Christmas Firsts: The Origins of Christmas Traditions in America

First Christmas card, Christmas stamp, and Santa Claus in America

December 26, 2020
Christmas Firsts

Do you know who wrote the first Christmas card? Which president put up the first White House Christmas Tree? Which department store hosted the first department store Santa? Here’s a look back at some Christmas firsts in American history.

The First Christmas Card

  • The very first Christmas card was printed in London in 1843 by Sir Henry Cole who hired artist John Calcott Horsley to design a holiday card that he could send to his friends. Making dozens or hundreds of your own personalized cards was very time-consuming. Why not make it easier? Notice how the card below has a blank space after “To” and “From” so he could fill in the name.

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  • It was Boston-based printer Louis Prang who introduced the Christmas card to the American public in 1875. An immigrant born in what is now Poland, Louis Prang (1824–1909) was first to make commercially printed holiday greeting cards available to the public. He was an innovative lithographer and publisher known for his early adoption of the chromolithographic color printing process. His intention was to share the arts with the public and democratize art in his adopted land. The popularity of his Christmas cards was immediate. By 1881, he was reportedly printing five million Christmas cards a year. He’s often called the “Father of the American Christmas Card.” Prang’s earliest cards were just simple flower designs with the words “Merry Christmas.”

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The First White House Christmas Card

  • The first White House Christmas card was sent in 1953 from the administration of President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Interestingly, Eisenhower was an amateur artist and the White House issues many cards bearing the President’s own artwork.

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  • The tradition was continued during the Kennedy administration when Jacqueline Kennedy’s own artwork was featured on a 1963 card!
  • An art print also became the standard Christmas gift for the president’s staff, a practice continued to this day.
  • Here’s a fun fact: “Happy Christmas” (still traditional in England) replaced “Merry Christmas” because clergymen decided the traditional greeting was associated with inebriation!

First Christmas Postage Stamp

  • In 1962, the U.S. Post Office Department issued its first Christ­mas stamp in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Customers had requested such a stamp for years. It featured a wreath and two candles and sold for four cents. Anticipating a huge demand for the new Christmas stamp, the department had 350 million printed — the larg­est number produced for a special stamp until that time. The initial sup­ply sold out quickly and the Bureau of Engraving and Print­ing began working around-the-clock to print more. By the end of 1962, 1 billion stamps had been printed and distrib­uted. The decision to print a Christmas stamp generated some controversy by those who felt the stamp violated separation of church and state. Two years later, the first religious-themed Madonna and Child stamp was issued. 

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The First Christmas Tree

  • Of course, Germany is credited with starting the Christmas tree tradition. However, the first American Christmas tree can be credited to a Hessian soldier by the name of Henrick Roddmore, who was captured at the Battle of Bennington (Vermont) in 1776. He then went to work on the farm of Samuel Denslow in Windsor Locks, Connecticut, where for the next 14 years he put up and decorated Christmas trees in the Denslow family home.
  • The first Christmas tree retail lot was established in 1851 by a Pennsylvanian named Mark Carr, who hauled two ox sleds loaded with Christmas trees from the Catskill Mountains to the sidewalks of New York City.
  • On December 22, 1882, Edward Johnson, an associate of Thomas Edison, created the first string of Christmas tree lights. They were first sold in New York City.

Christmas Trees in the White House

  • The first president to set up a Christmas tree in the White House was Franklin Pierce in 1859. There’s some dispute over whether this was officially a White House Christmas tree. In 1889, Benjamin Harrison placed a Christmas tree in the Second Floor Oval Room. Some consider this the first official White House Christmas tree.
  • The first president to establish the National Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony on the White House lawn was Calvin Coolidge.
  • In 1895, Grover and Frances Cleveland were the first to use electric Christmas lights on a presidential Christmas tree. (Previously, candles were used.)
  • In 1961, Jacqueline Kennedy started the tradition of a decorative theme for the White House Christmas tree. (Her first theme was The Nutcracker.”)

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Martha’s Great Christmas Cake

While cakes at the holidays have been around for centuries, it was America’s first First Lady, Martha Washington, who made the first famous Christmas Cake. Below is the exact recipe for celebrating what she called “a true Virginia Christmas” at Mount Vernon:

  • “Take 40 eggs and divide the whites from the yolks and beat them to a froth, start to work four pounds of butter to cream and put the whites of eggs to it a spoon full at a time till it is well worked. Then put four pounds of sugar finely powdered to it in the same way, then put in the yolks of eggs, and five pounds of flower, and five pounds of fruit. Two hours will bake it. Add to it half an ounce of mace, one nutmeg, half a pint of wine, and some French brandy.”

