For years, the holiday season has echoed with families and loved ones coming together, exchanging gifts, singing songs and being merry. Holiday traditions have been passed down from generation to generation and the uplifting Christmas spirit has always been there for us, through thick and thin.
In honor of the holidays quickly approaching, we take a moment to revisit those priceless moments from years gone by. Take a walk down memory lane and under the tree of Christmas past with these vintage colorized photos. You never know, nostalgia might just get you in the spirit to start decorating early this year.
Santa Was Once a Turkish Monk
A man dressed as Santa walks the streets of London, December 1940.
Old St. Nick has quite an extensive history of his own, that goes all the way back to the 3rd century. His origin traces back to a monk born in 280 A.D. Patara (modern-day Turkey) named St. Nicholas, who became the subject of many stories and legends.
Stories of the kind and generous monk spread across households and he became known as the protector of children and sailors. As centuries passed, his popularity grew through Europe and by the end of the 18th century, St. Nicholas had made its way to America.
The First Christmas Movie Was Created in 1898
A young Shirley Temple holds her doll in front of a Christmas tree circa the late 1930s. Temple was another figure in Hollywood that always helped spread the holiday cheer with her many Christmas movies and songs. A couple of favorites from her early days of acting are 1934’s Bright Eyes and 1936’s Stowaway.
Christmas movies have long been instilled in our holiday traditions. Some old classics that are still aired today include Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer from 1964, Miracle on 34th Street from 1947, It’s a Wonderful Life from 1946, and A Christmas Carole from 1938. The first-ever Christmas movie, a silent film called Santa Claus was created all the way back in 1898.
Postmen Would Respond to Kids in Need
Before the age of Amazon, email, and facetime, it was up to our trusty mailmen to bring good tidings. It looks like these guys had their hands full of them. This photo brings us all the way back to Christmas time in 1910. The postman was not only relied on to deliver gifts and messages. Children also depended on their neighborhood postman to deliver their handwritten notes all the way to the North Pole.
This has been a tradition that dates back to the 1870s. While most of these letters were labeled “undeliverable” some postal workers made the extra initiative to take on the role of Santa and respond to children they deemed needed it most. Some clerks even collected donations or reached out to local charities who would help provide those children with the presents they had wished for.
The Christmas Tree Started in Germany
Choosing the right tree for your family room is a task that crosses timelines and borders. Here we travel back to 1899, Berlin Germany where men and women are choosing which fresh pine tree they want to take home to their families for Christmas. Germany is actually credited with kick-starting the Christmas tree tradition back in the 16th century. The early version was decorated with paper roses, apples, and candies.
It is widely believed that the Protestant reformer, Martin Luther was the first to start adding candles to a tree. He did this in order to imitate the brilliance of a starry night sky against the winter evergreens standing outside his home. He brought this decorated tree to his main room in order to share the beautiful scene with his family. Long before this, ancient Romans also held a similar tradition of decorating trees with small pieces of metal during their winter festival, Saturnalia.
Santa Claus is Not the Only Gift Giver
A group of jolly men arranging their white beards and wigs for “Santa Claus School” in 1961. The Santa Claus that we know today brought to life in the 1800s was not the only gift giver born out of the stories of St. Nicholas. Similar figures in other parts of the world also came to light throughout history. An angel-like figure named Christkind (meaning “Christ child”) was also believed to deliver presents to well-behaved children in Switzerland and Germany.
The Scandinavians also have a jolly elf named Jultomten who is said to deliver gifts in a sleigh drawn by goats. The people of Russia tell the story of an elderly woman named Baboushka who also leaves gifts for children at their bedsides. Italy also has a similar folktale of a kindly witch named LaBefana who rides a broomstick down the chimneys to deliver gifts.
Today’s Image of Santa Came from a Poem
Santa prepares to take off and fly around Christmas time, 1921. Once the tales of St. Nick had made their way to the U.S, it was Washington Irving in 1809 that brought the name to pop culture fame. Irving referred to St. Nicholas as the patron saint of New York in his book, The History of New York. From there Santa quickly turned into the icon that we know and love today.
