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Five surprising facts about history of Christmas

Published: 17 December 2019 at 13:00

Professor Eugene Giddens

ARU children’s book expert ‘talks turkey’ about Rudolph, stockings and Santa

A children’s book expert has unearthed a host of fascinating facts about the history of our seasonal celebrations while researching his latest work.
Christmas Books for Children, the new book by Professor Eugene Giddens of Anglia Ruskin University (ARU), traces the history of Christmas publications for children since the 18th Century as well as looking at new trends.

The Christmas book market has played an important role in the growth of children's literature, from well-loved classics to traditional annuals and gift books.

During his research for Christmas Books for Children (Cambridge University Press) Professor Giddens, Course Leader for the MA in Children's Literature at Anglia Ruskin University (ARU), discovered five surprising developments that have had a major impact on how we celebrate Christmas today.

One stocking
“Christmas stockings originally came in pairs. They were of course hung up that way to dry over the fireplace so Santa had to fill two, albeit small ones to match the size of the wearer’s feet. But sometime around 1860 the Christmas stocking becomes more popularly singular, as in a 1862 story, ‘The Christmas Stocking’, in which a little boy: ‘drew off his right stocking. This he held in his hand – ‘Oh!’, said he, ‘it has got a hole in it; the things will all come out!’ Indeed, it was almost all hole, for beside the proper hole which every stocking has or it isn’t a stocking, there was a hole in the heel and another very large one in the toes. He looked at it in despair, and then took up the other one; but that was even worse. He consoled himself, finally, as well as he could, by the reflection that Santa Klaus would probably put all the large things in first, and thus they would stop the holes up…’”

“The popularity of Christmas trees came very close to removing stockings from Christmas culture altogether. The first recorded history of Santa, back in the 1820s, makes mention only of stockings. By the 1840s, however, Christmas trees begin to appear in children’s books in England and America. Trees were always mounted upon a table – never stood on the floor. Presents were hung up directly on them, instead of being wrapped up underneath.” 

Santa’s outfit 
“Santa used to wear gold and brown and yellow – all the natural colours of fur – in order to stay warm. Although he begins to wear red in the later part of the 19th Century, it was only when he signed a contract with Coca-Cola in the late 1920s that he began exclusively to wear red and white. Coca-Cola also hired one of his elves for a brief period to be ‘Sprite Boy’.” 

Santa’s Treats 
“Before Santa discovered Coca-Cola, alcohol featured heavily in Christmas stories in the 19th Century. It’s easy to forget that one of the main lessons for Scrooge is not to drink. In the end Scrooge ‘had no further intercourse with Spirits, but lived upon the Total Abstinence Principle, ever afterwards’. The abstinence principle of Christmas was short-lived, but still lives on in the United States, where Santa remains teetotal. So in the US, Santa mostly receives treats of milk and cookies, but that’s only after a heavy sampling of sherry, whisky and beer over in Europe.”

“After a busy night in Europe it’s a good thing that Santa has eight designated drivers, but even his reindeer found trouble in the winter of 1938. That foggy Christmas led to the recruitment of Rudolph, immortalised now in a song originally written for the customers of Montgomery Ward department store. The first mention of Rudolph was in a colouring book produced by Montgomery Ward in 1939.”