in: Leisure, Living, Podcast

• Last updated: December 27, 2022

Podcast #859: The Unexpected Origins of Our Christmas Traditions

With Christmas coming up, you’re likely in the full holiday swing of things — decorating your tree, eating certain foods, listening to particular music, and buying and wrapping gifts. But did you ever stop to think about why it is you’re taking part in this slate of often weird-but-wonderful traditions?

Brian Earl has traced the backstories of our Christmas traditions in his podcast and book called Christmas Past. Today on the show, he shares some of those backstories with us, and explains how many of our seemingly fated and timeless traditions actually came about in fluky and fortuitous ways and are a lot more recent than we think. He first unpacks how Christmas went from being a small religious observance to a huge cultural celebration and how our idea of Santa Claus evolved over time, with our current conception of Old St. Nick being less than a century old. We then discuss how it is we ended up taking evergreen trees inside our houses and decorating them, the origins of the most recorded Christmas song in history, why fruitcake became the butt of jokes, and why hardly anyone roasts chestnuts anymore, on an open fire or otherwise. Brian shares what new Christmas traditions he’s seeing emerge and which classic ones are going away, and I offer an important PSA to future parents about Elf on the Shelf. We end our conversation with Brian’s tips for getting into the Christmas spirit if you haven’t been feeling it.

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Read the Transcript

Brett McKay: Brett McKay here and welcome to another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. With Christmas coming up, you’re likely in the full holiday swing of things, decorating your tree, eating certain foods, listening to particular music, and buying and wrapping gifts. But do you ever stop to think about why it is you’re taking part in the slate of often weird but wonderful traditions? Brian Earl has traced the backstories of our Christmas traditions in his podcast and book called Christmas Past. Today on the show, he shares some of those backstories with us and explains how many of our seemingly faded and timeless traditions actually came about in fluky and fortuitous ways and are a lot more recent than we think. He first unpacks how Christmas went from being a small religious observance to a huge cultural celebration and how our idea of Santa Claus evolved over time, with our current conception of old St. Nick being less than a century old. We then discuss how it is we ended up taking evergreen trees inside our house and decorating them, the origins of the most recorded Christmas song in history, why fruitcake became the butt of jokes, and why hardly anyone roasts chestnuts anymore, on an open fire or otherwise.

Brian shares what new Christmas traditions he’s seen emerge and which classic ones are going away, and I offer an important PSA to future parents about Elf on the Shelf. We end our conversation with Brian’s tips for getting into the Christmas spirit if you haven’t been feeling it. After the show’s over, check out our show notes at All right, Brian Earl, welcome to the show.

Brian Earl: Hi, thanks for having me.

Brett McKay: So you host a podcast called Christmas Past, and you just published a book by the same name. And in your book and on your podcast, you explore how the ways we currently celebrate Christmas and how our most cherished Christmas traditions came to be. So let’s talk about sort of Christmas in general, because I think a lot of times when people in the 21st century think about Christmas, they think that it’s been a big holiday for centuries, because it’s a big holiday now, and they think it’s been a big holiday for a long time because that’s the day Christendom celebrates the birth of Christ, and a lot of the population is Christian in the world. But one of the first things you point out in your book is that Christmas wasn’t really a big deal in the West or even the United States until fairly recently.

So tell us what was Christmas like in the Western world, say, before the 19th century?

Brian Earl: Yeah, I mean, if you celebrated it at all, it would be a very small observance, just like any other of those days on the church calendar that was, you know, the Feast of Saints so-and-so. And part of the reason for that is that for a religious figure like Jesus, his birth wouldn’t be the main celebration. I mean, in Christianity and in some brands of Christianity today, it’s still Easter is the main celebration. That’s really what the religion is based on. So the birthday, it wasn’t even until, I’m going to mess up the date, but centuries after his death that the Roman Catholic Church settled on December 25th as even being his birthday, right? There was some debate around that. There were other thinkers who had said, oh, maybe it’s sometime in November, maybe it’s sometime in early December. So people weren’t even really sure when to celebrate the birth or whether to celebrate the birth. It was much, much later. And it was mostly after it became less of a religious celebration and more of a cultural celebration that we see more and more people taking part.

Brett McKay: And the other thing you point out when people did celebrate it, well, I thought that was interesting in the United States. It really wasn’t a big deal until like the 1800s. Like people didn’t really celebrate it in the 1700s.

Brian Earl: Yeah. I mean, we signed the Declaration of Independence in 1776 and Christmas became a national holiday in 1870, nearly a hundred years later. It just wasn’t a big deal. It’s not to say that nobody celebrated it, but it was also true that depending on where you lived in the country, if you celebrated it at all, it would just be very different from what, you know, one or two states over would look like. Think about in the West where most people worked in mines. And also during the winter time, there’d be the crazy blizzards and just really dangerous winds coming through the plains. A lot of operations would just shut down in the winter to avoid the worst of the weather. So people would be at home with their families. So that’s one of the things you need to have a good Christmas, but they wouldn’t have any money. Now, Christmas hadn’t yet become a really big gift-giving holiday, but what it meant is also that they couldn’t really celebrate it with a feast, right? I mean, if nothing else, Christmas is all of these other things, this big commercial racket, etc. But at its fundamentals, it’s a feast.

It’s a wintertime feast. And if you had no money, you wouldn’t even be able to have that. Now, it’s not to say it didn’t exist at all. And Laura Ingalls Wilder writes about this to some extent, about the kinds of foods that you would serve, you know, dried fruits and salt cured meats and things like that. But that would be a very, very different from what people might observe in, say, New England where in Massachusetts Bay Colony, Christmas was literally banned in 1659 by the Puritanical government. The ban was lifted in 1681, but Christmas, it took a while for it to kind of work its way back into the culture. Just because the ban was lifted, it didn’t mean there weren’t a lot of Puritans who still were against it. So very, very different cultures and different ways of celebrating and different means with which to celebrate.

Brett McKay: Well, I thought you pointed out in America, sometimes there’s states where they didn’t close schools on Christmas, like banks didn’t close, like it was just like another day. And then also we typically think of Christmas as this very domesticated, like I’m going to be with family and it’s warm and fuzzy. But in the West, for a lot of time, Christmas was like, it was a party time. It was like you get drunk and have fun, right?

