Although most Christians celebrate December 25 as the birthday of Jesus Christ, few in the first two Christian centuries claimed any knowledge of the exact day or year in which he was born. The oldest existing record of a Christmas celebration is found in a Roman almanac that tells of a Christ’s Nativity festival led by the church of Rome in 336 A.D. The precise reason why Christmas came to be celebrated on December 25 remains obscure, but most researchers believe that Christmas originated as a Christian substitute for pagan celebrations of the winter solstice.
A popular medieval feast was that of St. Nicholas of Myra, a saint said to visit children with gifts and admonitions just before Christmas. This story evolved into the modern practice of leaving gifts for children said to be brought by “Santa Claus,” a derivative of the Dutch name for St. Nicholas—Sinterklaas.
Plenty of communities hold Santa Claus parades, and each one is special in its own way. However, the parade that happens each year in Peoria, Illinois, is the oldest parade of its kind in the U.S. It's taken place every holiday season since 1888—that's well over 100 years of festive fun!
The North American Aerospace Defense Command, or NORAD, has been tracking Santa's journey around the world since 1958. According to their website, the innovation was set into motion in 1955, when "a young child [accidentally] dialed the unlisted phone number of the Continental Air Defense Command (CONAD) Operations Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado, believing she was calling Santa Claus after seeing a promotion in a local newspaper." The commander on duty, Colonel Harry Shoup, saw an opportunity to create a little Christmas magic, and assured the youngster that CONAD would guarantee Santa a safe journey from the North Pole, sparking the idea to track Santa's travels each year to the delight of children all over the world.
The first known electrically illuminated Christmas tree was displayed for the first time in 1882 at the home of Edward H. Johnson at his Fifth Avenue home in NYC. Johnson was an associate of inventor Thomas Edison and the vice president of the Edison Electric Light Company, a predecessor of today's Con Edison electric utility. He proudly displayed his Christmas tree, which was hand-wired with 80 red, white and blue electric incandescent light bulbs the size of walnuts that he had specially made. Johnson has become widely regarded as the "Father of Electric Christmas Tree Lights."
"Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer first appeared in 1939 when Montgomery Ward department store asked one of its copywriters, 34-year-old Robert L. May, to create a Christmas story the store could give away to shoppers as a promotional gimmick." And thus Rudolph was born, with Montgomery Ward distributing 2.4 million copies of the story in the first year of its publication.
“White Christmas” was performed for the first time by Bing Crosby on his weekly NBC radio program, The Kraft Music Hall, on Christmas Day in 1941. The song was written by lyricist Irving Berlin, who also wrote “God Bless America." Crosby’s recording of “White Christmas” became a smash pop hit and was the top-selling single ever until being surpassed by Elton John’s “Candle in the Wind 1997.”
President Calvin Coolidge begins the tradition of an outdoor national Christmas tree in 1923. The first national Christmas tree to grace the White House grounds was also the first White House Christmas tree to feature electric lights- a strand of 2,500 red, white and green bulbs. The balsam fir came from Coolidge’s home state of Vermont and stood 48 feet tall. Several musical groups performed at the tree-lighting ceremony, including the Epiphany Church choir and the U.S. Marine Band. Later that evening, President Coolidge and first lady Grace were treated to carols sung by members of Washington, D.C.’s First Congregational Church.