Christmas History in Pop Culture - Updated for 2017



“Fra-gee-lay. That must be Italian.” Is a line spoken by the father in A Christmas Story movie when he misreads the word “fragile” on a big wooden box that holds a very special prize – the infamous leg lamp. I have quoted that line over and over again and it wouldn’t be Christmas without an annual viewing of this cinematic gem in my home.

We all have favorite memories and traditions related to Christmas - some better than others. Here's a short trip through holiday history from 1823 to 2017 featuring the highs and lows of Christmas pop culture.

The Night Before Christmas
The A Visit from St. Nicolas (aka Twas The Night Before Christmas) poem was written by Clement Clarke Moore in 1823. The poem has been credited for bringing uniformity to people's notions on what Santa looks like and some of his personality traits. Before then, views about St. Nicolas varied a lot.

A Christmas Carol
Charles Dickens published the first edition of A Christmas Carol on December 19, 1843. It is said that it was Dicken's own humiliation of a poor childhood that inspired him to write the story. The story was written in six weeks and since his last three books had been flops, his publishers refused to print it, so he had to self-publish the book. Since then, many have created their own versions of the story. In 2011, The Smurfs: A Christmas Carol, was created for home video. Dickens was not pleased.

Christmas Cards
The very first Christmas cards were created by John Calcott Horsley for Sir Henry Cole of London in 1843. Here is a photo of the first commercially produced card also designed by Horsley. It took Hallmark until 1910 to create its first cards.

In 1872 Wilhelm F├╝chtner, known as the “father of the nutcracker,” made the first commercial production of nutcrackers using the lathe to create many of the same design.

Red Kettles
The very first Salvation Army kettle was created and used in San Francisco, CA in 1891. Today kettles are used as far away as Korea, Japan and Chile helping over 29 million people each year. In some locations, the ringing of the bells is considered an annoyance so some bell ringers hold a bell-shaped sign that says "ding ding." Seriously.

The Nutcracker Ballet
The two-act ballet, The Nutcracker was originally choreographed by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov with Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky providing the score. It premiered in St. Petersburg in 1892. Initially, it was not a success. Today, just about every city in the U.S. has at least one production performing every year.

Yes, Virginia...
In 1897, eight-year-old Virginia O'Hanlon wrote a letter to the editor of New York's Sun asking him if indeed there was a Santa Claus. Francis Pharcellus Church responded quickly with the famous, yet unsigned, newspaper editorial. It has since become history's most reprinted newspaper editorial, appearing in part or whole in dozens of languages in books, movies, and other editorials.

Coca-Cola Polar Bears
Some may think that the Cola-Cola bears are a fairly new invention, but they're not. The first polar bear that showed up in a print ad for Coca-Cola appeared in France in 1922. Since that time, Coca-Cola has used the bears in its advertising sporadically. The first TV commercial using the polar bears didn't air until 1993 but they have been used every year since.

Frango Mints
Macy's popular Frango Mints first began as a frozen dessert served at Frederick & Nelson department stores in the Northwest in 1918. The candy version of this treat didn't arrive until 1927. In 1996, Frederick & Nelson closed its doors for the last time but the product was sold to Macy's to continue the tradition.

Coca-Cola Santa Claus
Coca-Cola first produced magazine ads featuring a friendly Santa Claus in a red suit in 1931 providing Americans with a firm idea of what St. Nick actually looked like. This image plus the description given in the poem, The Night Before Christmas, have solidified in our minds who Santa is. Imagine if Coke’s logo color were blue – we’d have a whole different Santa to look at.

Christmas Tree Ceremony at Rockefeller Center
The very first unofficial Christmas tree ceremony held at Rockefeller Center occurred in December 1931 when a group of demolition workers at the Center’s construction site collected money to purchase a 20-foot-tall Christmas tree. The tree was later decorated with handmade garlands created by the worker’s families. Today, 83 years later, it is estimated that more than half a million people will pass by the tree every day. NBC aired the 19th annual special this year.

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
Rudolph, the 9th reindeer with the red nose, first appeared in a booklet written by Robert L. May for Montgomery Ward department stores in 1939 as a promotional gimmick.The song about the red-nosed wonder wasn’t released until 1949 by both Harry Brannon and Gene Autry. Still later, the Rankin/Bass stop motion TV special wasn't released until 1964, but has been shown every year ever since.

White Christmas
Irving Berlin wrote, "White Christmas" for Bing Crosby's movie, Holiday Inn in 1940, but the movie wasn't released until 1942. Ironically, the same set from the movie was reused for the Crosby's other similar movie, White Christmas in 1954. The song remains Crosby’s best-selling recording and the best-selling Christmas single of all-time.

