The holidays are steeped in tradition and ritual, sometimes old and sometimes new. Whatever you celebrate, whether it’s Christmas, Kwanzaa, Hanukkah, or even the winter solstice, here’s a look at some inventions that were born out of the winter holiday season.
1. Greeting Cards
The modern day greeting card first made its appearance during Christmas in England in 1843. Designed by artist John Horsley at the request of Sir Henry Cole, a busy man who worked at the Public Records Office in London, the cards featured the words, "A Very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to You." Cole came up with the idea as a simple way to send a greeting to all of his friends and family at Christmas without having to write a long letter, as was the usual custom during Victorian times. Today, this is what we know as the “mass email message.” The cards were so well received that 1,000 cards were printed in 1843 for commercial sale. Later, Hallmark introduced its first Christmas card line in 1915.
2. Scotch Tape
Although adhesive tape had already been invented by Richard Drew of 3M Company in St. Paul, MN in 1925, clear adhesive tape didn’t make an appearance until 1930. The cellulose-backed Scotch tape was waterproof and clear, making it ideal for wrapping gifts. During the Depression, Scotch tape became a household name when it was widely used to mend ripped money, books, toys, and other gadgets.
3. Candy Canes
Candy canes didn’t always have the iconic red and white stripes they’re known for today, nor did they curve at the top. In fact, as simple white sugar sticks of candy, the very first candy “canes” were quite plain looking. As the story goes, in 1670, a choirmaster at Cologne Cathedral in Germany decided that the ends of the candy sticks should be bent to look more like a shepherd’s staff and started a tradition of handing them out to children during religious services to keep them quiet. It wasn’t until the early 1900s that the red stripes began to appear and peppermint flavor was added. In the 1950s, the process of making candy canes became automated—oddly enough by a Catholic priest who invented a machine for this.
4. Holiday Stringing Lights
The act of lighting up a tree for the holidays was originally a precarious event—it was originally done with open flame candles! Then in the late 1800s, Edward Johnson, one of Thomas Edison’s protégés, created the first set of electric Christmas lights for sale to the general public. From then on, these lights became a staple for department store displays, houses and trees. Today, these lights are a festive way to commemorate any holiday or occasion.
5. Yule Log
While most people don’t burn Yule logs anymore, the tradition lives on in a chocolate sponge cake confection called “buche de noel” (Yule log in English), which was invented by a French pastry chef in the late 1880s. The tradition of a Yule log burning on the hearth dates back to a pagan ritual associated with the winter solstice in which a large log, typically pine, aspen, birch, oak, willow, or holly was burned to ward off evil spirits during the darkest days of the year. Each type of wood that was burned had a different meaning. For example, pine was burned for prosperity and growth, oak for health, strength and wisdom, and birch to signify new beginnings.
6. Mass-Produced Wrapping Paper
Throughout the ages, gifts were wrapped in fabrics or plain natural papers. It wasn’t until after colored inks began being used in printing that Hall Brothers (now known as Hallmark Cards, Inc.) began selling gift wrap en masse —by accident. When their store ran out of gift “dressing” or “tissue” paper that customers were using to wrap gifts, they began printing wrapping paper on stiffer paper stock, which flew off the shelves. The rest, as they say, is history. Today Hallmark is known as the one of the most recognized gift wrap companies in the world.
7. Kwanzaa Unity Tree
Umoja or unity is one of the seven principles of Kwanzaa, and is just one of the reasons Charles R. Clarke of Louisville, KY (US Patent No. D441688, issued May 8, 2001) invented the Kwanzaa Unity Tree. But, as Clarke writes on his website, he decided to take it a step further and create a single product that combines all of the symbols and principles of Kwanzaa. Although not part of the patent, Clarke features green, red, and black—the colors of Kwanzaa—in his sketches of ornaments for the tree.
8. Gift Cards
While IBM pioneered and patented the technology of the now ubiquitous magnetic strip card, credit for inventing the modern day gift card must be given to Nancy Gensburg and Carol Jacobsohn of Swift Gift (known today as Swift Prepaid Solutions) in Highland Park, IL. In 1998, they came up with the idea of a plastic gift certificate that could be used during the holidays. Available in $25 increments, the credit-card-sized gift certificate could be redeemed at 15 million locations worldwide. Sales hit $500,000 that year and the modern day gift card was born.
Some of the most enduring inventions have been the result of the holidays, and many—greeting cards, wrapping paper, gift cards, holiday lights—have evolved into other celebrations in our lives, such as birthdays and anniversaries. It’s a testament to the fact that even during the holidays, our innovative spirit remains. Do you know of more inventions that were inspired by the holidays? Post them in our comments section below.