Christmas occupies a special place in the hearts of Americans, and people around the world. Though it has a long, storied history that dates back thousands of years, the version that most Americans are familiar with has only been around since the early 19th century. Shortly after the American Revolution, the holiday was scarcely celebrated because it was considered an English tradition. It wouldn’t be long before Christmas came roaring back, though, spurred on by one of the most iconic holiday stories of all time.
By 1843, Christmas had been losing its place in the American, and English, consciousness for decades. That was until Charles Dickens released his seminal work, A Christmas Carol. It was an instant and incredible success, and helped transform the holiday into what it is known for today. Specifically, it portrayed the holiday as a time for family, compassion, and generosity toward others, represented beautifully in the story’s principle character, Ebenezer Scrooge. The story also cemented the essential holiday greeting “Merry Christmas,” and is considered by many historians to be the foundation for what Americans recognize as the modern version of the holiday.
The revival of Christmas carols, such as The First Noel, Hark the Heralds Angels Sing, and God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, helped conjure this spirit, along with what is probably the most well-known Christmas poem in the world, ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas. Clement Clarke Moore’s poem was actually published in 1822, many years before A Christmas Carol, but it enjoyed renewed popularity with the rise of the modern holiday.
During the 20th century, Christmas further secured its position as the nation’s most popular holiday, and constantly added on to its impressive array of stories and motifs. Perhaps the most beloved holiday character of all, Santa Claus, became the icon of the holiday around this time, although Santa has been around for many centuries. In the 16th century, Santa was known as Father Christmas in England, and though he looked fairly similar to today’s version, Father Christmas symbolized peace, revelry and cheer. The idea of a gift-giving folk character has been around since the Middle Ages, personified in the form of St. Nicholas (also known as SinterKlaas). The American version, wearing the red and white suit, was popularized at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century. At first, the legend was depicted in various children’s stories, but soon he became a fixture in advertising.
The popular myth is that Coca-Cola invented the modern version of Santa Claus, but this is only partly true. While an artist hired by the company did illustrate what most people know as Santa Claus, this was only a final draft, so to speak. In fact, a red and white robed Santa had been featured in several advertisements long before Coca-Cola found him, notably for the White Rock Beverages company, which sold ginger ale and mineral water.
However, the exact history of the holiday isn’t as important as how people to choose to celebrate it now. And few holidays can match the beauty, wonder, excitement and kindness that the Christmas season brings to the world every year.