Brian Earl: Oh, absolutely. And one of your earlier points about how schools and banks or whatever would be open on Christmas, that was even true into the early 20th century in certain parts of the Northeast, even in Boston, schools and banks would be open on Christmas day into the early 20th century. But to your point about the ways that it was celebrated, it’s really surprising to most people now to think of Christmas as anything other than this thing that you celebrate with your family in the home. The other holidays we could compare that to would be, say, you know, Easter or Mother’s Day, you know, that’s a domestic holiday, as opposed to something more like Halloween or 4th of July or Mardi Gras. That’s something that communities celebrate in the streets and the pubs and the sporting arenas, that kind of thing. And Christmas had become something like that up until about the middle of the 19th century.

And so there were all kinds of little traditions associated with that style of celebrating. One was known as Calithumpian music. Calithumpians from the Greek meaning beautiful, but rest assured this was not beautiful music. This was drunk people just making a big racket in the streets.

And that was one of the reasons why the Victorians were really credited as the ones who transitioned Christmas from what it had become to what it is now, which is to say a domestic holiday, a time for homecoming, a time for a celebration of a middle class lifestyle, which was kind of a new thing back then. And then also a commercial holiday. All of that was the result of this fairly rapid transition toward the middle of the 19th century. And it’s the result of a bunch of factors coming into being at roughly the same time. Advances in transportation. When rail travel came along, all of a sudden Christmas could be a time for homecomings. Before that, you didn’t see your family unless they were really nearby. There was no other way to do it. Christmas became a time for communicating across long distances through the mail. Before the penny post was introduced in England, before postal rates were normalized, before literacy rates rose, communicating across long distances was just not a normal part of life. Nor were Christmas cards, which hadn’t been invented yet. And there’s something that we take for granted, but these little tokens or the artifacts of our affection for one another and Christmas cheer were a new thing at the time, and they quickly became a part of the culture of Christmas.

And then of course we have this rise in industrialization. If we go across the pond now to America, prior to the Civil War, one in every three Americans was a farmer of some sort. Then after that, we all started working in more industrial style jobs, which meant that buying things made in factories, being consumers of prepackaged goods was just more a part of life. And with the changing economy, more of us had more means to enjoy those kinds of things. And then the one thing that sits on top of all of this is the explosion of print media. So I said before that if you celebrated Christmas in the West, it was one way, in the East it was another. Part of that is regional differences, but another huge part of that is that you really wouldn’t know what people in the West were doing. How would you? There was no efficient means of communicating all of that stuff on a broad scale. But then at the end of the 19th, early 20th century, the number of newspapers in America tripled within a couple of decades. And very quickly, America was producing half of all of the daily newspapers in the world.

And now you had a means to do a couple of things really quickly. Number one, present new avenues for merchants to advertise their wares and rebrand Christmas as a gift-giving holiday. But also to propagate a specific image of Christmas far and wide so that we all had a shared understanding of what Christmas is, how we should understand it, and how we should celebrate it.

Brett McKay: Well, it’s going back to Victorian England. So this is a time where the middle class was kind of coming to its own. There was emphasis on family, domesticity, and that’s when Christmas started morphing in England from the sort of raucous get drunk holiday to like we’re gonna spend time with family and et cetera. And speaking of that idea, the print media sort of unifying what people thought about Christmas, there was a guy who had a big role in shaping what we think of Christmas today that right there in Victorian England, that’s Charles Dickens with his story of Christmas Carol.

Brian Earl: Yeah, that was really the presentation of the family celebration where we see the cratchits, how they’re all getting together, where we, it’s showing Christmas as something that this family is celebrating in the home. And it was highly influential in creating the shared understanding of what Christmas is supposed to be like and feel like. And then roughly around the same time over on our side of the Atlantic, Clement Clarke Moore wrote a visit from St. Nicholas, which was also hugely influential in shaping how we understand what this character of Santa Claus is, how he operates, when he visits. Believe it or not, there have been other famous works, including one by Washington Irving, where Santa Claus visits homes on New Year’s Eve and he rides a sleigh being pulled by a horse. So all of these things that are very familiar to us, they had to start somewhere and they were usually the decisions of one or two creators. So yeah, Charles Dickens is hugely influential in terms of the domestic feel of Christmas and then other literary works too.

Brett McKay: Yeah, the Americans took that Victorian idea of Christmas and they just added their spin on it and then you’d see stuff from America get re-imported back to the United Kingdom. So let’s dig into some of the details of the evolution of some of our most cherished Christmas traditions. So you mentioned Santa Claus. I think when most people hear the word Santa Claus, they think fat guy in a red suit, white beard, sitting in a sleigh pulled by reindeer. But as you mentioned, there’s been different versions of Santa and the idea that we have a Santa today, it’s relatively new, you know, maybe a century old. So walk us through the evolution of Santa Claus. Like what was his origin and then how do we end up with the Santa Claus we have today?

Brian Earl: Yeah, this is a really dramatic evolution because we’re talking about a character based on a real man, right? Nicholas of Mira. He’s an actual saint in the Roman Catholic church. He’s lived in the 300s. Very little is known about him. I mean, just because there wasn’t a lot of records keeping back then, but of what there is, we know that he was a bishop. He was born to wealthy parents who died in the plague and he had a lot of money that he had no use for. And so he was known for his generosity and that’s part of where we get his reputation as a gift giver. But after he died, a lot of communities celebrated St. Nicholas Day on December 6th. Now that’s still true in a lot of different parts of the world, except America. We don’t really seem to celebrate St. Nicholas Day. After his death, he took on a reputation as some kind of a protector. There are all kinds of legends about him doing some pretty biblical sounding things like resurrecting the dead, like multiplying stockpiles of grain, like rescuing condemned men just moments before they’re about to be executed. He was the patron saint of seafarers and pawnbrokers and brewers.

