The Atlantic

The Railroads That Created Christmas

Before Americans could have gift-giving on a massive scale, they needed a way to move all those goods around.
Source: Bettmann / Getty

Santa and his reindeer didn’t appear in the sky immediately upon the birth of Christ, and the Christmas holiday as Americans now know it—the carols, the lights, the long-distance travel, and, above all, the massive consumer spending on gifts—didn’t always exist this way. By the mid-1800s, the holiday had picked up and assimilated various elements of European religious and pagan traditions. Upon the publication of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol in England in 1843, it took a form recognizable to modern eyes.

Despite the enthusiasm for Christmas abroad, the holiday wasn’t all that popular yet in the United States. “They made more of New Year’s in 1894. Brown had seen the holiday change over the course of her long life. Unlike today, New Yorkers of her youth didn’t think much of Christmas. What she might not have realized was how much of the holiday’s evolution was attributable to the steel rails multiplying across the American continent.

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