Christmas is a strange time, because it’s both incredibly jolly and sometimes sad, at least in the sense of nostalgia.
Christmas is a religious holiday that’s transcended its origins to become a kind of secular, winter gift-giving season of festivities. Christmas fashions, what people wear, how they celebrate, and so on change with the times. Christmas traditions are those fashions that ended up ingrained in the culture. Things like Christmas trees, stockings, and red Santa hats are ubiquitous during the season today, but in the past those things were nowhere to be found. Rather than focusing on the traditions that stuck around, let’s talk about the Christmas fashions left by the wayside, missed by those who were children when they were popular.
Christmas Fashions Throughout the Ages
Since we've explored the differences between tradition and fashions, let's take a look at a few things that have changed.
Christmas Fashions in Victorian Times
Before the reign of Queen Victoria, Christmas wasn’t as popular as it is today. Traditions held over from the pagan midwinter festivals, such as decorating with evergreen plants, holly, ivy, and so on. People still did this, but few people even went to church on the holiday. At the time, people weren’t given time off, especially because Britain was in the midst of an industrial revolution. Then Charles Dickens came along and wrote A Christmas Carol. This inspired the new wealthy factory owners to share their profits, in the form of gifts and time off, during the Christmas holiday. Thanks to railroads, people began to travel from the cities back home for the holidays.
Along with Christmas trees and wreaths, the Victorian era also saw the birth of the Santa Claus myth as we know it today. The British combined “Father Christmas,” a figure from pre-Christian lore, with legends of the Dutch priest St. Nicholas, pronounced “Sinter Klaas.” He delivered his gifts in a sleigh pulled by reindeer, but he looked very different. He wore long robes and was surrounded by woodland animals. There were no letters either, kids took what they were given. Lower income children typically got healthy snacks like oranges, apples, or nuts, which were luxuries at the time. If a child was lucky, he or she received a wooden or clockwork toy.
Christmas Fashions in the 1950s and 1960s
While Christmas had been a federal holiday in the United States since 1870, it wasn’t until after the second World War that it really took hold in the culture. Perhaps after the long separation families endured because of the war, Christmas became a very big deal. Many classic Christmas standards were produced during this time, adding phrases like “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” “White Christmas,” and “Jingle Bell Rock” entered the lexicon permanently. Santa appeared as we know him today, clad in his red suit and black boots. However, not everything these Baby Boomer-era Christmas celebrators did carried on to the modern age.
Families gathered around the Christmas tree back then, but for a long time that tree was made of silver aluminum. These trees had a colored light at the center, and the reflective properties of the aluminum made it shine. Interestingly, it was the Christmas tree in the Charlie Brown special that allegedly killed this trend. The food served at events was much different than what we are used to today. Trays of cold cuts and olive combinations, mayo-based salads, and weird puddings sat next to Christmas staples like Ham and gingerbread cookies. But, pink bunny suits never went out of fashion!
Christmas Fashions in the 1980s and 1990s
Everything in the 1980s had a specific look to it, and the Christmas fashions were no different. It was about this time that the “ugly sweater” made its appearance in society, though unironically. The biggest change to the Christmas culture came in the form of mass commercialization. One of the Christmas fashions gone out of style (because of the decline of retail business) was the yearly Sears catalog. It came full of all sorts of things, but kids loved it because of its lengthy toy section. Kids of the 1980s and 1990s would not be satisfied with some walnuts or an orange. They wanted entire Lego sets, vehicles for Barbie and G.I. Joe, and video games.
Most television shows still feature Christmas or holiday-themed episodes, but in the late 1980s and 1990s they were everywhere. The media landscape was much different back then, and there wasn’t much exclusivity. Today, classics like the Charlie Brown special or It’s a Wonderful Life run multiple times in one season. These shows completely took over television, so much so that the “winter break” continues to this day. However, rather than just dumping these episodes and movies out over and over again, they’ve turned them into event television.
Christmas Fashions in the 21st Century
As we’re currently living through the first two decades of the 21st century, it’s hard to pinpoint what are Christmas fashions or genuine traditions. However, things are markedly different than they used to be decades ago. As per usual, technology is to blame. Yet, unlike with the Queen’s Christmas address on radio or that Christmas special on television, today’s technology doesn’t quite lend itself to group events. Perhaps its that the family gathers around the TV to play whatever new video game the kids got. But usually technology, especially those given as gifts, are solitary pursuits.
Ugly sweaters are back, though people tend to wear them ironically at themed-parties. These many not just be passing Christmas fashions, though. Whether you are wearing it as a goof or simply wearing it, those flamboyant Christmas sweaters just make people feel good in them. It’s hard to see one without breaking out in a smile. If we had to bet, one of the current Christmas fashions likely destined to go out of style is actually marketing. For some reason, car dealerships try to sell people the idea that you can surprise a loved one with a new car on Christmas morning. It’s a feel-good commercial, but no one buys cars like that.
Christmas fashions change as anything does, even the storied traditions we hold dear, but this evolution keeps the holiday popular.
When it come to holiday celebrations, especially one as steeped in family tradition as Christmas, the only “right” way to do it is the way you did it as a kid. This doesn’t mean that the aluminum tree, unironic ugly sweater, or whatever else you did was better than today’s Christmas fashions. No, this just means that those times are when Christmas was its most magical for you. It can be easy to lament those lost days, but a great way to get past that feeling is realizing you are the architect of what Christmas will mean to your family’s kids. Traditions are important and provide a kind of continuity from the past to the present. However, it’s always worthwhile to try new things, even if they fall out of fashion.
What are some of your favorite Christmas fashions that have gone or are going away? Share your stories, traditions, or thoughts in the comments below. Don’t forget to share this article on social media to get your family and friends in on the discussion.
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