And even today on a lot of ships, you’ll see a little statue of St. Nicholas somewhere as some kind of totem of protection. As Christianity spread across Europe, so too did the legend of St. Nicholas. And in the 12th century, we see these French nuns who on St. Nicholas Day would leave gifts outside the doors of poor children or poor families. And that may be one of the first instances of giving gifts in the name of St. Nicholas.

Now again, at this point, St. Nicholas has no special connection to Christmas, and he’s not Santa Claus. He’s a religious figure. And as he starts to become connected with Christmas, because it’s a roughly the same season, during the Protestant Reformation, one of the things that they were protesting was the Catholics’ devotion to saints. They said all of this pageantry and all these images of saints seems a little too close to idolatry for our taste, so we’re going to do away with all of that. But the problem is people loved St. Nicholas so much that they were really unwilling to give it up. So what some people did is said, why don’t we suggest that…

St. Nicholas be connected with the Christmas holiday? He can go around with the Christkindl on Christmas, and that’s how the connection formed. And by the way, if you say Christkindl over and over again while thinking about St. Nicholas, it’ll eventually start to sound like Kris Kringel, which is where that comes from. The Dutch had a legend of Sinterklaas, which is not Santa Claus, not Santa Claus and not St. Nicholas. It’s kind of like a character based on St. Nicholas. Still has bishops robes, but there’s a more of a story around who this guy is and how he operates. He lives in Spain, for example, and he comes by boat every year. And that tradition came with the Dutch settlers to New York. Only once it comes to America, and we’re talking about the middle of the 19th century, does it start to evolve into what we recognize as Santa Claus. And the thing that did it, again, the print media, the media is responsible for most of what you experience as Christmas, responsible for shaping it anyway. So in the late 19th century, an artist named Thomas Nast did illustrations for Harper’s Weekly, which is starting to bring Santa Claus into the image that we know today.

If you look at some of them, though, he’s still very short. There’s one famous one where he’s standing next to a young lady and he’s at maybe about chest height, suggesting that he’s maybe three and a half, four feet tall. Also, in 1823, Clement Clarke Moore wrote A Visit from St. Nicholas. And it’s the kind of thing you grow up with the poem, you hear it a hundred times, so you maybe not even really notice that they say he rides a miniature sleigh with eight tiny reindeer. He has a little round belly. He’s an elf. And in fact, in the first illustrated version published by Houghton Mifflin in 1912, you can see he’s barely tall enough to reach the top of the mantle when he’s filling the stockings. That’s why he can fit down the chimney. So as the image evolves, this Santa Claus character, it’s not always clear. Is he fully human? Is he some kind of like gnome-like creature? Is he some fairy-like, fairy tale-like character? Once we get into the early 1920s, we have two very influential artists. One is JC Leandeker, and the other is Norman Rockwell. And both of them are producing these wonderful painted covers for the Saturday Evening Post.

They were kind of artistic and competitive rivals, so they were always, you know, raising the game with these images that they were doing. And if you look at some of those images, they’re very famous and easy to find online, we’re really starting to bring Santa Claus into the modern one that we all recognize, meaning nothing elfin or gnome-like about him. He doesn’t have pointy ears. He’s just this six-foot fat guy who looks like he could be your grandfather. It was Haddon Sundblom who came around in the mid-1930s, who was a commercial artist, same guy who did the Quaker Oats Man, did some work for Aunt Jemima, and like a lot of, you know, famous packaging design, started producing yearly paintings for Coca-Cola. And this is sort of a corollary to the influence of the print media. You know, a company like Coca-Cola, which had a massive budget for putting these advertisements and billboards and posters out, could really socialize a single image of Santa Claus far and wide and over and over again. This is sort of where we stopped evolving this image. This image that evolved for thousands of years, we’ve stopped evolving it in the 1930s.

And what that means is that the image that you will recognize as Santa Claus is barely 90 years old. I mean, there are people alive today who are older than Santa Claus himself. This human Santa Claus, the Norman Rockwell and the Haddon Sundblom Santa Claus, like my grandfather didn’t grow up with that. And this is really, really new.

Brett McKay: Well, so that’s interesting. So you see it starts out religious and then it moves to sort of folklore and then advertising came in and put the finishing touches. And I think that’s the sort of the trajectory you see with a lot of these Christmas traditions.

Brian Earl: Yeah, no, absolutely. I think the once Christmas becomes a commercial holiday, primarily about gift giving, which is, you know, exchanging gifts on Christmas isn’t exactly new, but I think the main focus is more of a product of the late 19th century. Then you really see the influence of all different kinds of advertising media, print media, content production, like the movies and television shows and books and songs written that really, really shape our understanding of all of these traditions.

Brett McKay: So Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer is the most famous of Santa’s reindeer, but you point out in the book, he didn’t come on the scene until 1939. So again, not very old. So how did the reindeer that went down in history come into existence?

Brian Earl: What I love about this story is that it’s a good example of how so many of our Christmas traditions are basically the result of these chance occurrences or fateful decisions that no one thought would be fateful at the time. So the Montgomery Ward department store in Chicago for years had had this little tradition around Christmas time where they would give out a storybook to parents who came in shopping with their kids, keep the kids busy while they do shopping. That was the idea. And for years and years, they had outsourced this. They just bought these books from a third party. But in 1939, they wanted to reduce their costs and they said, okay, we’re going to bring this job in-house. We’re going to grab one of our catalog copywriters to have him write a story. We’ll produce it ourselves and we’ll do it that way. So that catalog copywriter was a guy named Robert L. May. And he was, he went to school with Dr. Seuss. He saw a lot of his classmates go on to become pretty successful. And here he was, you know, kind of a work a day guy writing descriptions of men’s sweaters, things like that.

And unfortunately at the time his wife was also dying of cancer and he had a young daughter to raise. His daughter is still alive today, by the way. So anyway, the Montgomery Ward management said, okay, look, here’s what we want you to do. We want you to write this story. And.

As some inspiration, we like that story, Ferdinand the bull. So come up with something like that, have it be about an animal. And so his daughter really liked the reindeer display at the zoo. And legend has it that one day he was driving home from work and it was foggy and he put two and two together. He said, okay, it’s going to be about a reindeer and the fog somehow. So he comes up with a story, takes it to management and they said, we don’t really like it. We don’t like the red nose. And part of that is because WC Fields was a household name at the time. And a big red nose was kind of associated with a drunken kind of character. And they didn’t really want that association. And so, you know, again, May just had a lot on his plate otherwise in his life.