The modern image of Santa came from a poem, written by Clement Clarke Moore in 1822. The poem, titled “An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas” helped popularize the image of a “jolly old elf” delivering presents from house to house on “a miniature sleigh” led by flying reindeer. Cartoonist Thomas Nast then visualized the description in the poem in his cartoon that appeared in Harper’s Weekly.
Gift Giving Has Many Different Origins
The concept of Christmas shopping was born as early as 1820. By the 1840s, illustrations of Santa alongside holiday advertisements had begun to take over entire sections of local newspapers. Gift giving as a Christmas tradition began way before it reached today’s commercialized standards.
Some say exchanging presents during the holidays originated as a symbolic gestor to honor the tributes made by the Three Wise Men. Others believe the gift-giving tradition is meant to honor St. Nicholas, known as the gift-giving saint for children. Before this, however, the ancient Romans also held an annual gift giving festival in the winter months in order to give thanks to the agricultural god, Saturn.
Soldiers Called a Truce on Christmas
Far from home, amidst a less joyous wartime setting, soldiers in Vietnam take time to celebrate the holiday season as best they can. In fact, each year from 1965 until 1972, the United States and both North and South Vietnamese armies had agreed to a Christmas truce that lasted 24-48 hours.
During this truce, soldiers would set up artificial Christmas trees while the army radio stations played traditional songs to help get the soldiers in the holiday spirit. Songs such as Bing Crosby’s “I’ll be Home for Christmas,” were avoided to prevent lowering morale for the homesick army men.
Madison Square Park Hosted the First Public Tree Lighting
The Madison Square Park public tree lighting has been an honored tradition ever since the first tree shone through the park on December 24th, 1912. This was way before the more publicized annual celebration first took place at Rockefeller center in 1933.
The first tree put on display in 1912 was 60 feet tall and had to be carried into the park by horse-drawn truck. The tree was wrapped with 2,300 colored electric bulbs. The idea of having a twinkling Christmas tree on display for the public was new at the time but would soon spread throughout the entire country as a common holiday tradition.
Macy’s Has a Long-Held Christmas Tradition
It’s true that sometimes a good bargain can bring out the worst in us. This photo of Macy’s department store back in 1948 proves that this fact follows consumers through generations passed. For New Yorkers, Macy’s has long instilled itself into the Christmas traditions that resonate through the city.
Macy’s flagship store in NYC, as well as other locations throughout the U.S., makes an effort to include elaborate Christmas window displays. Each year the flagship store chooses a different theme that is presented in six windows on the Broadway side of the building. These decorations are surely a sight for sore eyes as they include animated, colorful scenes meant to heighten the holiday shopping experience.
Before Live Santas, We Had Life-Size Models
Before kids would gather to shopping malls each year to visit “the real” Santa Claus the hype was once just as high to see a life-size Santa Claus model. It was in Philadelphia in 1841 that this tradition first took off. Soon after that department stores began introducing real people dressed as the jolly man in red.
In the photo above we travel back to 1953 where British journalist and television broadcaster, Denzil Batchelor took on the role of Father Christmas at a Harrods department store in London. Judging by the expression on Batchelor’s face, it looks like he’s had a long day of making lists and checking them twice.
Queen Victoria Made the Christmas Tree Fashionable
Iconic old Hollywood actress Jayne Mansfield looks pretty in pink as she places the angel topper on a Christmas tree in December 1960. Just like all other holiday traditions, the Christmas tree topper also has its own story etched in history. The popularity of the tree topper dates back to the Victorian era when Queen Victoria brought the first decorated Christmas tree into Windsor Castle.
The Queen was the trendsetter of her time so it did not take long before her subjects followed suit. Soon everyone was decorating their trees with tinsel, silver wire ornaments, candles and of course, the tree topper, which is known to reflect an image from the Nativity story such as the Star of Bethlehem or a heavenly angel.
A Poem Brought Exchanging Gifts Under the Tree to America
The tree topper was not the only Christmas tradition that Queen Victoria made popular during her reign. She was also the trendsetter that made collecting gifts around the tree a common practice. In 1846, The London News featured an illustration of the Queen and her family standing around the tree, with presents waiting under the branches.