It's a Wonderful Life
Frank Capra first introduced America to It’s a Wonderful Life starring James Stewart and Donna Reed in 1946 and soon everyone knew that every time a bell rings, a angel earns its wings. Despite how popular the film is today and how Americans feel about the sentimentality, it was initially a financial flop.

Elf on the Shelf
The first of these elves, known as "Knee Huggers," were imported from Japan in 1946 (the one on the left). The first "official" Elf on the Shelf book was written in 2004 by Carol Aebersold and her daughter Chanda Bell which included the "new" elf (the one on the right.).

Santa Tracking
In 1955, Sears Roebuck and Co. misprinted a telephone number to put children in touch with Santa Claus. The number went straight to NORAD. Colonel Harry Shoup had his staff “check” the radar for Santa for those who called. Today, children (and adults) can check on Santa’s whereabouts when they visit the NORAD website.

I Love Lucy Christmas Special
In 1956, CBS's I Love Lucy aired a Christmas episode that was never shown in reruns. It was considered the "lost" episode until 1989 when the network aired the episode as a Christmas special. In recent years, the network has rebroadcast the episode as a Christmas special. This year, in addition to the Lucy special, CBS will also air a colorized special for the original Dick Van Dyke show.

The Grinch
Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas was first published in 1957. In 1966, it became an animated holiday classic. The Grinch was voiced by Boris Karloff and the hit song was sung by Thurl Ravenscroft who was also the original voice of Tony the Tiger. A Broadway show based on the story arrived in 1994 and a live action feature film starring Jim Carrey as the green guy was made in 2000. In 2018, Universal plans to release a new animated version of the story.

Norelco Christmas Commercial
Norelco first began airing Christmas commercials with Santa Claus zooming over the snow-covered hills on an electric shaver with three floating heads in 1961. Though it has been updated through the years, it is one of the most fondly-remembered Christmas commercials ever made.

Black Nativity
Langston Hughes’ Black Nativity, A Gospel Celebration, debuted off Broadway in 1961. Many years later, it continues to be produced annually in numerous major cities throughout the US. In 2013, a new movie that was inspired by the play debuted in theaters.

Rudolph Comes to TV
The Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer TV special first appeared on NBC in 1964. In 1972, the special moved to CBS and is known as the longest running Christmas TV special of all time. In 2013, the network decided to air the special days before Thanksgiving causing many to complain that it was airing too early. In 2014, the special celebrated its' 50th birthday.

A Charlie Brown Christmas
A Charlie Brown Christmas TV special aired for the first time on CBS in 1965. It was the first of many Peanuts specials. At the time, executives tried to persuade Charles Schulz from having Linus quote from the Gospel of Luke thinking that it would turn off viewers. Instead, 50% of all TVs in the U.S. tuned into the first broadcast. 2015 marked the special's 50th year.

Black Friday
The term “Black Friday” (the day after Thanksgiving) was first used in the 1960's by Philadelphia police and cab drivers since they knew that the day would be full of bad traffic. Later in the 1980's retailers began to embrace the notion that the name came from the date in which shops first began to see a profit, but this is untrue.

Hallmark Ornaments
Hallmark introduced six glass balls and 12 yarn figures as the first collection of Hallmark Keepsake Ornaments in 1973. Since then, the company has introduced more than 3,000 different ornaments and for many families, they are Christmas tradition.

David Bowie & Bing Crosby
David Bowie recorded a duet for a Bing Crosby Christmas special in September of 1977. The "Peace on Earth" and "Little Drummer Boy" combo became a big hit but Crosby never knew that as he passed away in October of that same year.

Star Wars Holiday Special
CBS aired the notoriously bad Star Wars Holiday Special in 1978 for the first and last time. To this day, George Lucas barely acknowledges its’ existence and the show has never been re-telecast or officially released on home video. Rare clips from the special can be found from time to time on YouTube, but most fans would just like to pretend that it never happened.

Cabbage Patch Kids
Love them or hate them, in 1983, 5,000 parents and grandparents staged a near riot at the Hills Department Store in Charleston, W. VA trying to get their hands on the latest fad – Cabbage Patch Kids.

A Christmas Story
Based on Jean Shepherd's book, In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash, A Christmas Story entered theaters in 1983 that featured Ralphie, a boy who would stop at nothing trying to convince his parents to buy him a Red Ryder air rifle for Christmas. The movie was not a big hit, however, today the movie is considered a cult classic known for its scenes featuring a boy getting his tongue stuck on a frozen metal pole, Ralphie's dad receiving a leg lamp as a "major prize" and everyone telling Ralphie that he'll shoot his eye out. 