And he said, I think they just, they’re not seeing the potential. So I’m going to go to one of the commercial artists at the company and have them just do a mockup, like show some illustrations to go with the story. I’m going to take it back to management. So we did that. And then they said, oh, okay, cool. Well, now, sure. We’ll run with that. Now, again, this was just going to be an other one of these yearly handouts, just, you know, gone, you know, it happens and then it goes away and then no one ever thinks about it again. And so there’s conflicting theories on why the next thing that happened happened. But Montgomery Ward gave Robert May the rights to the character. And some people say the reason they did that was, again, because this thing came and went. They didn’t think there was any potential with it. They didn’t care. And so they had no reason not to. Other people think that it was because they did see the potential and they were trying to give May a leg up because, you know, his family situation was rough. Anyway, he gets the rights to the character.

And the first thing he does is he goes to Disney and says, you know, do you guys want this? And they said, no, we don’t. But his brother-in-law happened to be Johnny Marx. And Johnny Marx is the guy who wrote Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree, he wrote Holly Jolly Christmas, he wrote Silver and Gold. I mean, this guy not only has a reputation for writing hit songs, but hit Christmas songs. So Johnny Marx wrote the song, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. And then a few years later, Gene Autry sang that very famous version that we’re all familiar with. And then Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer became a sensation. And then the book itself, what was formerly the Giveaway Leaflet, became a book that you could buy. And then in the 60s, we had that animated special, which is the longest continuously running Christmas special in history. It’s run every single year, first on NBC, now on CBS. And so it’s a happy ending for May. His wife did die of cancer, so that part wasn’t happy. But at the end of the day, he died a very rich man and created a Christmas legend.

But were it not for that fateful decision from Montgomery Ward to just hand him over the rights to the character, we may never have even heard of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

Brett McKay: We’re going to take a quick break for a word from our sponsors.

And now back to the show. Oh, let’s talk about Christmas trees. So every time I put up and decorate a Christmas trees with my family, I always think this is a weird thing we do every year. Like we cut down a tree, we’re going to bring it inside, we’re going to put lights and tchotchke ornaments all over it, and we’re just going to keep it up there for a month. So how did we end up with this weird but wonderful tradition of Christmas trees?

Brian Earl: It’s a lot of different influences coming together at different times in history. So the idea of bringing greenery into the house during the winter is pretty old, and the Christmas tree wasn’t the first example of it. And as a matter of fact, at least in America, Christmas trees are kind of new, most like a post-Civil War thing. And before that, it would be holly and ivy that you bring into your house. And holly and ivy and conifer trees, what makes them special is that during the winter, they don’t die. They’re evergreens. And all kinds of assumptions were made about, well, there must be something special about those if they don’t die. Maybe they have medicinal properties, maybe they can bring good luck or ward off evil or things like that. And so, or if nothing else, they just look nice in the home while everything else is so bleak and bare. So for a number of reasons, bringing greenery into the home at wintertime became a thing. So that’s one piece. Let’s park that for now. Now there’s also, in a lot of pre-Christian cultures, there was a notion of what’s called Tree veneration.

This was the idea that a tree might contain a spirit, a hamadryad was the actual word for it. And some trees would even be associated with gods. And the oak tree, for example, was associated with Thor. And there’s a story about St. Boniface, there’s a real guy, so part of the story is probably true, who was going through the Germanic tribes of the Frankish Empire, converting them over to Christianity. And one of these communities that he came across had a thunder oak, this oak that represented Thor. And part of what this community did was human sacrifice. And so this part of the story is almost certainly just legend, where he interrupted one of these sacrifices in progress, chopped down the thunder oak, and standing behind it was a fir tree. And he said, okay, you guys, you want a tree that will be your symbol? Look at that one, look how it kind of looks like it’s pointing. You know, conifer trees kind of have a tapered top, so it looks like it’s pointing specifically at the sky. And this will be your tree of the Christ child. So this has no special connection with Christmas, it was just, you know, look, if you want a tree to rally behind, let’s make it this fir tree.

So as Christianity continues to spread through Europe, a lot of these pre-Christian traditions just, you know, it’s not a clean break, they just kind of get rolled along with things. And so this idea of greenery in the home just kind of sticks around. But when it becomes a Christmas tradition, it’s probably around the Protestant Reformation. And again, they didn’t like the Catholics’ devotion to saints and idolatry and things like that, and so they wanted to have a symbol for Christmas, but they wanted it to be a neutral one. And so Martin Luther specifically said, oh, okay, what about this fir tree? And the interesting thing is most people would say that the very first Christmas tree was in Strasbourg Cathedral, which was unusual because you typically did not see a Christmas tree in a cathedral. You would almost always see them outside. Again, they weren’t supposed to be a religious symbol. They’d be in the county square, in the town square, something like that.

Now, there’s another thread to this, which is the idea of decorating the tree. Some of the earliest examples might have been what they call a paradise play. These are these old plays that were put on to tell the nativity story, and on the stage of these plays would be a tree that was decorated with apples.

And some people make the argument that this is kind of an early prototype of the Christmas tree. Decorating a tree, there’s a lot of reasons people have done that throughout history. Another example is what they called the rag tree, and this is where people would write prayers on little pieces of cloth and then tie them around the branches of a tree as kind of a way of solidifying their prayer. And even people who were illiterate would still just tie a rag with nothing written on it around the branches of a tree, thinking, well, you know, if I can’t write the prayer down at least attaching the cloth might do something. So, you put it all together and you get this what eventually became the tradition, a German tradition, of the tannenbaum, the fir tree, specifically a fir tree that you would decorate and bring into the home around Christmas time. This works its way into Christmas mostly through the royal family. Germans marrying into the British royal family is how we start to see it spread beyond German tradition. So Queen Catherine married King George, brought the Christmas tree with her. It didn’t become popular then because the royal family just wasn’t popular themselves at the time, but then along came Queen Victoria, who also married a German, who also brought the Christmas tree.

