20 Ways Christmas Was Better in the '80s
From Cabbage Patch Kids to camcorders, this is what made an '80s Christmas special.
Let's face it: Holidays were just better in the '80s. Everything was bigger and bolder—the hair, the fashion, the colors—and that made it a whole lot easier to be festive. Christmas in the '80s was especially magical, a time when we unwrapped our Rubik's Cubes and Cabbage Patch Kids while listening to "Christmas in Hollis" and thought about how lucky we were to be alive during the coolest era in history. Our feelings about the '80s may have changed a bit in the years since, but we're still nostalgic for the yuletide memories we created throughout the decade. Here are all the things that made Christmas better in the '80s.
Getting a Cabbage Patch Kid
You did not buy a Cabbage Patch Kid—you adopted one, and if you grew up in the '80s, you remember exactly when you first became a parent to one of these incredibly popular dolls. We fell in love with Cabbage Patch Kids because they felt like they were really ours. And in a decade that gets criticized for being all about greed, it was nice to embrace a toy that taught us the selflessness and responsibility of taking care of someone else—even if, yes, that someone else was a stuffed baby that allegedly grew in a cabbage patch.
Mr. T being the White House Santa
I pity the fool who doesn't appreciate the magic of Mr. T in a Santa costume. Yes, in 1983, the star of The A-Team and cultural icon got invited to the White House by First Lady Nancy Reagan, who was impressed by Mr. T's anti-drug advocacy. Those of us who grew up loving Mr. T will never forget that Christmas—and neither will the man himself. In a 2008 interview with The Independent, he said that going to the White House and meeting President Ronald Reagan was the most surprising thing that ever happened to him.
Meeting Santa's Little Helper for the first time on The Simpsons
Of course, it wasn't just the family greyhound that we met. The beloved titular family had already appeared in shorts on The Tracey Ullman Show, but the first episode of The Simpsons reintroduced us to Homer, Marge, Bart, and Lisa. "Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire," the show's official debut, aired on Dec. 17, 1989—almost exactly 30 years ago. Talk about a cultural institution.
All Christmas shopping happening at the mall
There's no question that buying presents for the whole family on Amazon has made Christmas shopping more convenient, but it's hard not to feel nostalgic for the distinctive joy (and yes, sometimes stress) of going to the mall during the holiday season. The crowds, the sales, the mall Santas—while it may have been an ordeal, the '80s mall excursion was a defining cultural experience. It's hard not to feel sad that these institutions are fast becoming obsolete.
The Toys "R" Us Christmas Dream Book
Every child of the '80s sung along to "I don't want to grow up, I'm a Toys 'R' Us kid" all year around. But alas, we have since become actual, full-fledged adults. That doesn't mean we can't recall the unmatched excitement of getting our hands on the Toys "R" Us Christmas Dream Book, a catalog just for kids—or rather, for kids to pester their parents with all the toys they wanted. Having a catalog that pandered directly to us? Priceless. (Even if the toys actually cost quite a bit.)
Wanting nothing more than a Rubik's Cube
The Rubik's Cube hit U.S. stores in 1980, and by the following year, it had become a genuine phenomenon. It might be hard for kids today to understand how captivated we were by that simple (yet surprisingly complicated!) puzzle, but they don't know the thrill of finally solving it. If you got a Rubik's Cube for Christmas, someone really loved you. And if you solved it by New Year's Eve, you were an actual genius.
Making Christmas designs with your Lite-Brite
Lite-Brite had been around since the '60s, but it wasn't until the '80s that it became a must-have toy, maybe because we were able to replicate era-specific characters from My Little Pony and Transformers. And yes, we could also punch those colored plastic pegs into that sheet of black paper and create a dazzling holiday display. Lite-Brite wasn't a Christmas-specific toy, but it sure made the perfect present—and there was something about those bright, colorful lights that felt especially festive.
The Christmas countdown starting in December, not October
Everyone knows that the Christmas season can't begin until Santa appears at the tail end of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade—that's just fact! But in the '80s, the decorations and holiday cheer didn't really start in earnest until the beginning of December, making it the one, true festive yuletide month. Now it seems like Christmas starts earlier and earlier every year. Blame it on consumerism. Blame it on '90s kids with their Nightmare Before Christmas that conflated Christmas and Halloween. Either way, we look back on '80s Decembers fondly.
Seeing A Christmas Story in theaters
Try to think back to the first time you saw Ralphie having his mouth washed out with soap, or the Old Man winning a lamp modeled after a woman's leg in fishnets, or Flick getting his tongue stuck on a frozen flagpole. The vignettes of A Christmas Story—which hit theaters on Nov. 18, 1983—have become indelibly linked to the holiday, because the movie gets played (and played and played some more) every single year. But we can't forget experiencing that Christmas magic with fresh eyes.
Die Hard becoming a Christmas classic
Long before we spent way too much time debating whether or not Die Hard is a Christmas movie (it is), Die Hard was just one of the greatest movies of the decade. It wasn't actually a holiday release, hitting theaters in July 1988, but the film's seasonal setting quickly turned it into a Christmas classic, making it an action-packed alternative to more wholesome entertainment like A Christmas Story. Watch it with your kids to show them what an '80s Christmas was all about—just make sure it's age-appropriate first.
