How the 19th Century Invented Modern Christmas

By: Kate Morgan  | 
19th century Xmas
This colored woodblock illustration, circa 1860, depicts St. Nicholas, a fourth-century Christian saint, whose secret gift-giving gave rise to the traditional model of Santa Claus. Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

When you imagine a "classic Christmas," plenty of things spring to mind: Christmas trees, Santa Claus, twinkling lights and traditional carols. While some traditions are descended from more ancient practices, Christmas as we know it is a product of the 19th century. The 1800s were a time of remarkable change in the Western world, including the birth of many holiday customs we know and love.

Before the mid-1800s, says Dr. Bruce David Forbes, professor emeritus of religious studies at Morningside University in Sioux City, Iowa, people in England and, by extension, the United States, barely celebrated Christmas at all.


"The Puritans opposed Christmas," says Forbes. "They thought it was a Catholic thing, and that people were partying too much. Even though the Puritan revolution was in the 1600s, and didn't last very long, the discouragement of Christmas lasted like a century and a half. It's kind of like Christmas disappeared."

But beginning around the middle of the 19th century, Forbes says, forces began gathering around the holiday. "Christmas came roaring back," he says, largely thanks to the young and fashionable royal family, headed by Queen Victoria and her husband, Prince Albert.


The Birth of the Modern Christmas Tree

19th century Xmas
Christmas trees, such as these at Windsor Castle in 1850, stood on tables back then and bore little resemblance to the massive trees we know today.
Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

"The Christmas tree, we usually credit with starting in Germany," Forbes says. "It comes to England because Victoria is of the house of Hanover and that's German. Prince Albert is German."

In 1848, London newspapers published a photo of Victoria and Albert, along with several of their children, gathered around a decorated Christmas tree on a table.


"It took off immediately," says Forbes. In England, and soon thereafter, in America, families everywhere begin putting up their own Christmas trees. Things have changed a bit since, he adds, but not much. "In that image of Victoria and Albert, their Christmas tree is on a table and the presents are hanging from the tree or on the table," he says. "As the presents get more and more crazy, of course, then we're going to need the bigger Christmas tree. Now we have floor-to-ceiling trees in our houses."


Joel Roberts Poinsett and His Festive Flowers

19th century Xmas
Brought to the U.S. in 1825 by its first ambassador to Mexico, Joel Roberts Poinsett, poinsettia plants (Euphorbia pulcherrima) have been cultivated as a symbol of Christmas around the world. Wikimedia Commons (CC BY SA 3.0)

"Christmas is like a snowball," says Forbes. "You roll a snowball and it changes size and shape and picks things up. As Christmas spreads into different places, it picks things up, and when the snowball rolls to the next country, it gets dropped there. I think poinsettias are a great example of this."

They've become a symbol of Christmas around the world, but the red and green blooms of the poinsettia plant are indigenous to Mexico. When the Spanish brought Christianity with them to Mexico, Forbes says, a story sprang up around the flowers.


"The story I love is about a peasant who wants to go visit the manger and the baby Jesus, but is in tears because she has nothing to offer," Forbes says. "She takes some leaves from the roadside, and the baby Jesus turns them into this beautiful red flower." How the plants got the name we now know them by, he adds, is another example of the "snowball" in motion.

"The first American ambassador to Mexico was a guy named Joel Roberts Poinsett. He was an amateur botanist," Forbes says. "He brought cuttings back to the United States in 1825. It started to spread in the United States, and now it's spread all over the world."


St. Nicholas Became Santa Claus

While St. Nicholas was a real person, celebrated in religious circles for centuries, it was the 19th century that transformed him into Santa Claus.

"With St. Nicholas, we don't know what's legend and what's historical," says Forbes. "He supposedly lived in the 300s in what's now Turkey, and he was a bishop." He developed a reputation for generosity, and after he was canonized, "kind of becomes the protector of everybody. He's like a guardian angel. His saint's day is December 6, so it's not Christmas, but it's in that season leading up to Christmas."


St. Nicholas was especially popular in the Netherlands, where he's known as "Sinterklaas." It was the Dutch, Forbes explained, who imported him to the New World.

"Presbyterians, Baptists, Methodists, Quakers — all those people did not do Christmas in early America," he says. "It was not a huge cultural thing. But in New York — at the time, New Amsterdam – the Dutch continue these traditions. That's how St. Nicholas gets his toe in the door. And the Dutch term Sinterklaas gets anglicized to Santa Claus."

The rest of St. Nicholas' transformation to the modern Santa comes courtesy of writers like Washington Irving and Clement Moore, whose 1876 book "Old Christmas" and 1823 poem "A Visit from St. Nicholas," respectively, introduce Santa to popular culture.

"At first, he's an elf; a 'jolly old elf, with a miniature sleigh and eight tiny reindeer,'" says Forbes. But then, in 1863, cartoonist Thomas Nast included Santa in a political cartoon, and his bushy white beard and rosy cheeks set the tone for Santa forever.


From Candles to Electric Lights

Electric Christmas lights didn't become common in American households until the 1930s, but like so many other Christmas traditions, they were born in the 1800s.

In 1871, businessman Edward Hibberd Johnson hired a young inventor named Thomas Edison at the Automatic Telegraph Company. When Edison left to form his own company, Johnson went with him. Edison famously patented the electric light bulb in 1880, and Johnson invested some of his own money to start the Edison Lamp Company.


Meanwhile, Christmas was candlelit, and that gave Johnson a great idea. He wired together 80 multicolor Edison bulbs, and wrapped them on a Christmas tree. The decoration got a lot of press, and while they were still too expensive for most people to afford, Christmas was suddenly a lot brighter.

Dickens Publishes "A Christmas Carol"

19th century Xmas
A scene from the 1938 motion picture "A Christmas Carol," which was based on the novel published in 1843 by Charles Dickens. Bettmann/Getty Images

In 1843, English writer Charles Dickens published a story that would be cemented in pop culture forever. In "A Christmas Carol," the story of Ebeneezer Scrooge, a grouchy businessman who's visited by three ghosts and learns a lesson in generosity.

Dickens' popularity helped: "He was a rock star," Forbes says. "He toured the United States and people lined up for tickets."


Businesses that were open on Christmas Day saw themselves represented by Scrooge's attitude, Forbes explains. As a result, "businesses recalculate. They're thinking about it and saying oh, Christmas doesn't just equal lost business. There are business possibilities here."

Businesses embraced the holiday and suddenly, it was commercialized.

So, we tip our hats and say thanks to Victoria and Albert, Joel Roberts Poinsett, the Dutch, Washington Irving, Clement Moore, Johnson and Edison, and, of course, Charles Dickens, all of whom helped to create Christmas as we know it. But, most of all, thanks 19th century!