These 40 Vintage Christmas Images Will Make You Want To Break Out The Milk And Cookies For Santa

Published December 25, 2022

From aluminum Christmas trees to retro Santa costumes to vintage holiday dolls, these photos will take you back to a simpler time.

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These 40 Vintage Christmas Images Will Make You Want To Break Out The Milk And Cookies For Santa
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Most Americans today celebrate Christmas in the same way. There's a tree, ornaments, string lights, presents, and maybe a glass of eggnog with brandy, as seen in the vintage Christmas photos above. But many American holiday traditions are surprisingly modern.

Across the pond, Queen Victoria of England and her German-born husband Prince Albert started the Christmas tree trend in the 1840s, according to The Washington Post. But the holiday didn't really catch on in the United States until the Civil War, which happened about 20 years later.

That conflict, which lasted from 1861 until 1865, wrought terrible tragedies for the country. At least 620,000 Americans died as countrymen from the North and the South fought and killed each other. And during those bloody battles, the once low-key holiday of Christmas took on a renewed importance.

As History reports, American media tried to maintain a light mood during those dreary days by publishing happy stories and illustrations about Christmas. From the carnage of the Civil War came the famous depiction of Santa Claus as a jolly and red-cheeked character, created largely by political cartoonist Thomas Nast, according to National Geographic.

Even after the war was over, American media continued to publish cheery stories about the holidays. And Americans, looking for something to celebrate after suffering for years, leaned into Christmas traditions. See some of the merriest vintage Christmas photos in the gallery above, and then learn more about the modern history of the holiday below.

The Modern History Of Christmas In America

Vintage Christmas Photos

Bettmann/Getty ImagesAn engraving by Thomas Nast of Santa Claus, waiting on the roof for children to fall asleep.

Christmas became a federal holiday in the United States in 1870, and American yuletide celebrations quickly evolved. Nast's image of Santa Claus leaped from the page in the 1890s, when businessman James Edgar dressed up as Santa in Brockton, Massachusetts, to greet children at his department store. That same decade, History reports that the Salvation Army started enlisting volunteers dressed as Santa Claus to collect donations.

Other traditions, like Christmas lights and sending Christmas cards, soon blossomed as well. And Americans increasingly gave each other gifts for the holiday, though these gifts have changed mightily over the past century.

As the Wall Street Journal notes, the early 20th century saw a desire for simple Christmas gifts. Women might ask for a sewing machine, men might request a pocket watch, and children often asked for dolls or train sets. During the post-World War II boom, however, gift requests started becoming more extravagant. Women might ask for mink coats, men wanted radios and cameras, and children desired gifts like rollerskates and silly putty.

Christmas In The 1980s

RedditA vintage Christmas photo of an excited child with Transformers toys in the 1980s.

In the decades that followed, the increasingly commercialized Christmas season often featured a "must-have" toy. In the 1980s, children begged Santa Claus for Cabbage Patch Kids, Transformers toys, and "Koosh balls." By the end of the decade, the most coveted gift for many was a Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) or a Game Boy, according to Insider.

The 1990s saw a demand for Barney dolls, Power Rangers toys, Furbies, Pokémon cards, and, of course, Beanie Babies. In the 2000s, American children desired toys like Razor scooters, Xbox 360s, and iPads. Since then, kids have asked for toys related to movies, like dolls from Frozen (2013), though Insider reports that 2016 saw a funny blast from the past when the re-released NES Classic became one of the year's most popular presents.

Over the years, the gifts and traditions of Christmas in the United States have changed quite a bit. But the joyful spirit of the holiday has largely stayed the same. As the 40 vintage Christmas photos in the gallery above demonstrate, Christmas is a time for family, parties, and children so overwhelmed and excited by their gifts that they're moved to tears.

After enjoying these vintage Christmas photos, look through some of the weirdest Christmas advertisements ever produced. Or, discover the story of the 1914 Christmas Truce, which briefly put World War I on hold.

Kaleena Fraga
A staff writer for All That's Interesting, Kaleena Fraga has also had her work featured in The Washington Post and Gastro Obscura, and she published a book on the Seattle food scene for the Eat Like A Local series. She graduated from Oberlin College, where she earned a dual degree in American History and French.
Jaclyn Anglis
Jaclyn is the senior managing editor at All That's Interesting. She holds a Master's degree in journalism from the City University of New York and a Bachelor's degree in English writing and history (double major) from DePauw University. She is interested in American history, true crime, modern history, pop culture, and science.
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Fraga, Kaleena. "These 40 Vintage Christmas Images Will Make You Want To Break Out The Milk And Cookies For Santa.", December 25, 2022, Accessed May 18, 2024.