That was all her followers needed to see before they decided to do the same. The image of families exchanging gifts around the tree was later brought to life in America thanks to Clement Moore’s poem “Twas the Night Before Christmas” which he wrote in 1822.
The Wreath Represents Continuous Growth and Life
An enthusiastic boy sells wreaths at Quincy Market in downtown Boston, 1954. The holiday wreath, like most traditions, has roots from several religions and cultures. For some, the wreath represents the thorns worn by Jesus on the cross. Others trace the origin to Ancient Rome.
It is said that Romans hung the wreaths on their door as a symbol of victory after winning in battle. Others say that the wreath represents the circle of eternal life both for its shape and for the fact that the evergreen lives through all seasons and conditions, thereby representing never-ending growth.
The First Rockefeller Tree Was Only 20 Feet Tall
Construction workers in 1931 line up to receive their paycheck in front of the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree in New York. Although the public tree lighting did not occur until two years later, this was the very first Christmas tree to be placed at the center.
The tree was erected by the construction workers themselves who were building the Rockefeller Center at the time. As you can see, the first tree was far more humble back then, standing at just 20 feet and decorated with paper garlands, tin cans, and cranberries.
A Cartoonist Put Santa Claus at the North Pole
A man dressed as Santa Claus stands outside an igloo that was built in front of the Alamo in San Antonio, Texas, 1928. It was cartoonist Thomas Nast that painted the picture of Santa Claus and his elves working side by side in the magical winter wonderland that is the North Pole. Nast visualized Santa the way we see him today and also created Santa’s workshop as well as St. Nick’s big book of naughty and nice.
Since snow had become a universal symbol of Christmas, Nast felt it appropriate for Santa and his elves to be surrounded by Christmas cheer all year long. At the time the North Pole was still untouched and no one would journey to the top of the world until 1909, so it held a mystical element that fits perfectly with Santa’s image.
Evergreens Were Used to Celebrate Winter for Thousands of Years
A man in 1915 London carries his Christmas tree home to the family. For thousands of years, even before the birth of today’s Christmas traditions, the evergreen fir tree has been used to celebrate winter festivals. This tradition transcended cultures, borders, and religious beliefs.
For many, the evergreens stood as a reminder that the crops of spring. would soon return and that life on earth was everlasting. Conveniently, these trees can thrive in any climate and grow in all 50 states including Hawaii and Alaska as well as countries all over the world.
Bob Hope Would Visit Soldiers Every Christmas
An American soldier dressed up as Santa talks to a group of wounded soldiers during the Bob Hope USO Christmas Show in Vietnam, December 1970. Hope visited the soldiers in Vietnam each Christmas from 1964 to 1972.
The comedian took it upon himself to life the spirits of the soldiers unable to celebrate the holidays with their loved ones back home. Entertainers such as Raquel Welch, Ann Margaret, Nancy Sinatra, and Joey Heatherton would join Hope in Vietnam to entertain the troops during their Christmas time truce.
Santa Is a Man of Many Faces
At seven feet, eight inches, Jacob Hudson Nacken claimed to be the biggest Santa Claus in the world. Here we see him fitted for his costume in New York, December 1949. Besides Nacken, there are many faces throughout history that have helped spread joy through their own portrayal of St. Nick.
Some of Hollywood’s most memorable Santa Clauses have been played by names such as Tim Allen in The Santa Claus, Ed Asner in Elf, Richard Attenborough in the 1994 remake of Miracle on 34th Street, and Edmund Gwenn in the original Miracle on 34th Street in 1947. Gwenn ended up taking home an Oscar for this particular performance of Kris Kringle.
Children Have Been Writing to Santa Since the 1800s
Like many other Christmas traditions, writing letters to Santa also gained popularity through Thomas Nast’s illustrations in Harper’s Weekly. One such illustration, created in 1874, included Santa sitting at his desk reading mail and sorting his letters into two piles. One pile was labeled “letters from naughty children’s parents” and the other, significantly smaller pile read “letters from good children’s parents.”
