A Christmas Timeline
Writers don’t always need in-depth details, just the dates with general background to keep us honest. Timelines serve that purpose well. To make this timeline more fun, I’ve included lots of fun links to the carols and links to U-Tube movie excerpts. Enjoy Elvis Presley’s Blue Christmas, Jingle Bell Rock and more.
Dates and authors of some Christmas Carols and events are sometimes debated among historians but the following information is generally accepted.
1500s: Martin Luther, in the Black Forest of Germany, brought a tree into the house and lit it with candles after being awed by the brightness of the stars on a winter’s night.
1780: Carol, Twelve Days of Christmas. The 12 Days of Christmas start with Christmas Day and finish with the eve of Epiphany on 6th January. The carol, Twelve Days of Christmas dates back to English origins in the sixteenth century although the music is reputed to be French. The “first publication date” was 1780. Some believe that each of The Twelve Days of Christmas has a religious significance. From 1558 to 1829, the Roman Catholic Church in England was forbidden to openly practice the faith. It’s said that members of the Church developed ways to communicate the gift of the faith in a code song known as the Twelve Days of Christmas. It should be noted that some historians believe there is no hidden symbolic meaning at all and in fact call that believe urban legend. There is little proof either way.
Listed below are the various explanations of the symbols?
True love refers to God
A partridge is a symbol of Christ. The partridge will feign injury to protect nestlings who are defenseless just a people are when confronted by Satan without Christ.
A Pear tree is the symbol of the salvation of man, just as the apple tree signified his downfall.
Two turtledoves symbolize the Old Testament sacrifice, offered by even the poorest of people.
Three French hens, the symbol for gifts of the three wise men and the three theological virtues of faith, hope and love.
Four calling birds represent the four major prophets and the four evangelists, the former announcing His coming and the latter proclaiming His message.
Five golden rings represent the perfect circle of faith: God’s love for us, our love for god and our love for each other. The number five refers to the five obligatory sacraments and the five books of the Old Testament, which make up the Pentateuch, which gives the history of man’s fall from grace and God’s response of grace.
Six geese a-laying represents the six days of creation.
Seven swans a-swimming are the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, prophecy, ministry, teaching, exhortation, giving, leading and compassion. Also symbolizes the seven works of mercy. The number seven is the number of perfection.
Eight maids a-milking are the eight beatitudes as well as the eight times during the year that were prescribed at that time for the reception of the Eucharist.
Nine ladies dancing are the nine ranks of angel choirs and the nine fruits of the Holy Spirit: 1) love, 2) joy, 3) peace, 4) patience, 5) kindness, 6) generosity, 7) faithfulness, 8) gentleness, and 9) self-control.
Ten lords a-leaping are the Ten Commandments
Eleven pipers are the eleven apostles proclaiming the Resurrection of Jesus.
Twelve drummers are the twelve minor prophets of the Old Testament and the twelve points of the Apostles Creed. Referring to the twelve tribes of Israel and the Apostles, twelve represents completion and fullness.
1719: Carol, Joy to the World. Lyrics Isaac Watts, Music Lowell Mason. It is believed that the melody for “Joy to the World” was partly based on the work of George Frideric Handel, specifically the oratorio Messiah.
1739: Carol, Hark the Herald Angels Sing. Written by Charles Wesley (1707-1788).It first appeared in hymnbook called Hymns and sacred Poems.
1751: Carol, O Come All ye Faithful. Written by John Frances Wade (1711 – 1786), a hymnist 1751. First written in Latin and translated to English in 1852 by Frederic Oakeley and William Thomas Brooke.
1809: Washington Irving(of Dutch ancestry) makes reference to St. Nicholas as the Patron of New York City.
1818: Carol, Silent Night. First performed in the Nicola-Kirche (Church of St. Nicholas) in Oberndorf, Austria on December 24, 1818. Priest, father, Josef Mohr composed the words much earlier, in 1816, but on Christmas Eve brought them to headmaster, Franz Gruber and asked him to compose a melody and guitar accompaniment for the church service.
1822: Dr. Clement Clark Moore, a professor of divinity, wrote The Visit From St.Nicholas, now known as The Night Before Christmas.
1824: Carol, O Tannenbaum or Oh Christmas Tree. The best known version was penned in 1824 by a Leipzig organist named Ernst Anschütz. The melody is an old folk tune. The first known “Tannenbaum” song lyrics date back to 1550. A similar 1615 song by Melchior Franck (1573-1639). There are many English translations and the melody has been used by four states as state songs.
1830s: Poinsettias could be found in select greenhouses in America. By 1870, New York shops sold them at Christmas and by the turn of the century they became associated with the holidays.
