The Christmas holiday that we celebrate today was created through an emergent, collaborative, distributed process. The same process that generates almost all radical innovation.
Christmas wasn’t widely celebrated in the United States until the late 19th century. The reason is that most U.S. Christians were Protestants and many of them associated Christmas with pagan rituals (like the Christmas tree and the yule log), and worse, they associated it with the raucous practice of “wassailing”: roving bands of adults who went from door to door, singing in the expectation of getting a drink of alcoholic punch from the host. If they didn’t get any punch, they often vandalized the house–think of trick or treat for drunks.
The first step towards bringing Christmas back into the mainstream of American life was Charles Dickens’ 1843 A Christmas Carol. In 1863, cartoonist Thomas Nast first sketched Santa Claus as a fat, jolly man. In Europe, Father Christmas and St. Nicholas were dramatically different from today’s Santa. In England, Father Christmas did not give gifts; in many other European countries, it was the Christ Child delivered gifts to the young.
Santa Claus was a collective cultural creation, in response to the tension between commercialism and domestic family love. In the 19th century, U.S. parents made toys for their children, but as families moved off the farm and into cities to take jobs in factories, they didn’t have time to make toys themselves. At the same time, a toy industry emerged in the U.S., with all of the commercialism and marketing associated with it. Parents started buying presents for their children, but felt vaguely guilty about it. The solution? A new myth: all of the toys were lovingly hand made by happy elves at the North Pole.
There’s a lot more to the story, and it’s not hard to find on the Internet or in books by historians. It’s a process of social emergence over time, of collective creative responses to changes in the U.S. family, society, and culture. The innovative process of social emergence over time is what I describe in my 2007 book Group Genius if you’d like to see more examples of the same historical process of social emergence in action.
Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!