See the recipe page for Martha’s Great Cake.

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Photo: See the excellent Mount Vernon book, Dining With the Washingtons

Our First Look at Santa Claus

Before Christianity, the Germanic peoples celebrated a midwinter event called Yule. Their god Wodan (Norse Odin) of the north had a long white beard and a rode a horse during his ghostly hunts through the midwinter sky. It’s thought that this German mythology later merged with the Dutch traditions regarding Saint Nicholas, an early Christian bishop, to create the image of Santa Claus.

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Credit: 1886 depiction of the long-bearded Norse god Odin by Georg von Rosen.

In America, the image of St. Nick or Santa Claus as a plump and jolly old elf was heavily influenced by the famous poem, “A Visit From St. Nicholas” (more commonly called, “The Night Before Christmas”) which was published anonymously in December 1823.  Clement Clarke Moore is credited as the author though his authorship has been disputed.

The first drawings of Santa Claus are credited to political cartoonist named Thomas Nast. His drawings of Santa appeared in Harper’s Weekly magazine from January, 1863 until 1886. Nast drew Santa for 30 years, depicting him as a cheerful, rotund, old elf. Over time, Nast changing the color of his coat to the red he’s known for today.

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Credit: 1881 image known as “Merry Old Santa Claus,” probably Nast’s most famous portrait.

Interestingly, today’s images of Santa as an even bigger-than-life figure with sparkling eyes, a merry smile, and a white beard were popularized through Haddon Sundblom’s depiction of him for The Coca-Cola Company’s Christmas advertising in the 1930s. 

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Credit: Cola-Cola Company.

The First Department Store Santa Claus 

James Edgar from Brockton, Massachusetts, is credited as being the first person to come up with the concept of dressing up as Santa Claus for Christmas. He was also the first department store Santa Claus.

An Scottish immigrant who owned a dry goods store (Edgar’s Boston Store), he initially dressed up as a clown at Christmas and walked through the store, visiting with children.  Then, in 1890, he brought Santa Claus to life in a custom-made red suit. 

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Image: James Edgar in his clown costume. Credit: Brockton Public Library.

“I have never been able to understand why the great gentleman lives at the North Pole. He is so far away … only able to see the children one day a year. He should live closer to them,” Edgar once said. Edgar practiced what he preached, becoming “Uncle Jim” to the children he entertained in his store and at annual July 4th extravaganzas—renting trolleys to carry thousands of Brockton youths to holiday outings where he would dress in costume to delight them. “I love children and they love me,” he said.

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Edgar’s holiday parades

Children began arriving by train from Boston, Providence, Worcester, and even New York. By 1891 Santa had appeared at many major department stores, and by the turn of the century the department store Santa was an institution. Although Edgar might be best remembered for dressing up as Santa, he was also known for the sharing of his good fortune, paying for children’s medical care and he also offered jobs to youths in need. 

The Christmas Club Savings Account

Remember the Christmas Club savings account? Started on December 1, 1909, by Pennsylvania’s Carlisle Trust Company, the idea was to offer customers 3% interest on money deposited in a special Christmas account. They received coupons each time they put money in the account, and in early December they were able to redeem their accumulated coupons and go shopping!

More Christmas Firsts

  • December, 1898: The world’s first Christmas stamp was issued—rather by accident—by Canada. Read more.
  • December 7, 1907: Christmas seals sold for the first time

Read more about Christmas Traditions and Origins!

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Reader Comments

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Hessian soldiers are Germans

Hessian soldiers were German mercenaries who fought along with the British in 1776.

First official President’s Christmas Card?

I am not sure if I can share a photo but I have a pretty official looking one from from The President and Mrs Roosevelt from 1935 (pre Eisenhower!)