And in 1849, Godey’s Women’s Magazine published this illustration of Victoria and Prince Albert and their kids standing around a Christmas tree. And the next thing, the next Christmas, the Christmas tree just became the must-have. If you were anybody who was anybody, you had a Christmas tree. And that very same year, over on the side of the Atlantic, Franklin Pierce was our president and he had the very first White House Christmas tree. Just because the Christmas tree became a thing around that time, they didn’t become especially common until a couple of decades later. And part of that is, you know, again, it takes a while for a trend to pick up. But the other part of it is that they couldn’t really be the kind of thing where everybody has one in their living room until you could produce them as a commercial crop. Because otherwise the only alternative would be like every person goes into the forest and cuts down a tree, which is obviously not feasible. So that’s toward the end of the 19th century, where you see Christmas tree farms and people selling Christmas trees at a commercial Christmas tree lot. The first one that we know of is in the late 19th century in Washington Square in New York City.

And then we get the first artificial trees not too long after that, believe it or not. And now here we are.

Brett McKay: Well, the other thing too about early Christmas trees, they kind of made it hard for them to take off, was that you’d put candles on them. And that required you to be very vigilant about your trees. You got fire on a tree that’s kind of dying and they could just drive and just burst into flames. And it really wasn’t until, I think you talk about this in the book, like electric lights made Christmas trees even more popular. So they had the combination of Christmas tree farms and then electric lights where it’s like, oh, we can have this great looking tree and not to worry too much about the tree catching on fire because we’re not using candles anymore.

Brian Earl: Yeah. The good news is if you have a freshly cut tree and you are standing by, because it’s not like, you know, nowadays you turn on the Christmas tree, you can leave the house and not worry about it. If you had candles on the tree, you’re standing near the tree. Nevertheless, it is true that certain insurance companies actually wrote clauses in their policies that look, if your house catches on fire because of a Christmas tree, we’re not going to cover that. But in 1882, the first string of electric Christmas lights came along. And widespread electrification of homes didn’t really start until around 1880 in America, which means that electric Christmas lights were among the first practical applications of home electricity. However, when they first came out, the first strings had about eight lights on them. And then, you know, the next big innovation was there was all of 16 lights. And even still, they were just something for very wealthy people. They were status symbols. They would have cost you, you know, like a month’s salary if you were a normal work a day person. So it took a couple of decades until an average person could afford a string of lights and that the string was large enough to fit all the way around the Christmas tree.

So we’re really talking about into the early 20th century where the average person could have a nice freshly cut Christmas tree and decorate it with a nice string of lights.

Brett McKay: What’s the state of the Christmas tree in 2022? Is it still going strong?

Brian Earl: Believe it or not, things are dying down. The Pew Research Study, Pew Research Center did a study in 2013 about all kinds of Christmas traditions of people who’ve been around for a while. And so they said, well, how are things different from when you were a kid versus now? The number of people who responded to the survey who put up a Christmas tree is down by double digits, which shocked the heck out of me. I couldn’t believe that. However, the Christmas tree as a tradition continues to evolve. And I think social media is playing a part in this. And I think a lot of these online sellers of special trees are helping to shape it too. Every year they say these black Christmas trees or rainbow colored, you know, ones with just really unnatural colors. Five years ago, hanging upside down Christmas trees was a big trend. So I think as long as social media is a thing, sharing different ideas or fun ways to have a Christmas tree are going to continue to be there. But I really couldn’t believe that fewer and fewer of us are even bothering to put up a Christmas tree.

Brett McKay: Okay, let’s talk about Christmas music. That’s some of the some of the most great thing about Christmas is Christmas music. Well, I mean, okay, some people really love Christmas music. Some people hate Christmas music. I love Christmas music. So I was some of the origins of our favorite Christmas songs. Silent Night, right? I didn’t know about this. What this is really interesting. What’s the origin of Silent Night?

Brian Earl: This is another one almost like Rudolph where if things had gone slightly differently, you would have never even heard of Silent Night. This was in Vienna when a really small chapel run by this priest named Joseph Moore, or a church rather, the organ was broken. And there’s different accounts on why there’s some story and I don’t even know why this story came about was that mice got into the organ and chewed up the bellows. There’s no reason to think that’s true. It is almost certainly that the nearby river flooded and just ruined the organ. Anyway, they didn’t have an organ for their Christmas Eve service. So Joseph Moore went to Franz Gruber, who was the organist and choir master and said, okay, we need a workaround. We have to have some music for Christmas Eve.

So I have this poem that I wrote and Moore wrote a lot of poems. So he just had one that happened to be about the nativity story because as a quick aside, a Christmas carol, if we’re being sticklers, is a Christmas song that tells the nativity story, right? White Christmas is not a Christmas carol. It’s a Christmas song.

So he said, okay, we have to work quickly. Can you set this to music? And so we did. One of the really interesting things about the first time that Silent Night was performed on Christmas Eve was that the musical accompaniment had to come from a guitar. And at that time, a guitar was something, it’s something you’d hear in a pub. It’s something a street musician used. It really was not the kind of vaunted instrument worthy of a Christmas Eve song at a church, right? So it plays into the narrative of this song coming about under very, very humble beginnings. So it was sung on Christmas Eve and that was that. And so now how do you and I know about this song and how did it become the most recorded Christmas song in history? Well, again, there are differing accounts but what most people will tell you is that after Christmas, someone came along to repair the organ. And you know, these are traveling repair people who probably, he probably heard the song and then took it with him on his, along his route and helped to spread the song that way. It was also true back in those days that troops of traveling folk musicians would kind of roll into town.

They’d sing some songs, they’d learn some of the local songs and then take them with them. There was a famous group called the Rhiners. They were these singing glove makers, which is a thing apparently, and they helped to popularize the song. But it was really, I mean, literally word of mouth that got this song out of where it originated and then eventually over to America. And again, like I said, there’s no other Christmas song that’s been recorded more times in history from these really just, it was a fire drill. It was, we don’t know what we’re going to do. What can we do to have a song on Christmas? And the next thing you know, we have a classic.

