The Origins of Some Holiday Traditions
The Holiday Card Tradition
An Englishman, John Calcott Horsley is credited with popularizing the tradition of sending Christmas greetings early in the nineteenth century. These first cards were hand-delivered until the world’s first postage stamp was issued in 1840. For several years, years, a few wealthy Americans imported their cards from England as no one in the U.S. was yet producing them. Early cards were often black-and-white as printing in color was complex and expensive. Some companies like Currier & Ives hired young women to add a bit of color to each card.
The first U.S. printer of cards was Louis Prang, who had emigrated from Germany and opened a lithographic shop in Boston in 1856. Prang had become established producing Civil War maps and card-size portraits of military leaders. On a visit to Europe, he studied new methods used for printing in color and returned to perfect chromolithography, a process that prints color using a series of lithograph stones.
Prang introduced the process to the creation of Christmas cards, and he was soon producing more than 5 million cards annually. Small cards costs 10 cents; bigger ones a dollar. For the day, these prices were considered high, but the cost was justified as the production of color printing required numerous impressions of lithographic stones with different colors of ink.
Prang’s cards were so well-regarded, it was common for people to comment on how many Prang cards they had received that year.
By the 1890s, other companies had entered the market, so Prang turned to publishing educational art books. Nine years after Prang’s death in 1909, his company was sold, perhaps fittingly, to the American Crayon Company.
The Story of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
Today Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer is the star of a popular holiday television special, and the song is frequently played on radio or sung by school children throughout December. Would it surprise you to learn that Rudolph was a creation of a staff copywriter employed by Montgomery Ward Company?
To compete for the consumer dollar in the 1930s, department stores began the practice of creating holiday displays and hiring a Santa to listen to children’s gift requests so that parents would bring children to the store and stay to shop. At Montgomery Ward, Santa gave each child a coloring book to tide him or her through until Christmas.
In 1939, this Chicago-based store decided to save money by having the book created in-house and asked copywriter Robert May (1905-1976) to come up with a story. May had been a small boy who was taunted by others, so he wrote a rhyming tale about a reindeer who got teased for having a funny-looking nose. However, Rudolph’s luck changed one foggy night when Santa spots him as the one reindeer who can lead Santa and his sleigh through the skies to continue delivering toys. The story was very popular, and the store distributed 2.4 million copies of the Rudolph coloring book that year.
May’s wife died of cancer around the time May wrote the story, so he was left as a single father of their young daughter with a mountain of medical debts. A few years later, May approached Sewall Avery, Montgomery Ward’s president, requesting the rights to Rudolph so he could get it commercially published and perhaps pay off some debts. In the true spirit of Christmas, Avery agreed (there ought to be a star shining for him even now).
In 1947, May’s story was published, and a year later, a nine-minute cartoon was released to be shown in movie theatres. May’s brother-in-law was a songwriter and set the lyrics to music, and in 1949, Gene Autry agreed to record the song. It sold two million copies that year, and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” has gone one to become one of the best-selling holiday songs of all time, second only to Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas.”
Fast Facts About Holiday Music
Many of the songs we hear at holiday time originated in Europe, but here are some facts about ones that originated in the United States:
- “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” was written by Fred Coots (1897-1985) to be performed at his daughter’s grammar school (Murray Avenue School, Larchmont, NY). This first performance was likely in 1933, as the song was recorded for radio in 1934.
- “The Christmas Song” or “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire,” was written by Mel Torme and Bob Wells in 1944 during a blistering hot heat wave (perhaps in Los Angeles). They were yearning for thoughts to make them feel cool.
- “We Three Kings” was written by Reverend John Henry Hopkins Jr. who was known for doing the eulogy at the funeral for Ulysses S. Grant.
- “White Christmas” by Irving Berlin is thought to have been written at The Biltmore Hotel in Phoenix in 1940. Bing Crosby’s version of the song is the best-selling single of all time.
- Jingle Bells was written by James Lord Pierpont in Medford, Massachusetts. A house in Medford is designated as the birthplace of Jingle Bells.” It was the first song broadcast from outer space in 1965 (Gemini 6).