Disney Christmas Day Parade
Disney Parks presented its’ first Christmas Day Parade special in 1983. The company has run a similar special every year since with the exception of a “Tracking Santa” special in 2000. The 2005 edition won a Daytime Emmy Award.

Christmas E-Cards
The very first versions of “E-Cards” were created in 1984 and while they haven't completely made traditional Christmas cards obsolete, they have changed the culture somewhat.

Folger's Coffee Commercial
Folger’s showed the “Peter Comes Home” commercial for the first time in 1986. It aired every year until 2009 when a new version was created. The newer one doesn’t hold the emotional weight of the original, but old one is pretty worn out, so give the company a break.

Kneeling Santas
Canada’s The Interim printed a post by Father Ted about a kneeling Santa in the stable. Around this same time, various pictures and figurines began appearing everywhere. In 1991, Jeanne Pieper wrote the book, A Special Place for Santa.

The Simpsons
"Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire" was the first full-length episode of The Simpsons to air on FOX in 1989. Surprisingly sweet and with a touch less sarcasm than the show it became, it was viewed by approximately 13.4 million viewers.The Simpsons have never left the air since.

Tickle Me Elmo
Tyco created mass hysteria in 1996 with the creation of Tickle Me Elmo. Based on the cute little monster featured on Sesame Street, when a child squeezed his tummy, he would giggle and shake. The product was a too big of a hit and caused parents to fight for the few left on store shelves weeks before Christmas. 

M&M's Commercial
The first TV commercial where Red and Yellow, the mascots for M&M candies, meet Santa for the first time was presented in 1996. Both parties utter the phrase, "They do exist" and then both Santa and Red faint because of the realization.

The Red Cups
For some, nothing signals the arrival of the Christmas season more than coffee drinkers sipping from Starbucks red cups. They were first created in 1997. In 2015, there was small uproar from Christians complaining that the coffee giant had given up on Christmas when they decided to go with just plain red cups with no design. At the time, Starbucks said that they wanted to give their customers a "blank pallet" to create their own holiday cups. To many peoples surprise, the company released many of these original designs in 2016.

Cyber Monday
The term “Cyber Monday” was first used to describe one of the biggest online shopping days of the year in 2005. It is held the Monday after Thanksgiving. In recent years, Black Friday has become less popular. 2015 became the most profitable Cyber Monday to date for retailers. So much so that shut down due to the overwhelming response from shoppers.

The War on Christmas
Some non-profit organizations petitioned for boycotts of various retail stores demanding that they use the term “Christmas” rather than “Holiday" in 2005. Many retailers have refrained from using "Merry Christmas" in their advertising so that they wouldn't offend some customers. By doing so, they did exactly what they didn't want to do. Today, it is still tricky for some retailers. For instance, Target stores proudly say "Merry Christmas" when you enter their stores, but they still sell "holiday" trees.

The Nativity Story
New Line Cinema released The Nativity Story in 2006. The film made history as being the first film ever to stage its world premiere in the Vatican City.

Prep & Landing
Disney created its first made-for-TV Christmas special in 2009, Prep & Landing. The special, told from an elf's point of view, featured the adventures of Wayne, a disgruntled elf and his new recruit, Lanny. The following year the studio released the sequel, Prep & Landing: Naughty vs. Nice. The specials have been airing each year ever since.

Christmas Myth Billboards
American Atheists began producing "myth" billboards to bring home the point that they don't believe in God and that others shouldn't either around 2011. This stunt continues to annoy and sadden Christians everywhere each year.

Giving Tuesday
#GivingTuesday was created in 2012 as a national day of giving and was added to the calendar on the Tuesday following Thanksgiving, Black Friday and Cyber Monday.

Giant Candy Bars
The "big" thing for 2013 was the arrival of giant candy bars that are meant for sharing. Hershey created the 5 pound chocolate bar that sells for $44.99 on the company's website. M&M/Mars have their own "slice n share" versions of Snickers, Reese's Peanut Butter Cups and Peppermint Patties. Each weighing at about 1 pound and sell for about $10.

First Drones Used in Nighttime Christmas ShowIn 2016, Disney and Intel were the first in America to use 300 drones for a new show experience over the skies at Disney Springs at the Walt Disney Worlds Resort. “Starbright Holidays – An Intel Collaboration” invited guests to wish upon a holiday star and enjoy the choreographed show.

The Doughboy and Santa
Though Pillsbury has created commercials in the past that feature Pop-n-Fresh (aka The Doughboy), in 2017, the company created on where Santa would poke the little fellow in his tummy and Pop would say, "Hee, hee, hee." Finding this humorous, Santa would respond by saying, "Ho, ho, ho."

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