Brett McKay: Well, I’m curious, like what’s your favorite Christmas song? Do you have one?

Brian Earl: Well, of the carols, again, the ones that tell the nativity story, Silent Night, of the ones from the classic 1940s era, which is sort of the next great epoch of Christmas music, is another nativity story. And it’s Nat King Cole’s A Cradle in Bethlehem. And it’s right on his main Christmas album. Although I think it’s toward the end, it’s kind of just hiding there. But of all the things that make that 40s Christmas sound what it is, all the jazzy chord changes and the orchestration and the ooh-ing and ah-ing chorus in the background, that just does all of those elements. It melds all of them perfectly. And then for modern pop Christmas songs, I’d have to say Kelly Clarkson’s Underneath the Tree. I think, again, that really hearkens back to that classic 60s sound in the same way that All I Want for Christmas Is You does. But I think it also makes it feel a little more modern and recognizable. I think it’s a fantastic song.

Brett McKay: I’d say my favorite Christmas carol would be Oh Holy Night. And then just talking about Christmas songs, it’s not even a Christmas song, it’s Sleigh Ride, done by the Boston Pops, that version. For something that just gets me in the Christmas spirit. Least favorite Christmas song. Do you have a least favorite one where if it comes up on the radio, you’re like, oh my gosh, I gotta get… No, we’re not doing that.

Brian Earl: Let’s see. There are a handful that I dislike equally. I’m not a fan of Dominic the Donkey. And it’s not that I don’t like Feliz Navidad, it’s just that on my radio station, it’s like every fifth song is Feliz Navidad. It’s perfectly fine, but I’d be happy to hear it just once or twice in the season.

Brett McKay: Yeah, I’d say my would be Santa Baby. I turn that thing off. The other one is All I Want for Christmas is My Two Front Teeth. When it has the annoying kid singing it. I think there’s a Nat King Cole version that’s actually pretty good. But when it’s the annoying kid, it’s like, okay, I don’t want to do that. It’s going away. Or even this is going to make… I’m going to sound like a Grinch for saying this, but when they play You’re a Mean One Mr. Grinch, I don’t like that. It’s like, no, I don’t like that song, but that’s just me.

Brian Earl: Yeah, I don’t know what I could do without that. Most of the kids songs, surprisingly, I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas doesn’t bother me, even though by all accounts it should, but most of the kids songs can be a little annoying.

Brett McKay: Yeah. All right. Let’s talk about Christmas food. There are certain foods we associate with Christmas time, but let’s talk about fruitcake. Everyone makes jokes about Christmas fruitcakes. First off, let’s talk about how did fruitcake become associated with Christmas and how did it end up being the butt of Christmas jokes?

Brian Earl: Well, the idea of baking some kind of cake that was very rich and sweet and contained dried fruits, it has been part of Christmas forever. The question is, when did this particular concoction of ingredients come into what we would now call fruitcake? Because think about, you know, there are other cakes with fruit in them that we eat even now, like panettone, right? That is a cake with fruits. Technically speaking, it is a fruitcake, but we’re talking about this one particular kind of fruitcake, which as if you’ve had it, you know, it’s not really very cakey. It doesn’t have a light, fluffy texture. It’s kind of dense and moist. And some version of that has been around since Roman times as just more like portable calories to kind of take with you when you’re traveling or on the battlefield. During medieval times is when we start to see it turn into what we would recognize. But again, it kind of went through a bit of an evolution. There was even a time when it was banned for being quote unquote, sinfully sweet. It was the Victorians who really put the finishing touches on it. And part of the reason that that’s true is that they added one very specific touch, which was alcohol.

Either the fruit that was used in the fruitcake had been soaked in alcohol or the entire cake was soaked in alcohol. And they just couldn’t get enough of it. However, they didn’t make it a Christmas item. Again, this was something that you would eat at Christmas time, but you would also eat it any time you wanted to celebrate. Any rich and indulgent food would be served. And especially if you had money at a wedding, for example, or at, you know, the special occasion. So Queen Victoria had fruitcake served at her wedding. She very famously kept a slice of it and then didn’t eat it. She was famous for her, her self restraint. And that was an emblem of her self restraint was that she didn’t eat her piece of wedding fruitcake. Then we get to, there’s an anecdote in the 18th century where someone had sent a fruitcake to George Washington, but he refused it with a letter written back saying, Oh, it’s against presidential comportment to accept any gift weighing more than 80 pounds, apparently as some kind of a dig against the fruitcake or maybe the person who sent it.

But fruitcake was popular enough.

And the interesting thing is it remains popular enough. We all like to dunk on it. We all like to pretend that we hate it, but you know, we still make it. We still buy it. Because so many farms still sells a ton of them. And the Vermont country store is still sells a ton of them. So it’s part of Christmas culture, even though it’s one of those things that a good portion of us love to hate. It was really probably mostly a late 19th, early 20th century thing that it disappeared outside the Christmas season and became almost exclusively connected with Christmas. And it was also during that time where you started to see mass production, commercial bakeries, making Christmas fruitcake, the things that with all kinds of preservatives or with all kinds of maybe less expensive ingredients, something that was meant to ship long distances or meant to sit on store shelves for weeks on end. And that’s right around the time where people started to say, yeah, I’m not really big on fruitcakes. And what a couple of people I’ve interviewed have told me is maybe the kicker was sometime in the 1980s when Johnny Carson made this famous joke that, oh, there’s only just one fruitcake in the world and everyone just keeps passing it around because nobody wants it.

That’s really when it entered popular culture. It became almost fashionable to joke about hating fruitcake. And now we have at least one generation who’s grown up sort of thinking that you’re supposed to hate it. And if they tried one, one of these commercially produced ones, they probably would hate it. And so my argument is that there’s no such thing as someone who doesn’t like fruitcake. There’s just someone who’s never had a good one. If you have a good one, you’ll change your tune real quick.

Brett McKay: Another Christmas food that you hear a lot about in songs because of the Christmas song is chestnuts, you know, chestnuts roasting on open fire. But I think hardly anyone roasts chestnuts over an open fire or otherwise. So why is that? Why, why do we associate chestnuts with Christmas, but no one’s eaten roasted chestnuts?