That same year, the New York Times featured a piece about letters deposited in the post office that appeared to be written by children and addressed to Santa Claus. In 1879, Nast also created the first known image of a young person placing a letter addressed to “St. Claus North Pole” in a mailbox.
The I Love Lucy Christmas Special Made History
For many households, reairing the I Love Lucy’s 1956 Christmas special has also become an annual family tradition. In the episode, Lucy, Ricky, and the Mertzes are seen decorating Lucy and Ricky’s Christmas tree as they reminisce about how much their lives have changed since the birth of their son, Little Ricky. This episode marked the first-ever “flashback” show in television history.
Although first presented as part of the show’s sixth season, it was not included in any rebroadcasts of the series since CBS felt a Christmas episode was not interesting to viewers all year long. In 1990, CBS rebroadcasted the special giving it an extra pop by airing it for the first time in partial color. The flashback clips were still seen in black and white while the present-day scenes were colorized.
Volunteer Santas Have Been Around Since the 1800s
Sidewalk Santa Volunteers of America in 1902. In the early 1890s, the Salvation Army had already begun its efforts of providing Christmas meals to needy families. In order to raise money to do so, they began an initiative that involved sending volunteers dressed in Santa Claus suits into the streets of New York to ask for donations.
As we know, this tradition still stands strong today. Every year, once Christmas is in the air and patrons have begun their holiday shopping, we are sure to see numerous Santa Claus’s ringing their bell outside the stores, raising money for those less fortunate.
Singing Carols in Church Was Once Deemed Inappropriate
This photo takes us back to World War I where German troops are seen singing around a Christmas tree in the trenches on the Eastern Front. The tradition of singing Christmas carols to help spread holiday cheer has an origin story that dates back to 4th-century Rome. Communal songs were originally sung during Winter solstice celebrations.
The tradition was then adopted by early Christians to be sung during Christmas celebrations. It was St. Francis of Assisi in the 12th century that brought Christmas music to religious services. Some however deemed singing in churches on what was meant to be a solemn holiday as inappropriate. This prompted carolers to take their singing to the streets instead.
Santa Has Been Visiting Troops for Centuries
A man dressed as Santa steps off a taxi on Guadalcanal, Solomon Islands to entertain Allied troops. Santa has been visiting soldiers on the frontlines for centuries in order to give them a break from the hardships of war.
In fact, there has always been something about Christmas during wartime that has allowed those deployed to enjoy some moments of festiveness. A great example dates back to 1914 Christmas day when troops amidst World War I agreed to lay down their weapons, climb from the trenches and play a game of football with their enemy.
When Nancy Shocked the World
Here we see Nancy Reagan giving us a very unexpected moment under the mistletoe. In 1983, professional wrestler turned actor, Mr. T arrived at the White House to take on the role of Santa. Unfortunately, most guests were a bit timid when it came to approaching this intimidating Santa with their wish list.
Mrs. Reagan then decided to show the world this notoriously tough guy’s soft side by sitting on his lap and giving him a loving kiss on the forehead.
“It’s so unexpected. She just wasn’t known for her playfulness at all,” said Michelle Gullion, the archivist with the National First Ladies’ Library.
Festive Hair Styles Are Always in Fashion
These two women took their holiday spirit to whole new heights with their 42-inch hair decorated with festive tinsel and ornaments. Although hard to believe, these hairdos were actually done with real hair.
The women pictured are Giselle Roc on the right and Claudette Ackrich on the left, circa 1960. If only we knew what was on their agenda that evening that warranted such elaborate and detailed hairstyles.
Rudolph Was Invented by a Montgomery Ward Employee
This free-falling Santa Claus captured falling through the sky over England in 1967 seems to have lost his reindeer. But clearly that isn’t going to stop good Ol’ St. Nick. Speaking of Santa’s reindeer, did you know that Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer actually came to be over a hundred years after his eight sleigh pulling frienemies?
The most famous of them all was created in 1939 by a copywriter at the Montgomery Ward department store named Robert L. May. In order to attract more customers, May decided to write a catchy story poem that used a similar rhyming pattern to Moore’s “Twas the Night Before Christmas.” Montgomery Ward ended up selling almost two and a half million copies of this story which was later reimagined as a short song by May’s friend, Johnny Marks.
