Popular Christmas Traditions From Every Decade
It wouldn't be Christmas without a tree decked out in lights and a plate of cookies left out for Santa...or would it? The Christmas traditions we love today haven't always been around, and some of them were invented more recently than you might think.
Every decade hailed in a new Christmas trend, and the best ones have stood the test of time. Check out when your favorite traditions first began, and what it might have been like to celebrate the holidays when your grandparents were growing up.
1900s: Advent Calendars
It's hard to imagine a time before advent calendars, and that's because they've been around since before all of us were born. The tradition of advent calendars started in the early 1900s by a boy named Gerard Lang. His mother was the one responsible for the idea, giving him a cookie each day leading up to Christmas. He used the concept as a springboard and designed a paper advent calendar with 25 doors to open.
Today, almost every brand imaginable markets their own advent calendar each season, including Lego, Williams Sonoma, and Target. Dior even makes an advent calendar, which you're welcome to try if you have $750 to drop.
1910s: Christmas Tree Lights
Christmas got considerably safer around the 1910s. Before that, clipping small candles to live Christmas trees was commonplace. If that sounds like a recipe for disaster, it was. The most responsible of revelers kept their tree in the middle of the room away from anything flammable, never lit the tree if the needles felt dry, and never left it unattended.
Not everyone did that, however, and house fires weren't uncommon. Once electricity became more widely available, electric tree lights caught on like, well, the opposite of wildfire. For the first time, trees could be left lit for hours, not minutes, and it wasn't necessary to keep large buckets of water nearby in case the evergreen went up in flames.
1920s: Holiday Jazz
Jingle Bells was written in 1850, and most classic Christmas songs have been around longer than that. It wasn't until the '20s that Christmas music branched out from caroling and church choirs to something more modern: Christmas jazz. The roaring '20s waved in a new era of jazz, and bands were quick to put jazzy spins on traditional carols.
1930s: Cookies & Milk
Before the 1930s, Santa didn't get any milk and cookies. Seems like a lot of work to climb down millions of chimneys only to receive a list of demands and zero snackage. Ironically, the tradition of leaving out milk and cookies involved even more selflessness when it first started.
The ritual began during the Great Depression as a sign of gratitude and hope during difficult times. Even after the economic downturn was over, the cookies and milk tradition stuck. Santa is probably grateful, although we're not sure the North Pole's resident dietician is thrilled.
1940s: Artificial Trees
Fake Christmas trees existed before the 1940s, but it wasn't until then that they really took off. Many men in both the UK and the US were deployed thanks to World War II. Thousands of basic supplies were rationed as well. Switching to artificial trees simplified the holiday, but the convenience of them kept them around to this day.
We called them fake, but the only thing fake about them is the plastic they're made of. Everything else is just as magical and meaningful as the real thing.
1950s: Cookie Trades
This fun tradition has stuck around, and we're so glad it did. In the '50s, housewives started the tradition of hosting cookie swap parties every December. Everyone invited bakes a batch of cookies, brings them to the party, and exchanges them until everyone has a few of each cookie. That way, every family gets to sample some of everything.
1960s: The Nutcracker Ballet
The Nutcracker Ballet was first performed in 1892, so Tchaikovsky's masterpiece was nothing new. It was most popular in the composer's homeland of Russia, however, and didn't make its way to dance companies in the US until 1944. That's when the San Francisco Ballet company first performed it on Christmas Eve, but it took another 15 years until it took of in earnest. The San Fransisco Ballet still performs it annually, along with just about every other major ballet company across the nation.
1970s: Shopping From the Sears Christmas Catalog
If you grew up in the '70s or '80s, Christmas wasn't Christmas without flipping through the massive holiday catalog published by Sears every year. It was around an inch thick, and filled with every toy, gift and gadget a kid could want. Every kid would go comb through it for wish list inspiration. Sears no longer sends them out, but you can still find copies on eBay if you're feeling nostalgic.
1980s: Ugly Christmas Sweaters
Fashion in the '80s, from the big hair to the leg warmers and neon color scheme, was interesting to say the least. As if their day-to-day outfits weren't ugly enough, people came up with the concept of ugly Christmas sweater parties. It's tough to find an authentic ugly Christmas sweater these days. You'll know you're on the right track if it's heavy, oversized, bright and hideous.
1990s: Christmas Pop Music Became Popular, 'It's a Wonderful Life' Comeback
"All I Want for Christmas Is You" came out in 1994, and that says it all. The '90s ushered in a new era of holiday-themed pop hits, like Grown-Up Christmas List, Christmastime, and Sarah McLachlan's '94 Christmas album that some of our moms still have on CD.
There were also tons of cheesy Christmas movies to pick up from Blockbusters, if you weren't busy watching "It's a Wonderful Life "on cable. While it originally aired in 1947, it wasn't until '94 that NBC acquired the exclusive rights to it, playing it annually every year since.
2000s: How the Grinch Stole Christmas Got a Reboot
The animated version of How the Grinch Stole Christmas came out in 1966, but the far more popular remake starring Jim Carrey came out in 2000. Rotten Tomatoes rated it a measly 49%, so we're now boycotting the site.
The entire movie was genius, and Jim Carrey's ridiculously expressive face pure gold. Should be worried that we find the Grinch's attitude increasingly relatable with every passing year?
2010s: Elf on the Shelf
The Elf on the Shelf tradition, in which parents hide an elf toy in a different spot each night to observe the kids of the house and report back to Santa, launched in 2005.
It started thanks to Carol Aebersold and her daughter Chanda Bell, who published a book based on their own annual tradition. By the 2010s, it became a widespread household tradition, and parents get really, really creative.
2020s: Christmas, but Make It Virtual
When the pandemic hit in 2020, everything went virtual. Work, school, even Christmas. Instead of visiting Santa in person, kids were able to video chat with him from afar, send messages to him, and get personalized letters in the mail.
Those traditions stuck. Kids today can virtually visit Santa's Workshop in the official hometown of Santa, Rovaniemi, Finland. They can also chat with him over the phone, check if they're on the nice list, and track his progress on Christmas Eve.