Buying the "Do They Know It's Christmas?" cassingle and feeling like a philanthropist
Is there any word sweeter and more dated than "cassingle"? We could go on and on about the thrill of a single on cassette tape, but let's focus on the most iconic cassingle of them all, "Do They Know It's Christmas?" The song debuted in Dec. 1984 and quickly became a No. 1 hit in the U.K. and 13 other countries, in part because it was for a good cause, raising money for the victims of the famine in Ethiopia. The song hasn't exactly aged well: Co-writer Bob Geldof told The Daily Telegraph he thinks it's one of the "worst songs in history." But it sure felt good to help out back then!
Listening to Run-DMC's "Christmas in Hollis" on a boombox
Another Christmas track for a good cause: Run-DMC's "Christmas in Hollis," which appeared on the 1987 compilation album A Very Special Christmas and raised money for the Special Olympics. Given the scarcity of Christmas-themed rap, the song finally gave us the chance to feel festive and cool at the same time. And it was a major hit: Its memorable use in films like Die Hard and Less Than Zero turned "Christmas in Hollis" into an '80s Christmas standard.
Pac-Man Christmas Album
Pac-Man made its arcade debut in 1980, with Ms. Pac-Man following two years later. It's hard to explain just how much of a cultural phenomenon that hungry yellow circle was, but the 1981 novelty song "Pac-Man Fever" going to No. 9 on the Billboard Hot 100 says it all. Sadly, that wasn't one of featured tracks on 1982's Pac-Man Christmas Album, a baffling attempt at capitalizing on the breakout star for the holidays. Did we need to hear Pac-Man singing "We Wish You a Merry Christmas"? Maybe not, but it sure felt essential at the time!
The Bing Crosby and David Bowie Christmas duet to end all Christmas duets
It was a match made in heaven—and we're not just saying that because it wasn't released until five years after Bing Crosby had passed away. While he and David Bowie recorded their duet of "Peace on Earth/Little Drummer Boy" in 1977, the song hit stores in 1982 and became an instant hit, peaking at No. 3 on the U.K. Singles Chart. Yes, these two musical legends came together in the '70s, but there's something distinctly '80s about the unlikely pairing, and Christmas throughout the decade wouldn't have been the same without this now-classic tune.
Making Christmas mixtapes for your Walkman
All of these songs probably found their way onto your very own Christmas mixtape. The concept might feel old-fashioned to kids today who can easily put together a holiday playlist on Spotify, but they won't ever know the excitement of the song you were waiting for finally coming on the radio so you could record it and put together your perfect tape. And when you needed something to listen to your Christmas creation on? That's why Santa left that Walkman under the tree.
Collecting light-up Hallmark ornaments
If you grew up in the '80s, you almost certainly had Hallmark ornaments on your Christmas tree. And if you're as nostalgic as we are, you probably still do. The annual tradition of new Hallmark ornaments actually began in 1973, but in 1984, these keepsakes got a major upgrade with ornaments that lit up. It's hard to imagine Christmas without Hallmark, and while we're still buying new ornaments from the greeting card experts, we'll never forget the magic of those electric '80s additions.
The debut of red and green versions of your favorite candy and cereal
Let's not think about the staggering amount of red and green food dye we've consumed over the past few decades. Instead, let's focus on how much holiday cheer we experienced eating festive confections for the first time, like M&M Holidays and Christmas Crunch. That's not to say that Christmas-colored candy didn't exist before the '80s, but this was the decade red and green treats went mainstream. And nothing said Christmas like inadvertently turning your tongue—and cereal milk—an unnatural color.
The California Raisins performing in a Christmas special
How do you explain the California Raisins to someone who didn't grow up with them? They were a fictional R&B band made up of anthropomorphized raisins used in commercials—and somehow they were legitimately cool. These guys were the breakout stars of 1987's A Claymation Christmas, on which they sang "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer." For children of the '80s, the California Raisins' rendition remains the definitive version of that Christmas classic, accept no substitutes.
Heating up leftovers in the microwave
Obviously we're still doing this, but unless you grew up in the '80s, you don't understand what a major leap forward the microwave was. With lower-cost versions finally making these appliances affordable in the late '70s, we spent the '80s relishing in the fact that we were no longer resigned to cold leftovers, or having to turn on the oven again. We could pop that plate in the microwave and nuke it to a scaldingly hot temperature that we'd soon regret. Christmas is largely about the food, and if your family made as much as ours did, you had enough leftovers stuffed in Tupperware to keep you full until New Year's. Of course, as convenient as the microwave was, your parents were always there to remind you not to stand too close.
Filming the whole thing with a camcorder
There's a reason we remember our '80s Christmases so clearly—they were all recorded on a camcorder. Sony released the first personal camcorder in 1983, and holidays were never the same. Posing for photos was one thing, but suddenly the family member who considered themselves an amateur cinematographer would be documenting the entire event for posterity (like Danny Tanner in this 1988 episode of Full House). With the advent of phones that shoot video, camcorders are essentially a thing of the past. But admit it, as annoying as it could be to have a camcorder shoved in your face, you kind of miss those Christmas home movies.