While New Year's Day is made for looking forward, Christmas is often 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 24 and 25 are a time to remember all those great or wacky holidays we had growing up and why we loved them. While we all might incorporate a new trend or custom here and there, the 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 questionable, here's what the holiday looked like when you were born.
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. It looks...less than appealing.
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.
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.
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.
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. Over the years, the hostess tree would evolve to include other snacks, like shrimp, if you were fancy.
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.
Unlike many other, er, questionable appetizers served as part of the holiday spread in the 1960s, "crab delight dip" sounds...pretty OK? This vintage recipe, circa 1965, calls simply for crabmeat, mayo, sour cream, parsley, sherry, lemon juice, and salt and pepper. We'd be fine with reviving this hearty snack.
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. To make one, you'd combine cream cheese with other grated cheese of your choice, and you'd usually roll the ball in nuts for a crunchy finish.
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...
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 snacks are the best part! By 1978, recipes for "cocktail meatballs" were circulating, like this one tested on Midcentury Menu. 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?
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 treats have certainly expanded.
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.
To get festive in the early 1980s, hosts and hostesses would build multi-layer sandwiches and then "frost" the entire monstrosity with cream cheese. 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 Betty Crocker published a recipe in 1981.
Jelly fruit slices are a popular Passover treat since they're kosher, but they were also a beloved stocking stuffer for Christmas, especially in the early '80s. These sweet and sour, gummy and chewy treats were invented between World War I and World War II, so they've long been a little dose of nostalgia perfect for trading at the holidays. They might have tried to look like actual fruit, but once your grandma got you to taste one, you knew they were pure sugar and you were hooked.
The year 1983 gifted us with the Christmas movie, A Christmas Story, which many of us still watch every year to this day. Who could forget what could be argued is one of Hollywood's most infamous Christmas dinners? After the Parker family's Christmas turkey is stolen by their neighbors' dogs, they decamp for a Chinese restaurant for a different kind of "turkey," AKA Peking duck.
By the beginning of the 21st century, doctors and health professionals were onto the fact that Crisco shortening was full of harmful trans fats, and the brand had to totally reformulate its product. Back in 1984, though, Crisco was fueling indulgent Christmas dinners. Country star Loretta Lynn did a commercial campaign showing her cooking for the holidays with her family, and of course, Crisco. One commercial even gives a recipe for shrimp that is deep-fried in the trans-fatty Crisco. It sounds like it tasted great, but wow, what blissful ignorance.
Cool Whip struck effortlessly crave-able holiday gold again in 1985 with its recipe for the Winter Wonder Log. The process basically involved spreading pistachio pudding onto chocolate wafers and then rolling the whole thing in snowy Cool Whip. Makers could then get creative with wintery decorations. It sure wasn't complicated, but we can't lie and say the Winter Wonder Log doesn't sound kind of tasty.
Look, we don't want to accuse any 1986 host or hostess of phoning it in because, really, who among us hasn't? It just seems like perhaps 1986 was a particularly uninspired Christmas cooking year judging by some of the recipes Kraft published in an issue of that year's TV Guide as part of their special holiday recipe collection. The standout was "festive sandwiches," which as far as we can tell, were...sandwiches. But served at a festive time of year. They did have red and green in the form of peppers, so, Merry Christmas? At least it's easy to recreate.
Maybe we can actually trace the switch from quick and simple Christmas ideas to elaborate labors of love back to 1987? Just one year after people were serving their guests sandwiches, the magazine Show & Tell published a holiday entertaining recipe for a "chocolate basket with berry cream." The process for creating the basket was...intense, and may have been an early sign of all the pressure on hosts and hostesses when it comes to Christmas entertaining today.
Eggnog's earliest iteration is thought to have developed in Europe in the 13th century, and was brought to the New World when America was still in its colonial period. It was only over the centuries that eggnog transformed from an anytime quaff to a Christmas tradition. Through the 1980s, no collection of holiday recipes was complete without one for this creamy, sweet, spiced and rummy beverage. By the end of the decade, though, eggnog was dying out, and became less popular until more mixology-minded efforts (plus that ever-reliable nostalgia) made it cool again recently.
Fruitcake, a dense and sticky cake packed with sugar, soaked with liquor and studded with gummy fruit, came about in a simpler form in Europe during the Middle Ages. It became popular in the United States by the end of the 19th century, so quintessentially Christmas by the mid-1900s that you could get mail-order fruitcakes to send to everyone you knew as gifts. Perhaps that's when it jumped the shark. During the '60s, Tonight Show host Johnny Carson famously remarked, "The worst Christmas gift is fruitcake…There is only one fruitcake in the entire world, and people keep sending it to each other, year after year." The cracks continued, and the national attitude toward fruitcake seemed officially shifted from nostalgic love to mockery by 1989, when Carson ran a sketch about a fruitcake not being to be cut by even construction equipment.
The 1990s brought another wave of health consciousness, with many looking to cut a little excess from their holiday spreads. As Good Housekeeping points out, this was about the time that low-fat versions of sweet indulgences became big business, like the brand SnackWell's. Their '90s-era recipe for chocolate-covered pretzels also notes that it's the 1990s when cooking with your kiddos became a concept, and things like this dessert were perfectly simple for children.
Christmas Crunch is still a seasonal staple in the sugary breakfast department. The holiday-hued version of Cap'n Crunch first rolled out in 1988, but was already an anticipated Christmas tradition by 1991, judging by this commercial. Special holiday-themed foods like Christmas Crunch prove that for decades, we haven't wanted to wait until dinner on the 24th of December to celebrate.