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Robert McNamara

How Christmas Changed In the 1800s

By December 17, 2012

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The Christmas holiday went through such a profound transition during the 1800s that someone alive 200 years ago wouldn't recognize the holiday trappings of today. Many of our cherished Christmas traditions, timeless as they may seem, are actually 19th century creations.

We can begin with Santa Claus, who was based on St. Nicholas, a saint revered by the early Dutch settlers of New York. His Dutch name, Sinterklaas, began to evolve into Santa Claus by the early 1820s.

The character was later refined by poet Clement Clarke Moore, and visual depictions of Santa were eventually established by the famed political cartoonist Thomas Nast.

Another enduring character, Ebenezer Scrooge, found the true meaning of the holiday in A Christmas Carol, which Charles Dickens published in December 1843. Over time, Dickens himself became closely associated with the holiday.

Christmas trees started to become fashionable in the 1840s, and in the 1880s they were lit with electric bulbs for the first time.

By the end of the 1800s most of the elements of the modern Christmas had been established. And in 1897 a famed newspaper editorial would even declare, with great conviction, "Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus."


Illustration: Queen Victoria, Prince Albert, and family with their Christmas tree, 1840s/Getty Images



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