That Special Christmas Moment

Reading through all of these comments revived so much of what Christmas means to me, so thank you OFA and all of it's readers who shared. I was at the cemetery where my youngest son is buried and arranging a small Christmas tree for his grave when some people came to do the same at a loved one's grave. They said they use all natural elements to make the arrangements, fir, pine, cotton, leaves, nuts, etc. It was simply beautiful just even knowing they had taken time and used their creativity to do so. Integrating our earth's resources into our Christmas celebrations, large or small, is a privilege we all should take advantage of. Making Christmas gifts of baked goods and candy or a simple homemade ornament goes a lot further in understanding the meaning of Christmas compared to purchased lavish material items seen on television. I believe you will find many, many people, of all ages, who cannot recall most of their gifts from one year to the next, but a special moment of an interchange with a friend, family member or perhaps a stranger about Christmas, they will remember. It's all about relationship and simple is better than complexity.

Oh, and as for those at the cemetery visitors, they sung Christmas carols at the graveside of their loved one, while I and possibly others, cried in joy for God's blessings we have and for the special moment of "feeling" what Christmas is truly all about.

That Special Christmas Morning.

That was a wonderful entry. Thank you for making my morning. It brought a happy tear to the eye...

Christmas.

One thing I miss about Christmas' of old, is that we made our gifts for everyone. I still make gifts for Christmas and birthdays. Each gift is made with the recipient in mind. It's so much fun to shop at yard sales and other places, find something and refurbish and repurpose.

Thanks to all who make time

Thanks to all who make time to reply to my first post at Old Farmer's Almanac.
Family jokingly refers to OFA as my mothers' "second Bible" !
Happy 2014 to all members, readers & contributors to OFA.

Merry Holidays to All, Does

Merry Holidays to All,
Does anyone enjoy celebrating Epiphany? (January 6th )?
Can the writers at Old Farmers Almanac or any OFA readers provide or share more info to the public any info re: Epiphany?
Having lived all over the USA over decades, I've been priveleged to witness and share in Christmas traditions all different by regions, any care to share Christmas traditions from your areas?
Wishing the True Spirit of Christmas continues in your homes and hearts thoughout the New Year and forever.
Though times are rough for so many, I live by the old saying "'Tis better to give than receive". I believe it helps us all remember the true reason for the season, and for those going through rough times in their lives. We all go through trials in our lives. Knowing others care enough to give their prayers, thoughts, good deeds, time, food, gently used clothing, etc. can help not only the recipients, but the givers as well. My firm belief.
May God Bless us All in 2014 and beyond.

Dear Ms. Robinson, Christmas

Dear Ms. Robinson,
Christmas is celebrated for 12 days (Dec 25 - Jan 5th, Twelfth Night) culminating on Jan 6th, Epiphany. This is the celebration of the arrival of the Wisemen at Christ's birthplace. These three are considered to be the first gentiles that recognized Christ as the savior. The Epiphany. Some countries exchange Christmas gifts on Jan 6th commemorating the gifts brought to the Child by the Wisemen. Hope you find this interesting.
Merry Christmas!

According to the New

The Editors's picture

According to the New Testament's Gospels, on this date the Magi, the three wise men or kings, venerated and brought gifts to the infant Jesus. The word epiphany is not specific to Christianity, as Zeus's alias, "Epiphanes," can attest. It comes from the Greek epiphaneia, meaning "manifestation." In many countries, Three Kings Day is a traditional time of gift giving--and there is a tradition of baking a King Cake with a lucky bean inside! Whoever finds the bean is the king of the feast.

Christmas, Xmas, Winter

Christmas, Xmas, Winter Solstice--whatever anyone calls it--can be about more than just spending money on presents. It can be about expressing love, sharing with others, giving to those in need, regardless of whether you choose to center the holiday around Christ's birth or not. Most of the traditions we observe (candles/lights, greenery, feasting, making merry, etc.) have their roots in times long before Jesus was born. I respect the rights of others to choose to make the season about Jesus and expect that same respect in return, as I choose to center my Christmas on love, family, the simple joys in life, the arrival of winter. For each of us, the season is what we make of it.

