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History of Christmas

There are dozens of wonderful things associated with the holiday season, but where do they come from? Over the years, we have come up with songs and TV specials that have formed a unique part of Christmas history that goes beyond the lights, tree, and ornaments. You might be surprised how many of the ideas we consider to be set in stone as part of the festive period are relatively new traditions – the simple concept of observing a feast in honor of Jesus’ birth at the same time as other Roman festivals beginning in the 3rd century was just the start of our tendency to shift the celebration to match up with current culture.

Christmas carols have mostly been written by untrained musicians and little-known poets. However, two of today’s most popular tunes were created by famous composers: “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” is the product of Felix Mendelssohn’s time in England and “Joy to the World” was written by George Frederick Handel as piece for men to sing.

‘Twas the Night Before Christmas first appeared in print two days before Christmas in 1823. Originally titled “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” the author (Clement Moore) published the poem anonymously in the Troy, New York newspaper – some say he was afraid of rebuke thanks to his professorship at Columbia College (now University), famous at the time for its seminary program.

Christmas cards were introduced by Sir Henry Cole around 1843, when he sold a design by John Horsley in a shop in the famous commercial district of Bond Street in London. The idea took another decade to catch on, though, as the cost of postage and printing were both too high for most people. (By comparison, estimates say more than 2 billion cards are sent in the United Kingdom alone now.)

Electric tree lights first appeared in 1882, just three years after Thomas Edison debuted his lighting system in Menlo Park, New Jersey. Credit for the idea of putting the bulbs strands together to string on the branches of trees goes to his assistant, Edward Johnson.

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer first appeared as part of an advertising campaign for Montgomery Ward. Robert May wrote the original poem, first suggesting the names Rollo and Reginald when the character was introduced to children via a booklet handed out in the Chicago stores during the 1939 shopping season.

It’s a Wonderful Life was released just a few days before Christmas in 1946 and fell well short of its break-even point. For studio executives, it signaled the end of director Frank Capra’s ability to captivate an audience and, despite five Oscar nominations, it did not become a Christmas favorite until the 1980s.
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