I love Christmas and history, so I'm sharing what I learn about Christmas and its customs as they've changed over the decades and centuries.
Looking back 100-plus years ago, life had changed a lot for Americans after the turn of the century. By the 1920s, World War I was over, and those in the military had returned home. The Spanish influenza epidemic had also ended. During this decade, more people lived in towns and cities than ever before. The economy was booming, life seemed good, fashion was changing, and many new conveniences were being developed.
Some of these changes in daily life resulted in changes in how Christmas was celebrated. Using newspaper clippings from the era, let's explore what Christmas time was like in 1920s America.
Holiday Activities With Family
In the 1920s, many families gathered for a big Christmas meal and to exchange gifts. The main feature would likely have been a roast goose or turkey. Fat hens and ducks were also popular in holiday meals. In the past, revelers would travel "over the river and through the woods" by horse-drawn sleigh or by buggy. By the 1920s, however, it was by motorcar or by train that they traveled to grandma's house.
What Gifts Were Popular With Children?
Not surprisingly, letters to Santa in the newspaper asked for many traditional toys. Little girls wanted baby dolls, doll buggies, and doll stoves. Little boys asked for cowboy suits, tricycles, and BB guns.
There were new toys in the 1920s too, such as little red wagons, yo-yos, pedal cars that you could ride in, Tinker-Toys, and electric trains that ran on batteries or electricity. Sometimes, children dreamed big and asked Santa for a pony for Christmas.
What Gifts Were Popular With Adults?
With electricity in many people's homes, demand grew for more sophisticated household aids. Mothers hoped for electric irons, toasters, vacuum cleaners, and other wonders of this new decade. Gifts for men were often of a practical nature—socks, hats, handkerchiefs, house slippers, robes, and pocket knives were common choices.
Technological Advances of the 1920s
Think back to a time when there were no televisions or computers. Many of the things that we take for granted were not available in the1920s, but there were some new technologies that were indicative of huge steps forward (telephones, electricity). It was also a time when women won the right to vote and began to take jobs outside the home.
"The electrical toy is a sign and symbol of what it means for a child to live in this wonderful age. He climbs on a stool to speak thru the telephone to someone he knows is blocks and blocks away from his own home. He puts his busy finger on a little button and floods a room with light or rings an unseen bell; he watches the maid put a plug in the electric socket and move an iron apparently free from fire over the laundry or toast bread in a similar way on the table and perform other feats simple enough to him. He runs to get into a carriage which moves of itself, and when he sees by chance a streetcar drawn by horses he nearly collapses with surprise." —The Wichita Beacon Page 34, (19 Dec 1920)
What Was Life Like in the 1920s?
What Did Moms Want for Christmas?
The advertisements were very tempting. Only $1 down, and all sorts of extras were included.
"Think what a Christmas gift the Hoosier will make, a present that will take all the drudgery out of kitchen work—a gift that a busy woman will appreciate all year round. The Hoosier Kitchen Cabinet is in reality the product of the modern spirit of American women. They refuse to be slaves to their kitchens—they demand the kind of freedom the Hoosier gives. The Hoosier saves miles of steps, gives more hours for rest and recreation; eliminates all drudgery!
We are showing a full line of Hoosiers—various sizes and models. When you pay your one dollar enrollment fee, you get a fine 10-piece cutlery set, a 14-piece glassware set, a genuine Hoosier Kitchen Table or a new Hoosier Stepladder stool—ABSOLUTELY FREE!
The balance may be paid a little at a time. Included with every Hoosier Beauty is a splendid 14-piece set of crystal glassware—spice jars, coffee jar, tea jar, salt boat and air-tight containers for bulk foods, such as beans, hominy, crackers, etc. A wonderful extra feature!
Each member of the Club gets a 10-piece cutlery set free with the Hoosier Beauty! Genuine Hoosier Kitchen Table FREE! It has a beautiful white porcelain top and a spacious, easy-sliding drawer, and is finished all over in heavy white enamel.
The Hoosier Kitchen Cabinet has dozens of exclusive features—all the finest and newest labor-saving devices. Come in and examine it." —Hoosier Kitchen Cabinet Ad (1924)
Fire chiefs recommended that everyone light their trees with electrical lights instead of candles to lower the risk of accidental fires.
Community Activities and Good Deeds
Civic organizations and charities delivered food baskets to the poor in many communities. Groups like Rotary, the Lions Club, and the Salvation Army worked together to make sure shut-ins and families on hard times would have food.
Towns also held events for children a day or two before Christmas. In many communities, there would be a ceremonial lighting of the community Christmas tree and some entertainment. Santa Claus—or sometimes several Santas—handed out candy and nuts to hundreds of children. Women's clubs and other organizations helped organize and support these large events.
In Europe, many countries had to rebuild after the war. Their economies and infrastructures suffered a lot of destruction. There were food shortages. Appeals in newspapers asked Americans to help out by donating money, clothing, and food.
Postal employees are working 12 to 15 hours a day so people in other towns may have their Christmas presents on time. Huge piles of packages stand in the post office waiting for delivery. Although the weary clerks are getting dark circles around their eyes, they have not forgotten that they are Emporia's Santas, and that Santa never falls down on the job.
— The Emporia Gazette (December 22, 1923)
Remembering the Veterans at Christmas Time
Wounded veterans from the First World War were remembered at Christmas. The American Legion took them gifts at hospitals in the early 1920s and later on to veteran's homes. Besides serious injuries like loss of a limb or blindness, many suffered from "shell shock," which is now known as PTSD. In 1920, there were 20,000 veterans hospitalized from illness or wounds across the country.
In 1924, in one county in New York state, each received a Christmas stocking with a crossword puzzle book, cigarettes, and other items. Crossword puzzles were a big craze in the 1920s. Will Rogers, the famous humorist, said "we may lose the next war, but we'll sure win the next puzzle contest." At this time, smoking was quite common before it was known to cause cancer.
Families with a piano would gather around it to sing Christmas carols. New sheet music for popular tunes (jazz, show tunes, dance music) were popular gifts. Some families had gramophones to play records on.
The Music of the 1920s
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2020 Virginia Allain
Virginia Allain (author) from Central Florida on October 01, 2020:
Thanks, MsDora, for visiting my page. I enjoyed browsing your articles, but it wouldn't allow me to comment on the gardening article??? In my regular (Virginia Allain) account, I wrote about how the pandemic inspired my vegetable gardening this summer. Yes, it really is therapeutic.
Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on October 01, 2020:
What a difference a century makes! Yet some of these habits still serve us well. The Christmas Club for Kids and the Layaway Plan are still trending. The big difference lies in what is now considered acceptable gifts because there are so many other options including the electronic gadgets to which we have become accustomed. I enjoyed this article.