Christmas , like Easter are

Christmas , like Easter are two holidays that are what you make of them. several years ago I started a tradition of my own,for Christmas I had a tree trimming party. For years when I was growing up I saw the mess and the stress and arguments,and so on before the holidays, no one seemed to enjoy any thing of the season.When I moved away from home, I started the tradition,because to me the season meant many things to many people, so I would hand make the invitations, send them to every one I knew, all the neighbors friends, family even the post man the delivery persons and so on. The thing all of them had to do was bring a dish for the pot luck, a trim for the tree, and their family,friends and come to my house on the Saturday before Christmas. I spent a full week making baked goods,candy,and stockings for the children and small gifts to put in the stockings, from craft sticks,clothespins,pine cones, ect.Of course a little candy, usually home made.I have had people tell me that they looked forward to my next parties, and some even started their own.It wasn't the gifts they received when they left that made it notable, it was the idea that they all trimmed the tree together, some even checking out the balance and so on of the ornaments and lights, but most of all it was the sharing the laughing,and a stress buster, with no alcohol. It put everyone in the mood for the Holiday,and they all made new friends. And through the course of the years many made the ornaments for the tree. For me I always thought of Christmas as a time for sharing,not arguing. A time for laughing, not yelling, and giving gifts from the heart ,not how much money you can or cannot spend.I received a musical rendition of green sleeves from a friend of mine one tree party,she played the flute, and her husband cried. it was very moving, and all the others present were moved. That is celebrating a holiday.

What a wonderful tradition

What a wonderful tradition you began. Christmas has gone from being a holiday I looked forward to, to one I just try to get through. Here in England, Christmas, at least with the OH's family, is just an excuse to drink and fight more than usual. Oh well.

Christmas Tree Trimming Party

FeistyFeline, I don't know if you will see this or not, I truly hope you do though.

You have renewed my Christmas spirit and I want to say thank you! I am so tired of family bickering, fighting, arguing, and just not getting along at any time I've tried to have a family get together since they grew up! This ones got a problem with another one or with me or somebody else. It's constant drama! I have finally walked away from it all, I'm too old for that. I love your idea. I never liked the idea of going broke buying gifts. I'd much rather have something handmade than a very expensive gift of some sort. I don't have that kind of money and I have 20+ to give to at Christmas. Homemade gifts aren't "good enough" for most of them so what do you do?!?!? I do view Christmas as a religious holiday, the birth of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, but I never heard a word about that. This year, it will be only me. I will see what my neighbors plans are, maybe a nice tree trimming party a week or two before the actual day. Thank you!

Christ as being the center of CHRISTmas.

As for the comment of not making Christ the meaning to celebrate Christmas. I suppose this would follow leaving prayer out of schools. This is all in the spirit of Anti-Christ to destroy Christ out of our lives. Jesus Christ is the reason for the season. Get to know Jesus the way I do and then you will know why He is first and center of everything. With Love.....Roger

Why can't we have Christmas

Why can't we have Christmas like years ago. What happened to the celebration of our Lord's Birthday? What happened to baking gifts for family and friends? All Xmas is today is stress and how much money can we spend. How many presents do I have under the tree!!!!

Christmas hasn't changed,

Christmas hasn't changed, it's all about what you want it to be.. We still bake for family and friends; they love our homemade gifts and the kids are delighted with their reaction. We make an advent wreath for the 1st Sunday in Advent and light it every day, with an appropriate prayer; the kids are in the Christmas pageant at church; we buy gifts for children in a shelter. We craft gifts for teachers and friends. We make ornaments of seeds, fruit, suet and peanut butter and decorate the trees for the birds and squirrels. We have a Christmas tree, lots of presents and the whole Santa thing, but the kids know there is a lot more to Christmas than Santa. Christmas is an excellent chance to reinforce the Christian lessons we teach all year.

I too agree that CHRISTMAS is

I too agree that CHRISTMAS is a celebration of our savior's birth. It can continue with you and me remembering the reason we celebrsate this season. "CHRIST" should always be in the holiday CHRISTMAS and never abbreviated in the way that you just did.
You took him out and most likely did not even realize what you had done.
Merry Christmas and God bless to all.

In making Martha Washington's

In making Martha Washington's famed cake, Mount Vernon's curatorial staff followed Mrs. Washington's recipe almost exactly. Where the recipe called for 5 pounds of fruit, without specifying which ones, 2 pounds of raisins, 1 pound of currants, and 2 pounds of apples were used. The wine used was cream sherry. Since no pan large enough was available to hold all the batter, two 14 layers were made and stacked (note: the original was one single tall layer). The layers were baked in a 350 degree oven for 1.5 hours. Should be iced with a very stiff egg-white based icing, flavored with rosewater or orange-flower water.

I don't suppose Martha

I don't suppose Martha included the pan sizes or the oven temp for her Great Cake recipe?

Your articles, recipes, and

Your articles, recipes, and just everything bring back the true real memories of what Christmas is all about. Thank You Old Farmers Almanac for good memories.