Delish editors handpick every product we feature. We may earn commission from the links on this page.
What Christmas Looked (And Tasted!) Like Over The Last 80 Years
We might just write to Santa for an Easy-Bake Oven again this year. 😉
Since New Year’s is all about making resolutions and looking forward, during the Christmas holiday season, we’re all about indulging in some good old-fashioned nostalgia. The traditions we take part in, the decorations we hold onto forever, the recipes we can't imagine not making—December is the perfect time to remember all the great, wacky, and memorable holidays we had growing up and why we loved them. Though every year we get excited to incorporate new trends and customs into our celebrations, year after year we find that the true magic of this season lies in our memories. That's why we couldn't think of a more fun trip down memory lane than recalling what Christmas was like over the past few decades, from the good to the very, shall we say, questionable.
There’s honestly SO much we love about the holidays, it was hard to narrow it down. Is it the tree? Fun fact: During the second World War, Christmas lights were deemed “unnecessary” to produce, so people had to get creative with their decorations. Is it the presents? NGL, we’d still be pretty stoked to receive an Easy-Bake Oven, one of the hot gifts of 1963. Is it the Christmas movies? From It’s A Wonderful Life to Elf to A Christmas Story, there’s no better way to celebrate than watching a holiday film with your family and friends.
And we can’t forget about the food! There have been some WILD holiday trends over the years, like a snowman made of coleslaw (1970s), a “party loaf” made of mayonnaise (1980s), and over-the-top ice cream sundaes (made famous by Home Alone 2 in 1992). While we might not be revisiting those, we’re certainly still making peppermint bark (homemade or from the tins, like William Sonoma’s circa 1998), cheese fondue (1970s), pigs in a blanket (the first recipe for which was published by Betty Crocker in 1957), and any kind of alcoholic party punch (1960s). Take inspiration (and laughs) from these recipes and ideas, then get creative and make your own! You never know, we might be documenting them in 20 years time.
It's A Wonderful Life was released in December 1946, and though it won awards and was well-received, it didn't become the Christmas classic we know and love right away. For that, you'll have to fast-forward to 1974, when the film lost its copyright and network stations began playing it ALL day on Christmas. We're not complaining, it's one of our (and our mom's) absolute favorites.
Food Timeline catalogs historic American dinner menus, and when it comes to Christmas in the 1940s, plum pudding seems to have been essential. It's included in the holiday menus of Young America's Cook Book: A Cook Book for Boys and Girls Who Like Good Food from 1940, Good Housekeeping Cookbook from 1944, and was served at the Roosevelts' White House dinner table in 1942.
By the end of the 1940s, it's estimated that 85% of Americans owned a refrigerator, meaning that buying turkeys, hams, and other meat ahead of time for the holidays was possible for more than just the elite. As this 1949 ad shows, fridges also made for great Christmas gifts.
In the early 1940s, a 5 foot artificial Christmas tree could be purchased for just $0.75! Christmas lights were tricky though, since their manufacture was deemed "unnecessary" due to the war efforts. After the war ended in August 1945, the main manufacturer of Christmas lights (NOMA) didn’t have time to make up for demand, and only caught up 3 years later. People got creative with tinsel, popcorn garlands, and more.
We've come a long way in terms of Christmas tree decorations over the past several decades. In the 1950s, families often got more creative and DIY-ed their own accoutrements. While it doesn't have the sparkle of tinsel, popcorn's texture made it perfect for stringing together and then draping over a tree's branches. Popcorn garlands would make for a cute snack-themed tree—our favorite kind of theme—but we imagine it would be hard to get through a strand without eating half of the supplies. 😉
Queen Elizabeth II made her first Christmas broadcast in 1952 after her accession to the throne in February that year. Just five years later, and on the 25th anniversary of her father, King George V's first Christmas broadcast, she would give the first ever one to be given live and on television.
Jam-packed trees were all the rage in the '50s—just look at these ones featured in the December 1955 issue of Good Housekeeping. Decorations like this really remind you that the sky's the limit on decorations, so get creative!
Dr. Seuss criticized the increasing commercialization of Christmas in 1957 (if only he could see today...) through his new book, How the Grinch Stole Christmas. We're still into the Grinch's whole anti-holiday vibe, and are making our Grinch cookies, our kranky cupcakes, and our Grinch punch all season long.
