Beautiful Christmas Games from Years Gone By

Historical Treasures, Oddities, And Delights
Dec. 17 2012 9:00 AM

Christmas Games of Yesteryear

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In the 19th century, Americans fell in love with Santa Claus. Clement Moore first published his poem “An Account of a Visit From Saint Nicholas,” which he originally wrote for his daughters, Margaret, Charity, and Mary, in 1823. Copious reprints of the poem in magazines and newspapers introduced the nation to the concept of Santa. By the late 19th century, when the games below were sold, Santa was as integral a part of an American Christmas as he is today.

These Christmas games certainly owed a big conceptual debt to Moore, but it was illustrator and German immigrant Thomas Nast who created the familiar image of the white-bearded man in the red suit that was reinterpreted by unknown artists for these box tops. During the Civil War, Nast drew on the German tradition of Saint Nicholas for a Harper’s Weekly cover depicting Santa Claus as a “spirit of Christmas” visiting lonely soldiers in camp. The image proved to be a turning point in the popularity of Santa. Nast drew St. Nick for Harper’s until 1886 and provided images of the jolly old elf to illustrate books for years. (The Dover collection of Nast’s Santa drawings would make a fine holiday party favor.)

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These games were simple to play; small members of the family could certainly participate. In the “Game of the Visit of Santa Claus,” for example, a game of chance, players used a spinner to race each other to the finish and collect “gift” cards along the way. “Christmas Mail” required only a modicum of literacy: Players read addresses on “letter” cards at the beginning of the game then vied to be the first to deliver all of their letters to the correct addresses on the board.

Christmas Game 1

Game of the Visit of Santa Claus. McLoughlin Brothers, 1901. The Strong National Museum of Play, Online Collections, Object ID 107.3860.

Xmas1

Night Before Christmas board game. Parker Brothers, 1896. The Strong National Museum of Play, Online Collections, Object ID 107.3810.

Xmas3

Christmas Mail board game. The J. Ottmann Lithography Company, circa 1890. The Strong National Museum of Play, Online Collections, Object ID 107.3865.