy canes on a Christmas tree. Imgard, a German immigrant living in Wooster, Ohio, decorated his tree with a star cut by the village tinsmith, and decorated it with paper ornaments and candy canes. The canes were all white, with no red stripes.
1851 – MARKETING MOMENT: We can thank Mark Carr for starting the first Christmas tree lot. In 1851 it is said that this farmer hauled two ox sleds of evergreens into New York City and sold them all.
1862 – MARKETING MOMENT: Thomas Nast illustrated Clement Moore’s poem for inclusion in Harper’s Weekly. Nast is known for solidifying the look of our contemporary Santa putting illustration to Moore’s words. He transformed Santa from the traditional religious figure to the jolly image we know today.
1869 – Santa’s home in the North Pole is identified in a poem by George Webster appearing in the book “Santa Clause and His Works.” Living in the North Pole made Santa a citizen of the world versus being a resident of any one country.
1870 – Christmas was considered a federal holiday in the US.
1890 – MARKETING MOMENT: Dime-store owner F.W. Woolworth imports glass blown ornaments into the United States. He discovered them during a visit to Germany.
1900 – One in five American families had a Christmas tree, and 20 years later, the custom was nearly universal.
1931 – MARKETING MOMENT: Coca-Cola looking for ways to increase the sales of their cold drink during the cold winter months hired commercial illustrator Haddon Sundblom to create ads featuring Santa with Coca-Cola. The new Santa was introduced at the 1931 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. While the general look of Santa had already been established in Nast’s 1881 illustrations, the Coke Santa ads established Santa as a tall figure (versus a small ‘jolly old elf’), with a red suit trimmed with white fir, and establish Santa as the ubiquitous icon for Christmastime.
- I found a site that points out that it was two New York City ad men (Nast and Sundblom) who have formed our the traditional images of Santa.
- Another site points out how Santa looks a bit like the Quaker Oats icon. (In her post she shows how they BOTH actually look a lot like the artist Sundblom himself). She also shows that Sundblom’s influence on pin-up artist in the 30s.
1939 – MARKETING MOMENT: Robert May, a copywriter for Montgomery Ward department store, as a tactic to drive traffic to the store, wrote the poem about Rudolf the red-nosed reindeer. The store sold nearly two and a half million copies of the storybook in 1939. (And when re-issued in 1946 over three million copies were sold).
1942 – The movie Holiday Inn appears in theaters featuring the popular song, White Christmas, performed by Bing Crosby.
1940s/50s – Flocking, smothering a tree in a fluffy white spray of cut fiber particles (flock) to simulate snow on the branches, is popular in the US.
1949 – “Rudolf The Red-Nosed Reindeer Song” written. Johnny Marks, a friend of Robert May – wrote the song that was originally recorded by Gene Autry.
No matter how or what you celebrate this holiday season, make it merry!
History.com has a great page full of Holiday Traditions from around the world.