Spritz cookies date back to the 1600s in Germany. According to What's Cooking America, their name comes from the German word "spritzen," which means "to squirt," since the cookie dough is pushed through a cookie press. Spritzes became more of an American staple by mid-century, which is about when the Mirro aluminum cookie press was introduced. This press made churning out uniform little trees, stars, and snowflakes a snap.
In 1957, Betty Crocker’s Cooking For Kids book references pigs in a blanket for the first time, forever changing our holiday appetizer game for the better. Try serving them in a rosemary wreath to make them extra special.
Advent calendars, AKA pretty Christmas pictures with doors that open up to reveal surprises counting down from December 1 to December 24, originated in Germany around the middle of the 19th century. It took about a century for a game-changing upgrade to take place: the addition of chocolate. In the late 1950s, Americans started counting down the days of advent with chocolate behind each door, making the Christmas season even sweeter.
Hawaii became the 50th state on August 21, 1959, meaning at least some Americans were eating traditional Hawaiian food, like this kālua pig & cabbage, for Christmas that year. Check out our top Hawaiian recipes for more ideas if you too would like to have an island-inspired holiday.
This circa-1958 recipe certainly looks festive enough. You've got your red, your green, your ivory hues. You've got your sorta kitschy Americana take on Victorian Christmas candles. So what if there's lettuce involved? It's just a garnish, and the main attraction is cranberry juice cocktail gelatin stars with bananas. Here's the problem, though: the "dripping wax" effect? Yeah, according to Vintage Recipe Cards, that's mayo, folks.
This coconut cake snowman, made in 1958, is an example of a common confection from back in the day. The treat's popularity continued well into the '70s, with the recipes getting even simpler. Companies seemed to have been saying, "I see you, busy moms," with ideas like "The Snowman Cut-Up Cake," introduced by Cool Whip in 1975. The recipe includes Cool Whip, of course, and coconut, gumdrops, candy canes, and, cake. That's right, you don't even need to bake the cake! Buy some cake, cut it up, cover it with Cool Whip and coconut, and voila!
This one first came to our attention in BuzzFeed's video, "9 Ways Christmas in the 60s Was Super WTF." WTF, indeed. The vintage commercial BuzzFeed found calls for heating up Dr. Pepper and adding some...lemon? OK. We're guessing this was the soda brand's attempt at cornering the whole much-more-festive mulled wine market, but as a commenter on Dr. Pepper's own Instagram post about the retro idea pointed out, this has all the magic of forgetting a can of soda in your car.
In 1961, Oscar Mayer advertised their stroke of genius for serving their meats as festive hors d'oeuvres: the Holiday Hostess Tree. Apparently, you just weren't a holiday hostess without one. Hostesses across America were stapling parsley to styrofoam cones, and then using cocktail picks to "decorate" the tree with meat. Charming. Personally, we're sticking with our pull-apart Christmas tree made with pizza dough, but you do you!
Jell-O molds are...fine, right? Not the most indulgent or irresistible of desserts, but when we're talking fruity flavors, everything is copacetic. In the 1960s, however, people inexplicably fell under the spell of savory Jell-O molds, and they were a hit for the Christmas dinner table. To be accurate, these weren't Jell-O, per se. They are called "aspics," and their jelly is made with meat stock. We're happy this seems to be a ghost of Christmas past.
The '60s were a time for parties, and what better way to serve drinks to all your guests than a festive Christmas punch? Though we might not all have a glass punch bowl complete with ladle and matching cups kicking around nowadays, we're still big fans of the batch cocktail. The best part? Unlike the women of the 1960s, you can make up a batch and skip playing hostess / bartender in lieu of spending more time with your guests!
Unlike many other, er, questionable appetizers served as part of the holiday spread in the 1960s, "crab delight dip" sounds...pretty great! This vintage recipe, circa 1965, calls simply for crabmeat, mayo, sour cream, parsley, sherry, lemon juice, and salt and pepper. We're modernizing our crab dip with some added cheese and serving it hot—trust us, it's still the hit of all the parties.
