Christmas Firsts: The Origins of Christmas Traditions in America
Louis Prang, 1876. The first Christmas cards were very simple, often with flowers. Bella C. Landauer Collection.
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The First Christmas Card, Christmas Stamp, and Santa Claus in America
December 22, 2021
Do you know who printed 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 Cards
The very first commercial Christmas card was printed in London in 1843 by Sir Henry Cole who hired artist John Calcott Horsley. Before then, people wrote Christmas letters by hand which could be very time-consuming. Sir Cole also played a key role in the postal service and the introduction of the Penny Post three years early, so he must have thought of the commercial possibilities. Notice how the card pictured below has a blank space after “To” and “From.”
The first commercial Christmas card. A total of 2050 cards were sold. Image: Public Domain.
Louis Prang is known as the “father of the American Christmas card.” A Boston-based printer who immigrated from Poland, Prange introduced the Christmas card to the American public in 1875. 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. He sponsored design competitions, attracting the best illustrators in the land; Prang was also an active supporter of women artists. By 1881, he was reportedly printing five million Christmas cards a year!
With artist competitions, Prang cards were unmatched. This was an 1881 winner. Credit: americanantiquarian.org
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.
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.
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.”)
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
A 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.
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.
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