Jackie Kennedy Began a White House Tradition
Jackie Kennedy was a trendsetter across all around, even when it came to how the White House celebrated Christmas. In fact, during her time as the first lady, she created a tradition that has been passed on the first ladies of the present day. She created the tradition of selecting a theme for the official White House Christmas tree.
For her first Christmas in the White House, in 1961 Mrs. Kennedy chose to decorate the tree in a Nutcracker theme. The following year, in 1962 she decided to be resourceful and reuse the Nutcracker decorations to create a children’s themed tree. Here we see Jackie spending time with her own children, Caroline and John Jr, in December 1962.
New York Has Been a Holiday Hot Spot for Decades
A convertible full of festive women dressed in Santa outfits parades down the streets of New York in 1969. New York has long been an ideal place to celebrate the winter holidays and ring in the new year in style. Not only is New York one of the ideal places to be for black Friday Christmas shopping, but the city also has many exciting traditions worth partaking in.
One of the most well known of these traditions is the annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade which is an enormous parade that takes place on Thanksgiving day. The parade has existed since 1924 and only took a brief hiatus during World War II.
People Had to Line up Around the Block to Send Their Good Tidings
Santa’s helpers aren’t just hard at work at the North Pole but are also keeping themselves busy closer to home as well. Here we see New York City postal clerks in 1954 sorting through huge piles of good tidings via Christmas letters. Back in these days, people needed to line up around the block in order to place their Christmas cards and packages at the post office.
In addition, children were also anxious to drop their letters to Santa at the closest postal box. In 1913, local postmasters began an initiative called “Operation Santa,” which made it possible for individuals and organizations to take these letters and send their responses or gifts in Santa’s name. These days, Operation Santa still exists and like most things, has since gone digital.
Eggnog Has Been Around Since Before 1775
Taking it all the way back to Christmas 1909, this group of friends strikes a pose for a photo amidst their holiday celebration. Other than their olden day outfits and hairstyles, their Christmas gathering looks strangely similar to the ones we still have today.
This makes us wonder how many of the traditions we look forward to in recent years date as far back as this photo. For instance, were these folks sipping on eggnog back in the day? According to several sources, the term “egg nog” dates back to 1775 although the origin of the actual drink is still up for debate.
The Rockettes Originated in Missouri
Here’s another New York tradition that makes the city worth a visit during Christmas time. The iconic Radio City Rockettes have been high kicking in the holidays since 1925 where they originated in St. Louis Missouri. Following a nationwide tour, it was Samuel “Roxy” Rothafel that moved the dance group to the Radio City Music Hall in 1934.
Since then, The Christmas Spectacular Starring the Radio City Rockettes became instilled in New York’s holiday celebrations. Today the 90-minute performance includes 140 dancers proficient in tap, jazz, ballet and modern and an original music score. To become a Rockette, each dancer must be at least 18 years old and be between five foot, six inches and five foot 10.5 inches tall.
New York Keeps People Outside Even During the Coldest Winters
A photo captured near the turn of the century of local New Yorkers in Central Park taking part in a curling match. Although many winter nights in the city are too cold to venture outside, there are many ways to enjoy the holidays outdoors. For one thing, New York is all about the Christmas markets.
New York has markets all over town including the Union Square Holiday Market, the Grand Central Holiday Fair and the Winter Village at Bryant Park. Bryant Park also has the infamous skating rink which is surrounded by stalls selling ornaments and apple cider to keep you warm.
World War Two Soldiers Kept Their Spirits High During the Holidays
A soldier during WWII reads Christmas cards sent from loved ones that were hung up as part of their holiday decorations. It was these letters that brought the deployed soldiers solace. Those fighting did the best to bring about Christmas cheer away from home.
Soldiers would make handmade trees and decorate them with surgical cotton, wool, and empty cigarette cartons. They would also stop to sit around the table for Christmas dinner and even stand beside their tree to sing familiar carols.