31 Vintage Photos of Christmases Past
If the past is a different country, as the saying goes, we invite you to take a trip via these charming images to celebrate the holidays in a simpler, smaller place.
Dreaming of Christmases past
Classic traditions such as leaving cookies out for Santa, decorating a Christmas tree, and giving gifts have been around for decades, but Christmas looks a lot different today. Keep reading to get a glimpse at what people used to do to celebrate this merry holiday. You also don’t want to miss these adorable vintage photos of kids meeting Santa.
Hanging up the stockings
When you grow up in a big family, you learn to take turns, even when it’s time to hang up your Christmas stocking. The children of William and Florence Eardly, wearing matching pajamas, did just that in a photo that appeared on page 1 of the Dayton (Ohio) Herald on Dec. 24, 1945. Mike (far left), who now lives in Beaverton, Michigan, says the family eventually grew to 12 children. This is why Christmas is on December 25th.
For houses without a fireplace, the next best thing was a cardboard version hung with stockings, like this one in the home of Pearl Blair in Superior, Wisconsin. Granddaughters Jodi and Cindy Korpela were photographed during a 1965 visit to Grandma Pearl. Their mom, Janice, shared the photo. These last-minute Christmas presents are perfect for a gift-giver in a bind.
To celebrate Christmas, people would come together to dance. This Christmas dance in the 1940s was sponsored by the 1323rd Engineers in Texas.
Doll for an orphan
“I was finishing a year overseas when I received a care package from home containing one of my niece’s dolls,” writes Don Grudt from Port Charlotte, Florida. “My sister asked me to give the doll to a Korean orphan. I got a pass to Seoul and found a new friend among a group of about 50 orphans. This little girl made my Christmas in 1953.”
Big new toys
“My husband, Preston Reeves, was just 18 months old when he received this Jet-Flow Drive Station Wagon for Christmas in 1952,” says Ginger Crick Reeves of Pinson, Alabama. “As you can tell by the look on his face, this pedal car was the most exciting thing he had ever seen. He was so excited he could barely contain himself and had to give his new toy a big hug!” Check out these funny Christmas cartoons for holiday laughs.
Mr. Claus goes to Washington
These days, our skies are filled with everything from drones to jumbo jets, and we’re struggling to regulate all of them. Back in the law-abiding past, Santa himself went to the Department of Commerce in our nation’s capital to obtain his official airplane pilot’s license and get flight maps from government officials. Here, Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Aeronautics William P. MacCracken (left) and Director of Aeronautics Clarence M. Young, in 1927, as well as their assurances that airways would be lit come Christmas Eve. If these vintage Christmas photos don’t get you in the holiday spirit, travel to ones of these small towns with the best Christmas lights.
“Christmastime is always filled with anticipation, but it was especially so in our house, thanks to the special holiday cards made by our father, Charles Found,” says Suzanne Manthe of Oak Creek, Wisconsin. “The 1954 card, which features twins Bruce and Barbara looking into a store window, shows one of the elaborate sets Dad contrived. The window display was set up on our kitchen table. We painted Epsom salts on the windowpanes to make frost.”
The Night Before Christmas
“This is my favorite picture. That’s me at age 3, just before Christmas in 1947,” says Bonnie Bair of Manchester, Maryland. “My family lived with my grandparents Joseph and Alfretta Wheller in Paxtang, Pennsylvania. Whenever I asked, ‘Grandpa, please hold me,’ he would pull me on his lap and read to me. Here he is reading from my favorite illustrated storybook, Night Before Christmas.”
A different kind of traffic
Bus terminals were the busy transport hubs during the holidays of yore, because air travel was too pricey for most folks. In the 1940s, a round-trip plane ticket between New York City and San Francisco cost around $300, nearly 40 percent of what you would have paid for a brand-new car. Here, a view of a crowded Greyhound Bus terminal in 1941. These stories about meeting Santa will fill you with Christmas spirit.
Serving our country
“Seated at the piano at Christmastime during World War II is my grandmother, Mary Mairose of Cincinnati, Ohio,” says Diane Mairose Feeney of Greenwood, Indiana. “On the piano are portraits of the children who were serving our country, Nobert, Richard, Angela, Jack, Leo, and Frank. The other children, not pictured, were my father, Arthur, who ran the family grocery store, and Rosella, a nurse and a nun. My grandfather Frank Mairose’s picture is inset at the bottom.”
“This is me at age 3 during Christmastime in 1966 on the steps of the Modesto, California, post office. I was with my mom when I saw a man lifting packages and ran up to help him. A photographer snapped this picture! As it turned out, the man was making a display for Christmas Seals—not actually putting packages in the big mailbox! They ended up using the photo for their fundraising campaign,” says Lisa Merrill.
Senators played Santa…
Rather than spending their days locked in fierce debate, in the kinder, gentler past Congressional representatives came together at the holidays to collect toys for poor children. Here, U.S. Senators Joseph F. Guffey of Pennsylvania (left) and D. Worth Clark of Idaho assembled their haul in 1939.
