Christmas today may be exciting, but virtually nothing beats the fun of the holiday back in the 1970s. Handheld electronics were so new that kids could hardly believe their eyes when they found them under the tree on Christmas morning, folks didn’t bum-rush the mall to get gifts for one another, and it was completely acceptable to serve basically any food—sweet or savory—in Jell-O in the shape of a wreath and call it a holiday dish. And while most of these Christmas traditions have been lost to time, they’ll always live on in our hearts. Read on for all the reasons Christmas in the 1970s ruled (sorry, ’80s kids and children of the ’90s).
Sure, seeing TV commercials for the hottest toys may be the way today’s kids come up with their Christmas lists, but back in the ’70s, nothing built anticipation for Christmas like getting a Sears catalog in the mail. Flipping through page after page of dolls, trucks, and other toys—and circling the most important ones so your parents could identify the non-negotiable items—was nearly as exciting as unwrapping them on Christmas morning.
Those who were born after the year 2000 definitely have more advanced toys to play with than ’70s kids could have ever imagined. Playing with a Stretch Armstrong—or even a Pet Rock—may sound lame to kids today, but the creativity that went into playtime and toys in the ’70s is something no multiplayer RPG or handheld gaming system can come close to matching.
Kids today get to enjoy tons of fun stuff in their advent calendars, whether they’re opening up doors that reveal Frozen toys or Hatchimals. But back in the ’70s, opening those paper doors to reveal pictures of a nativity scene—or your favorite cartoon character—was every bit as exciting.
The surefire way to know Christmas was approaching in the 1970s? Seeing your parents dust off that ceramic Christmas tree and setting it out for display. Whether it was bought from a department store or made by your grandma, seeing its little lights glowing on the table or mantle meant Santa wasn’t far off!
Of course, A Charlie Brown Christmas is still as beloved today as it was half a century ago, but for ’70s kids, the movie was basically brand-new. Released in 1965, many folks who came of age in the 1970s can still remember the excitement of seeing the animated hit on TV for the first time as kids—and practicing their very own Christmas dance to go along with it.
There was nothing like spending hours trying to follow Simon’s light-up patterns without missing a beat. In many households after the toy’s release in 1978, entire Christmas mornings were spent passing this classic toy back and forth, trying to beat one another’s records. It was one of the first handheld electronics and it was still family-oriented. What could be better?
Nintendo Switch? Pssh—’70s kids know that there will never be a video game system as iconic as the Atari. Finding this gaming system under the Christmas tree in the ’70s officially meant you had the coolest parents ever—and that you’d be spending every day until New Year’s playing Pong or Breakout.
While Ataris and Pet Rocks may have topped many kids’ Christmas lists in the 1970s, for parents, there was nothing quite like finding a book of McDonald’s gift certificates in your stocking. After all, what could be better than ordering those newly-released Egg McMuffins and not paying a dime for them? And any child of the ’70s still remembers following the lead of little Corey Feldman in that classic Mickey D’s commercial as they slipped a 50-cent McDonald’s gift certificate into their mom’s stocking.
The sheer delight of knowing that Christmas was being celebrated in space was basically enough to blow any ’70s kid’s mind. And seeing photos of the tin can Christmas tree that astronauts Gerald Carr, William Pogue, and Edward Gibson brought into space in 1973 was like watching a sci-fi movie play out in real time for countless space-obsessed kids.
In the 1970s, long before everyone was pulling out their phones to take pictures of their Christmas mornings and posting them to Instagram, those memories were captured the old-fashioned way: with an enormous Polaroid camera. Was the film outrageously expensive? Sure. Could so much as a fingerprint ruin the picture? Absolutely. Was it still the highlight of many a Christmas morning to watch those snapshots develop? You betcha.
Who knew soda could make people feel so warm and fuzzy? For Christmas in 1977, Coca-Cola launched a Christmas version of its iconic “hilltop” commercial, in which young people from countries around the world sing “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing (in Perfect Harmony).” And this time, instead of holding Coke bottles, they held candles. There was nothing quite like catching it on TV during the holiday season to give you some seriously sentimental feelings about mankind as a whole.
Following the release of A New Hope in 1977, everyone who saw the first Star Wars movie was dying to get their hands on some Star Wars toys. And, in a pre-internet era, ’70s Star Wars fans had to hope against new hope—if you will—that their parents ordered those toys, patches, pins, and posters from the catalog in time for them to be sitting there under the tree on Christmas morning.
Black Friday crowds? What Black Friday crowds? Long before folks were spending their Thanksgiving evenings camping out for the latest toys and electronics, Christmas shopping was a simpler activity. Instead of sleeping outside of a Best Buy or constantly refreshing a website for new deals, ’70s kids and their parents got their presents the old-fashioned way: They went to the store—not even the mall—and bought their gifts in person (maybe they even got them gift-wrapped, too). Then, they brought them home without any injuries to report. As the classic ’70s TV theme song for All in the Family reminds us, “Those were the days.”
While department stores are shuttering left and right these days, back in the 1970s, they were still hubs for Christmas shopping. Many department stores would even put on a show for their customers, decorating their windows with elaborate displays to entice window shoppers to come inside. In fact, according to The Washington Post, now-defunct Washington, D.C. department store Woodward & Lothrop spent $200,000 each year on their holiday windows alone.
The ’70s were something of a heyday for Christmas music, from Wings’ “Wonderful Christmastime” to John Lennon & Yoko Ono’s “Merry Xmas (War Is Over).” But perhaps no holiday album was quite as beloved as The Carpenters’ Christmas Portrait, filled with standards like “Silent Night,” “Jingle Bells,” and Karen Carpenter’s sweet sounding “Merry Christmas Darling.”
Could you even call it Christmas in the ’70s if your celebration didn’t include some kind of molded Jell-O concoction on the dinner table? To the delight of many—and the dismay of others—Jell-O “salads” were the height of food fashion when it came to holiday entertaining in the 1970s. In fact, in 1977’s Toll House Tried and True Recipes, there are recipes for not one, not two, but 21 celebratory salads in gelatin.
While environmentalists have been calling for the end of tinsel for years, in the 1970s, families decorated their trees and homes with the stuff with wild abandon. The glittery material adorned everything from doorframes to mantles. It didn’t matter that you’d be pulling the stuff from the fibers of your living room’s shag carpets for months after the holiday was over—it was the shiny look of holiday magic!
When’s the last time a Christmas song left you in stitches? Anyone who lived through the ’70s can recall the sheer joy of the first time they heard “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer,” an enduring novelty tune that hit the airwaves in 1979.
Look, we’re not saying fruitcake was particularly appetizing to look at. And, if we’re being totally honest, it wasn’t entirely palatable, either. But the second you saw fruitcakes popping up in the windows of your local bakeries—or saw your parents getting out the jars of candied fruit to make their own—there was no denying that the holidays in the ’70s had arrived!
“Feliz Navidad” may still be a staple on radio stations during the holiday season, but many a ’70s kid can remember hearing the José Feliciano hit for the very first time. And, of course, the popularity of the 1970 song led to many folks who didn’t speak a lick of Spanish beforehand suddenly knowing how to properly wish others a Merry Christmas (from the bottom of their hearts).