1837: Robert Weir who taught art at West Point painted the first American portrait of Santa, posing the saint as he readied to climb down the chimney. He was depicted as a short, beardless man, dressed in high boots, short coat, and stocking cap. He carried a bag of toys and wore a frightening sneer on his face to scare bad children.
1841: Beginnings of the popularity of Christmas trees in England when Prince Albert introduced it to the Royal Family. Americans had the tree by the mid-eighteenth century when Hessian soldiers introduced it during the Revolution.
1843: First Christmas card introduced by John Calcott Horsley in England. The sentiment was “A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you.”
A Christmas Carol, novel by Charles Dickens published, December 19th, 1843. The first film of this story was made in 1938. One of the most recent films by Disney stared Jim Carey [voice & form] as Scrooge in 2009.
1849: Carol, It Came Upon A Midnight Clear. Words by a Unitarian pastor, Edward Hamilton Sears. Lyrics appeared in the Christian Register. Ten years later in 1859, Richard Storrs Willis, an American composer composed the music.
1850s: (Early 1850s) R.H. Pease is described as the first maker and distributor of Christmas. Cards in America at this time. He depicted Santa but the sentiment was an advertisement for his business.
1853: Carol, Good King Wenceslas. Published by Neal and Helmore, originally an old Swedish song dating back to 1592.
1856: Carol, Jingle Bells. Written by Reverend John Peirpont of Savanna Georgia, it was originally written for a church Thanksgiving program.
1857: Elves first appeared around 1856 when Louisa May Alcott completed but never published a book titled Christmas Elves. Thomas Nast depicted elves with Santa but didn’t invent them.
Carol, We Three Kings. Reverend John H. Hopkins Jr. (1820-1891) wrote music and lyrics. Published in Hopkins, Carols, Hymns and Song in 1863.
1860s: (Mid 1860s)–Glass tree ornaments and icicles introduced to the nation by the Germans.
1863: Thomas Nast, a cartoonist employed by Harper’s Weekly illustrated an edition of A Visit From St. Nicholas that adhered closely to Moore’s description of Santa.
1864: Carol, I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day. Published in 1864 and composed by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow as a poem. John B. Calkin composed its music in 1872 though it is also sung to an alternate tune that was originally composed by Joseph Mainzer in 1845. Written during the Civil War, it reflects those stressful times of battle.
1865: By this date, 31 states and territories legalized December 25 as a state holiday.
1866: Artist, Nast depicted Santa housed in an ice palace and later specified the North Pole as Santa’s home.
1867: Carol, O Little Town of Bethlehem. Phillp Brooks, a Clergyman wrote poem in 1867. A year later, Lewis Redner, Brooks’ organist at an Episcopal church in Boston, Massachusetts, created the music.
1870s: Macy’s department store was putting on a good Christmas show in their display windows.
1870: On June 26, Christmas was made a legal national holiday. Until this time it wasn’t on the US national calendar.
1875: Lithographer, Louis Prang, began producing illustrated Christmas Cards. Most of the art was produced by women although he did use some famous artists. Americans were slow to use Christmas Cards and preferred to make their own until the early 1880’s. Later cheaper German cards were produced.
1882: Edward Johnson, a New Yorker and vice president of the newly formed Edison Electric, claimed to be the first to add electric lights to his tree in 1882.
1885: Carol, Away In The Manger. First published in a 1885 Lutheran Sunday School book by James R. Murray (1841–1905), but the author of the first two stanzas is unknown. There are at least two major melodies for the song: one, “Cradle Song”, more commonly encountered in Britain; the other, “Mueller”, more commonly found in the USA. The tune commonly used in Britain was written by William J. Kirkpatrick and was first published in 1895. The tune commonly used in the US was written by James R. Murray and first published in 1887. Stanza three was added in 1904 by Dr. John McFarland of New York City.
1890’s & 1900s: Americans revived the old English custom of caroling.
1895: Electric lights replaced candles on President Cleveland’s White House tree. General usage by the populous didn’t come about until the 1920’s.
1899: Santa had no wife until this date, when Katherine Lee Bates created a Mrs. Claus in her story, Goody Santa Claus On A Sleigh Ride.
1916: Carol, Carol of the Bells. Composed by Mykola Dmytrovych Leontovych (1877-1921). Originally titled Shchedryk, A Ukranian folk song about a sparrow and the bountiful year that awaits a family. First performed in the Ukraine on the night of January 13, 1916. On the Julian calendar this is considered New Year’s Eve. In the United States it was first performed on October 5, 1921 at Carnegie Hall. “Hark how the Bells, Sweet silver bells . . .
1920: Ellis Gimbel partner in the department store by that name, organized fifteen cars and fifty people in the first Thanksgiving Day Parade. The high point was a fireman dressed as Santa, who brought up the rear.
