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 than of Christmas,” 101-year-old Jane Ann Brown told The New York Times 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.
I am a materials scientist—I study the substances that humans use to construct the physical world we inhabit. How inventors transform materials is widely understood, but less evident—sometimes to the inventors themselves—is the extent to which those materials shape the culture that comes to depend upon them. It’s obvious how smartphones and broadband internet are radically transforming the lives and customs of the people who use them. The cultural alchemy that turned steel into Christmas has been largely forgotten, but today’s holiday is unmistakably a product of innovations in materials.