Brian Earl: Yeah, I mean, roasting nuts is just something that goes way, way back. I mean, you see it in England and you’d buy chestnuts on the street in the same way that you buy pretzels on the corner in New York in Victorian London. And then you still do see it in the Northeast a little bit.

I know a lot of people in New York City will see roasted chestnuts, Philadelphia. A lot of chestnuts grew there naturally. The problem was around the beginning of the 20th century, people were importing Asian chestnut trees, which they didn’t know at the time. They had a fungal blight. And so in the 1940s, when Mel Torme and Bob Wells wrote the famous song, their opening line was “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire.” What could be more Christmasy? This image that we’d all recognize of chestnuts, you know, roasting and popping. And it’s not the only song, right? There’s the, “As we watch the chestnuts pop, pop, pop, pop.” It’s part of Christmas music and culture. And then when Nat King Cole released his song, I want to say it was 1940s, in the early 1940s, two years later, almost all American chestnuts were totally wiped out. And just like that, the tradition basically died. And so even now we’re in a position for it to make a comeback. You know, there’s enough chestnuts grown in America or available through import that anyone who wants to have chestnuts on Christmas certainly can. But I think it’s one of those things that it came and went.

And if it’s going to make a comeback, it’ll be fairly slow going. I’ve had roasted chestnuts many times. I love them. They have a really nice sweet texture to them. You can use roasted chestnuts to make all kinds of recipes. Chestnut bread is delicious, but I think we may have lost that one. I think that may have been from a bygone era.

Brett McKay: So let’s talk, we’ve been talking about the role of commerce in shaping Christmas.

I’m curious, I mean, after you’ve looked at all this stuff, right? The history of Christmas traditions, was Charlie Brown right? Is Christmas just a big commercial racket?

Brian Earl: When people say that Christmas has become more commercial, my response is it would be shocking if it didn’t become more commercial. I mean, Stephen Nissenbaum talks about this in his book, The Battle for Christmas, where Christmas is just us doing the things that we do. I mean, it’s a reflection of who we are. As we become a more secular society, Christmas becomes a more secular celebration. As we become more industrial, Christmas becomes more industrial. As all of our shopping habits become online, all of our Christmas shopping habits become online. So of course Christmas has become more commercial, because we’ve become more commercial. Has it become too commercial? Well, that really depends on where you are in all of that. I mean, I don’t do a lot of Christmas shopping. My wife and I keep our gift exchange pretty small. I have a two-year-old, so we’re not really getting him a lot. You can kind of pick and choose how commercially you want to participate in the holiday. It is a gift-giving holiday and it has been for centuries. I don’t know if the last generation or so has made it more so. I think we’ve just sort of solidified its status as a major gift-giving holiday.

Brett McKay: Here’s the interesting thing though. There are a lot of Christmas commercials that make me feel nostalgic. There’s ones from my childhood, I think about it, or if I watch a YouTube video of it and it just takes me back. Are there any iconic Christmas ad spots that, it’s weird because it’s like, well, it’s a commercial thing, but it makes you feel nostalgic?

Brian Earl: Well, yeah. And I think part of the reason for that is, I grew up in the mid-70s through the mid-80s. And that’s back when those commercials were really meant, they’d have characters in them. Back in the 80s, you’d have a toy that had a cartoon that had a breakfast cereal that was all part of these things that little kids couldn’t differentiate between the product and the ad and the entertainment. And so the ones that I grew up with were of that family where you’d have that classic commercial for Fruity Pebbles, which of course was tied in with the Flintstones. And you would think that you were watching an episode of the Flintstones because there’d be Christmas music and Barney would be singing, ho, ho, ho, I’m hu, hu, hungry. And so that’s gone down as this kind of iconic Christmas commercial that, you’re right, people have packaged these up into YouTube montages that people actually watch as a form of entertainment. Another big one is that Ronald McDonald commercial.

Where these kids are ice skating, but there’s this one little kid who’s too small and he can’t skate with the other kids. And then Ronald McDonald skates just with him and then skates away.

And then it just, you know, you get the McDonald’s logo. And there’s just tons of those, ones with, you know, M&Ms or Hershey’s Kisses, Norelco razors for some reason are coming to mind. I saw a lot of Norelco razor commercials growing up.

Brett McKay: So I’m curious as to what you see in the future for Christmas traditions, because we’ve been talking about older ones that came about decades or centuries ago, but are there some new ones you see coming on the scene?

Brian Earl: One that comes to mind is the Elf on the Shelf. And part of the reason I waver on this one a little bit is because it’s this one product made by this one company, which is really owned by one family. And that’s a lot to pin the hopes of a single Christmas tradition on. But a couple things are true. The Elf on the Shelf has been around for long enough now that there are people who maybe grew up with it as they were, you know, in later childhood, who are just at the point now where they, you know, in a few years will be starting their own families. And then it’s something they might give to their kids, in which case it now becomes a true tradition handed down from one generation to another. And you also have to think that a lot of other things that we consider Christmas traditions, like say Rudolph, is, you know, we’re interacting with a brand property owned by a company, right? All of the Christmas songs, you know, are copyrighted trademark of one company. So the argument that it can’t become a Christmas tradition because it’s grasp on Christmas is too tenuous.

What if the company goes out of business? I don’t really see that happening. I think we’re also moving into this new storytelling era of Christmas where we really, really, really want to hear the same story over and over again, which is the story of a couple coming together during the Christmas season. Christmas romances are nothing new, but we’ve just entered this whole new phase where they’re inescapable. If you Google Christmas in Google News, half the stories you see are going to be, who’s in this Christmas movie this year? You know, like, oh, Nikki Delos just signed a new contract with Hallmark. It is dominating Christmas news and Christmas culture. Not only all of the Christmas movies themselves, but all of the behind the scenes workings of that. It’s become so much a part of Christmas culture. It’ll be interesting to see whether this we’re ushering in this new era of this form of Christmas entertainment or if it’s going to come and go. I think fam jams are something that we’re seeing, I think, in the last like five years or so, maybe a little bit more. The idea of families wearing matching pajamas on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day.