1924: Hudsons, a Detroit store inaugurated its Santa’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.
1934: Song, Santa Clause Is Coming To Town, written by J. Fred Coots and Haven Gilespie and first sung on Eddie Cantor’s radio show in November 1934. Original version was recorded on September 26th, 1935 by Tommy Dorsey & His Orchestra. The made for TV movie showed up in 1970.
Song, Winter Wonderland. Composed in 1934 by Felix Bernard with lyrics by Richard B. Smith. It has been recorded many different times by such artists as Perry Como, Johnny Mathis, Karen Carpenter, Cyndi Lauper, and the Cocteau Twins.
1937: Charles W. Howard opened a Santa Claus School. Students paid $150 each for a week-long course in showmanship, salesmanship and child psychology.
1939: Song, Rudolph The Red-nosed Reindeer. Written by a Montgomery Ward Department Store employee, Robert L. May. The store distributed copies of it to the children of its customers as an advertising gimmick. In 1949, it was set to music by Johnny Marks and Gene Autry recorded it. Two million copies sold during the first Christmas season. The full TV Film has become a holiday favorite.
1941: Song, The Little Drummer Boy, also known as Carol of the Drum, written by Katherine K. Davis. Henry Onorati and Harry Simeone have been credited with writing the song even though they were only the arrangers for their recordings of it starting in 1957. In 1963, the company now known as 20th Century Fox Records retitled and reissued it as The Little Drummer Boy. In 1965 a new version was recorded by Kapp Records.
1942: Film, Holiday Inn. Irving Berlin’s song, White Christmas was first sung by Bing Crosby, winning it an Oscar. Also starring Fred Astaire and Virginia Dale. Written by Irving Berlin & Elmer Rice
1944: Song, Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas. Written by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane for the MGM musical, Meet Me In St. Louis.
1946: Film, It’s A Wonderful Life
Song, All I Want For Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth, by Don Gardner.
Song, The Christmas Song (Chestnuts roasting on an open fire), sung by Nat King Cole, written by Mel Torme. King recorded versions of this song through 1961.
1947: Film, Miracle On 34th Street. Full Film
1950: Song, Frosty the Snowman. Penned by Steve Nelson and Jack Rollins and then recorded in 1950 by Gene Autry and the Cass County Boys. Although a popular Christmas song the word Christmas is not in this tune.
1952: Song, I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Clause. Original recording by Jimmy Boyd; Commissioned by Neiman Marcus to promote their Christmas card for the year, featuring an original sketch by artist Perry Barlow, who drew for the New Yorker magazines for many decades. When first released, the record was banned by the Catholic Church in Boston on the grounds it mixed sex with Christmas. Boyd was thirteen and was widely photographed meeting with the Archdiocese to explain the song.
1953: Song, Santa Baby. Sung by Eartha Kit, co-written by Joan Javits
Song, Merry Christmas Baby. Sung by Charles Brown
Song, Jingle Bell Rock. By Bobby Helms
Song, The Chipmunk Song, sung by David Seville and the Chipmunks.
1961: Song, Please Come Home For Christmas sung by Charles Brown
1964: Song, Blue Christmas sung by Elvis Presley. Originally recorded in 1949 by 3 other artists — Russ Morgan, Hugo Winterhalter and Ernstein Tubbs who all had hits with it.
Song, A Holly Jolly Christmas, sung by Burl Ives, written by Johnny marks
1965: Animated TV film, A Charlie Brown Christmas, Written by Charles Schulz
1970: Animated Film, Santa Clause Is Coming To Town. A television special based on the song, with narrator Fred Astaire telling the original story of Santa Clause Is Coming To Town.
1989: Film, Christmas Vacation. Starred actor Chevy Chase, written by John Huges.
1990: Film, Home Alone. About a child who having been left behind behind at Christmas, fights off robbers.
2002: TV movie, It’s A Very Merry Muppet Christmas, released by Jim Hensen
2003: Film, Elf. Written by David Berenbaum. Actor Will Ferrel played the elf.
2004: Animated film and book, Polar Express. Written by Chris Van Allsburg & Robert Zemeckis. The movie depicts actor Tom Hanks in voice and form as the conductor.
2005: Elf on the Shelf, published in 2005 is a Children’s Book. It’s written and created by Carol Abersold and her daughter Chandra Bell in 2004. This story and the toy bendable elf has become quite popular only in the last few years. I recently read a 2014 teacher’s blog about her students as well as her own children who were placing the toy “Scout” elf all over the house and that she never knew where he’d turn up. The children believe or pretend that that he is reporting back to Santa.
This is as far as my timeline goes. I’m sure some of you can add to it and I hope you will. If you think of any, share them with the rest of us!