… And so did the police
Members of an NYC precinct handed out toys to underprivileged kids in this vintage Christmas photo taken between 1915 and 1920.
“My first Christmas away from home was made more festive by this dance band of fellow Air Force cadets and the local girls who came to enjoy the music at Elon University in North Carolina,” says Arthur Lovell of Essex, Connecticut. “If you closed your eyes, you would think it was Glenn Miller’s band. Shortly after this, we all left for flight training and then parts unknown.”
“During Christmas week of 1943, when most of our fellow Marines stationed at Quantico, Virginia, were on leave for the holidays, a few of us were left to ‘guard the barracks.’ We were spending a quiet Sunday when the photo lab boys showed up with their canine mascot to bring cheer to us lonely girls and take a picture to show our folks back home. That’s me on the right, closest to the window,” says Lucille Greenberg of West Palm Beach, Florida.
Bark the herald angels sing
Even shelter animals got their share of Christmas cheer. In 1936, Washington, D.C., poundmaster Frank B. Marks showered stray dogs and cats with festivities.
Letters to Santa
“Remember when letters to Santa Claus were deposited in a little house like this in front of City Hall?” says Margaret Rostedt of Montebello, California. “This photo was taken in White Plains, New York, in 1930 or 1931. That’s me mailing the letter as my brother and a friend attempt to peek into the house.”
On our first Christmas together, in 1957, my husband, Doug, surprised me by preparing dinner, hence the apron,” says Dorothy Kelshaw of Lansing, Michigan. “His hobby was gourmet cooking. He also surprised me with this Christmas tree. I just had to capture the moment of this macho man, with cigar and apron, putting the final touches on the tree.”
Window shopping never goes out of style
Compared to today’s brightly-lit, packed, and high-tech store windows, the displays of the past appear rather empty and dull. But what has remained unchanged is kids’ excitement in daydreaming about the toys they might find under their trees on Christmas morning. Here, children gazed at Macy’s in New York City between 1908 and 1917. Anyone can handle these DIY Christmas decorations that will make your home extra festive.
Where’s the Secret Service??
Without a metal detector or armed guard in sight, young members of the public went to personally express their Christmas wishes to the junior residents of the White House. Here, in 1930, six-year-olds Kitty Murray (far left) and Harry G. Holme Jr. (far right) represented the children of Washington, D.C., when they paid a holiday call on presidential grandkids Peggy Ann Hoover and Herbert Hoover the Third.
Deck the halls
For more than half a century, the Weaver family has decked the halls in Arkansas. “We all gather at our parents’ homestead,” says Mildred McKinney, standing behind her mom in this 1979 photo.
Cramped and cozy
It was a bit cramped in their first apartment in Benton Harbor, Michigan, in 1946, but it was a great Christmas for Gwenn Schadler and her husband, Harold. They now live in nearby St. Joseph.
Tidings of comfort and joy
These vintage Christmas photos make us feel so nostalgic. The first Christmas cards were sold in America in 1847, although Hallmark didn’t sell its first Christmas cards until 1915. Even though the Internet has led to a decrease in snail mail, Christmas remains the biggest card-sending holiday in America. Around 1.2 billion cards are sent each year. This photo was taken in the 1910s when postcards temporarily overtook cards with envelopes in popularity. This is the history behind your favorite Christmas traditions.
The original F2F, IRL entertainment
This year, after the Christmas presents are opened, many people will probably be busy playing with their new electronic devices. But back in the day, any playing was done on the piano, where everyone stood to sing carols together. Here, a group gathered at a home in the Washington, D.C., area in 1941.
F2F and also cheek-to-cheek
Another popular Christmas party activity in the past was dancing. No DJ or streaming service was needed: The only requirements were a record player or radio, enough space to two-step, and a partner. This photo was taken at a holiday get-together in 1941.
Projects of happiness
Handmade projects were the hallmark of Christmas displays in Paul Prough Jr.’s yard in Mount Union, Pennsylvania, during the 1950s. “Starting around Labor Day, my father, Paul Sr., and my mother, Polly, could be found in the basement drawing, hammering, sawing, and painting. Their projects required long hours, hard work and a little patience, but they did bring happiness to others,” he writes. Here Paul Jr. and his mother sing along with three carolers near the lamppost in the family’s front yard.
I saw mommy kissing Santa Claus
This vintage holiday card perfectly represents the song, I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus. After looking at these vintage Christmas photos, check out the history behind your favorite Christmas carols.
What do you want for Christmas?
Presents for all
A little two-year-old sits next to all of the presents under the tree on Christmas morning. Some of the presents are for her two older brothers, who are away serving in World War II. This is the real reason Christmas colors are red and green.
Hugs from Santa
Two young boys—not exactly sure how they feel about sitting on the lap of a big-bellied bearded man—visit Santa at their local department store.
This happy family poses next to their tree on Christmas morning. Even in black and white, you can still see the shine of the tinsel. Next, find out the 20 best Christmas songs, ranked.