And of course, a lot of this is fueled by a combination of commerce and social media. You know, people want to share their photos of them and their fam jams and their Christmas cards or with a hashtag or something like that. And then something I think we’re starting to see get imported from England is what over there is called a Christmas hamper. It’s kind of like a Christmas care package. You can buy these at department stores. They can be very ritzy or very pedestrian, but it’s just a box filled with Christmasy goodies that you give to somebody. Over here, we’re seeing them are branded as Christmas Eve boxes, mostly something that you give a child. It might contain a book, some snacks, some slippers and some pajamas, something like that. But over the last five-ish years, we’re starting to see those pick up around here. So I think those are some of the things that we’re noticing as being changes that we’re living through.

Brett McKay: Well, in regards to Elf on the Shelf, this is a PSA from me and my wife, Kate. If you’re a future parent, don’t start Elf on the Shelf. It’s one of the things we regret. And it was weird because like, yeah, we didn’t, none of us, Elf on the Shelf wasn’t a thing when we were kids, but then our kids heard about friends who had Elf on the Shelf and they’re like, we want one of those. And we’re like, eh, well, I think someone ended up giving us an Elf on the Shelf. It’s like, oh great. We got this Elf on the Shelf. It’s annoying because you’re in the middle of the night and you’re like, oh my gosh, you asked your wife, did you move the Elf? And it’s, there’s been a few times where we’ve missed moving the Elf and we’ve had to explain, oh, I don’t know what happened there. I don’t know. So it’s something you got to think about and remember every single night. So it’s annoying. So yeah, don’t do it.

Brian Earl: I am hoping we can avoid it. We started something with my baby Dash. He’s two years old, so he just understands Christmas now. We have the Christmas Goose, which was something I just made up off the top of my head, leaves a package in the tree every night containing an ornament. So we decorate the tree one ornament in one day at a time through these little packages left by the Christmas Goose. I really, I don’t like the Elf on the Shelf. I want to avoid it. I fear that we won’t be able to, but I’m going to try as hard as I can.

Brett McKay: Are there any traditions you see going away? So we mentioned kind of Christmas trees are kind of fading. Are there any other ones you’re seeing like, ah, it’s not going to, that’s not, might not be a thing in 20 or 30 years?

Brian Earl: Almost certainly Christmas caroling is going to go away. That large study that the Pew Research Center did found that there was a double digit decrease in the number of people who went caroling, which, which is another way of saying that a couple of decades ago, it was actually pretty common. I mean, I did it when I was a kid. My Boy Scout troop would go around and, but I mean, I can’t remember the last time I even heard of people caroling, unless it’s, you know, you hire carolers for some kind of event. We know that going to church on or around Christmas is going down. Makes sense. I mean, just church attendance in general is down like as a culture. I was trying to think, there are other things from that survey that were pretty surprising, but they’re all basically in the same camp. Like just roughly those kinds of things, like going to cut down your own tree, giving to charity, unfortunately is something we’re seeing less of.

Brett McKay: So I’m curious as someone who’s really into Christmas, do you have any tips for making the season merry and bright for folks who might have lost their holiday mojo and aren’t feeling the Christmas spirit these days?

Brian Earl: I think part of the reason you lose your holiday mojo, among others, is that it’s the same thing every year, right? Especially as you get into adulthood, you know, as you grow up, your relationship with Christmas changes and it changes pretty quickly. It really changes year by year. You know, as you’re a kid, it’s mostly about getting all the gifts you can. And then very quickly it becomes about nostalgia and family. And then, you know, you get to a certain point where it’s just the same thing and you put up the Christmas tree and it feels like you just took it down a couple of weeks ago. And the cure for all of that is to introduce new experiences. Make it new. Try a recipe that you haven’t tried before. Create a tradition. It’s a contradiction in terms, right? It’s not a tradition until it’s handed down from one generation to another. But, you know, you get the idea. Try to create something for yourself or try something you never tried before. Giving to charity is really good for the soul. My wife and I, when we lived in Boston, used to sponsor a family every year through this program called Boston Cares.

You can look it up if you want to. It’s a great organization. We would even go around delivering the care packages that were gathered up by this charity. There’s so many ways to plug in. But I feel like one of the big things that’s changed about Christmas that we didn’t totally touch on, even though it’s obvious, is that because most of our shopping is online, we freed up a lot of time. And in a lot of ways that’s a good thing, right? We have more time. But in a lot of ways what we’ve really done is insulated ourselves with that extra time. Where you could be using that time to get out more, go to more events, connect with people more, and just try new things.

Brett McKay: Well, Brian, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?

Brian Earl: Best place to go is

Brett McKay: Fantastic. Well, Brian Earl, thanks for your time. It’s been a pleasure.

Brian Earl: My pleasure. And Merry Christmas.

Brett McKay: Merry Christmas to you. My guest today was Brian Earl. He’s the author of the book, Christmas Past. It’s available on Also check out his podcast, Christmas Past. It’s available on your favorite podcast player. Also, he’s got a website, Check that out. Also check out our show notes at Where you find links to resources and where you delve deeper into this topic. Well that wraps up another edition of the AOM Podcast and another year of the AOM Podcast. I like to take this time to thank a lot of people. First, my wife Kate McKay. She edits and produces the podcast. Works really hard every week, getting two episodes out every week. So thank you, Kate, for all the hard work you do. Also like to thank Creative Audio Lab here in Tulsa, Oklahoma. There are sound engineers. They work hard to make sure the show sounds as good as it can so you guys have a good, pleasant audio experience. So thank you, Creative Audio Lab. Also a big thank you to you, our listeners. We know there’s a lot of podcasts you could be listening to, so we appreciate that we’re in your rotation.

Thanks for sharing the show with friends and family members and thanks for sending notes of encouragement. We get letters from you guys, direct messages on Instagram. It really means a lot. So thank you all so much. We’re taking next week off for the holidays. We’ll be back with new episodes in 2023. Merry Christmas. Happy New Year. We’ll see you in 2023.

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