The first Easy-Bake Oven premiered in 1963, becoming on of THE hot gifts of the holiday season. Though they didn't really bake anything particularly well, they did inspire generations of kids to take up baking as a hobby as they got older. And how cute is that teal blue!?
In 1967, Bon Appetit apparently decided Christmas need a little excitement—danger, even. That's when they published the recipe for a "Flaming Eggnog Wassail Bowl." The steps, according to Julia Kramer, who tried to recreate the recipe in 2013, were: buy eggnog, bake apples, add cider to the 'nog, heat, add the apples to the mix, and IGNITE. Kramer found the bowl was impossible to actually set a blaze, but now we are desperate to know how many households in 1967 had small pyrotechnic catastrophes at their Christmas parties.
A lot of 1960s holiday entertaining seemed to revolve around savory recipes—as seen with this festive spread. Some people even resorted to molding savory things into festive shapes, like a tuna fish Christmas tree. Tuna wouldn't exactly spread the more preferable Christmas aromas of, say, freshly baked cookies or cinnamon or pine. But to each their own?
People loved a good fondue in the 1970s, and there's nothing strange or dated about that. We are still down to stick pretty much anything in ooey gooey cheese any day, any season, any year. Taste of Home lists cheese fondue as a classic '70s Christmas recipe, which makes sense: It's a cozy and warming dish, and it's a fun, communal way for family and friends to eat together.
The fruit salad coated in sour cream and coconut called ambrosia has a long history in the United States, popping up in cookbooks and newspapers as early as the mid-1800s. The introduction of marshmallows in the 1920s brought ambrosia even closer to how we know it today, but it was around the 1970s that perhaps a wave of nostalgia made ambrosia, a seemingly summery dish, a staple of the Christmas dinner table in the South. While it's full of citrus, there is something about the marshmallows and coconut that makes ambrosia fit into the world of holiday sweets, and the dish is a nice bright foil to Christmas dinner's heavier dishes.
The 1970s were truly the Era of Cheese. (Take us back to this magical time!) By the early 1970s, magazines and cookbooks were full of recipes for cheese balls for entertaining, especially around the holidays. Nothing says Christmas like a giant sphere of dairy, right? To make one, you'd combine cream cheese with other grated cheese of your choice, and you'd usually roll the ball in nuts or fruit for a crunchy finish, like in our fancy Christmas cheese ball with pomegranate seeds.
Frosty was truly the Christmas icon of the 1970s. It wasn't enough to have a snowman dessert, no! You had to have a snowman appetizer, too. And what's more appetizing than a giant mound of slaw? Curiously, mayo brand Hellmann's dropped the "the" to name this monstrosity simply "Frosty Slaw Man" when it debuted the recipe in magazines. That recipe, by the way, called for simply mayo, salt, cold water, gelatin (...we're out), cottage cheese and cabbage. There must have been some magic in that old red pepper hat they found...
We can thank 1979 for spreading the popularity of no-bake cookies at Christmastime, another way that recipes in the '70s were looking out for busy cooks. Early renditions called mostly for just lots of coconut and chocolate along with some butter or margarine and powdered sugar, which sounds perfectly scrumptious as is. As we can happily report, though, the options for no-bake holiday desserts have certainly expanded.
It seems like holiday entertaining in the 1970s was really about embracing the hors d'oeuvres part of the party, which we can really get behind. The apps are the best part! By 1978, recipes for "cocktail meatballs" were circulating, like this one with grape jelly. Believe it or not, grape jelly and chili sauce are the odd couple that make these meatballs' sauce great. It's Christmas, after all—everyone gets along, right?
To get festive in the early 1980s, hosts and hostesses would build multi-layer sandwiches and then "frost" the entire monstrosity with cream cheese or mayonnaise. It was kind of like the party sub but more decorative and less appetizing. The trend started bubbling up in the 1970s and went mainstream when Kraft published a recipe in 1981.
Perhaps people wanted to enter a new decade with a healthier outlook, because salmon became quite trendy for holiday dining at the beginning of the 1980s. According to Food Timeline, Better Homes and Gardens advised adding salmon-stuffed pasta shells to your festive buffet spread in 1980, and various salmon dishes were staples listed in Good Housekeeping and Bon Appetit, as well, through 1983.