How tech has changed the way we celebrate the holidays

Christmas tech
(Image credit: Drazen Zigic / Shutterstock)

I’ve never celebrated Christmas the same way every year. Some small traditions I’ve kept – the choosing and wrapping of gifts, the watching of holiday movies as I nurse a cup of hot cocoa – but I’ve never really practiced the same big traditions year after year.

There is one thing that has remained constant. Whenever I close my eyes and think about the Christmases of my past, the one thing that’s always there are Christmas lights. They’re never the same: sometimes they’re multi-colored and dance to Christmas carols, other times they’re the sprawling light displays at Kew Gardens in London or Descanso Gardens in LA, the rest of the time they are plain white lights that make my apartment just a little more festive. 

No matter their shape or form though, they are always there to light up my holidays, whether I’m spending it alone in a hotel room in Shoreditch or binge-drinking Jameson with my extended family, playing old board games that barely make sense because we’re all drunk. To me – and I’m sure to many other folks – holiday lights usher in the arrival of the Yuletide season, as well as signal its end. 

Christmas lights are also the most visible sign of how technology has always been a part of the holidays, probably because we see them everywhere during the holiday season.. But, even in a more basic way, people used the telephone to send good tidings. They tuned in to their favorite radio stations to hear their favorite Christmas songs. And, they turned on the TV to watch Christmas classics like It’s a Wonderful Life and the Charlie Brown holiday specials. 

Of course, now things are drastically different. These days, we simply stream our holiday movies, send social media greetings, ask Alexa to play our favorite carols on Spotify, and order our gifts online. But, one thing remains true, that technology has, for as long as we can remember, played a vital part in our holiday celebrations. 

Here’s how it influenced, changed, and evolved the way we celebrated the holidays in the last few decades.

Christmas in the late 90s

(Image credit: Future)

All I Want for Christmas is a Game Console: Christmas in the late 90s

To quote Dickens, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” even where Christmas was concerned. The 90s were both an epic decade and a sad one as well. It was the decade that got us the gifts that are “Home Alone,” “The Muppet Christmas Carol,” Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You,” and LED Christmas lights, but also made us suffer through those horrid e-cards and a seemingly endless list of boy bands crooning Christmas songs over sappy FM as if their lives depended on it.

But, as Elsa would say, let it go. That’s easy enough considering that the 90s were also the wonder years of game consoles. Yes, the decade of ill-conceived fashion choices and Justin Timberlake’s frosted curls also paved the way for the best presents under the tree, with one of the top-selling Christmas presents being the first Game Boy, released at the tail end of the glorious 80s (yes, glorious). Thanks to Kevin McAllister, Talkboy also became a thing – though if you’d rather forget about Home Alone 2 due to Trump trauma, I can’t blame you.

The very first PlayStation, those adorable Tamagotchis, the Nintendo Game Boy Color, Sega’s Sonic the Hedgehog, and the first generation Pokemon games certainly made up for the bad, including those laptops that looked more like office typewriters with screens than actual computers. 

Before you ask… yes, the Spice Girls did have several Christmas number ones. Tell me that wintery "2 Become 1" music video, which had the girls singing in front of time-lapse backdrops, didn’t get you in the brrrr spirit. And, as you already know, Y2K didn’t end the world despite the hysteria.

Christmas in the Aughts

(Image credit: Future)

Rocking Around the Apple Tree: Christmas in the Aughts

You would think having survived an albeit imagined technological apocalypse and the atrocity that is 90s fashion would have given people a better outlook on life. But people are people, and the holidays of the Aughts were plagued with controversies. Retailers like Walmart and Target were put through the wringer by the AFA and other conservative religious groups for using more inclusive holiday terms – ironic considering that these were probably the same type of people who now would declare that “all lives matter.”

It wasn’t all bad though. People started ditching those artificial PVC trees that ended in landfills, and started going for the real pine Christmas trees. Depending on how you sourced (always go local) and recycled them, real pine trees could actually be greener. And, Christmas tree farms themselves provide a habitat for animals, among other things. We also ditched the e-cards, thank goodness, but also started just lazily copy and pasting “Merry Christmas” on people’s social media pages.

Much to the jubilation of consumer-driven folks like myself, online shopping and Cyber Monday became a thing. Nineties child Amazon was suddenly offering free shipping for orders $25 and up, expanded its catalog to include such things as gourmet food and sporting goods, and launched Prime. Cyber Monday, on the other hand, became official in 2005, prompting shoppers to spend 25% more in the following year. In the process, these two changed the way we shopped for holiday gifts.

Apple too was winning. Suddenly, we all wanted a brand-new iPod under our Christmas tree. My mom got me the 64GB iPod 4th Generation, and everyone wanted to be friends with me. It was definitely the height of technology at that time, and you weren’t cool if you didn’t have one. (Though, in retrospect, I also dared to put Dave Matthew Band on mine alongside Fleetwood Mac and The Smashing Pumpkins, so I probably wasn’t as cool as I had thought.) Still, the iPod was hot stuff. That is, until the iPhone was launched in the summer of 2007 – and then we all wanted that for Christmas too.

Of course, game consoles continued to top Christmas gift trends. The Sony Playstation 2, Xbox, Xbox 360, Nintendo DS, Nintendo Wii, and PlayStation 3 were among the top gifts of this decade. As were Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, and Halo 2.

We also secretly thought we had earned the right to screaming fans after mastering Guitar Hero, but that’s a story for another time.

Christmas in the 2010s

(Image credit: Future)

Fairytale of New iPads: Christmas in the 2010s

Apple didn’t stop at iPods and iPhones, launching its very first iPad in 2010. Because one can never have too many devices, according to my mother who had, at one point, owned two iPhones, two iPads, an iMac, and a MacBook Pro when all she did was go on social media, play solitaire, and watch Netflix.

But, I digress. The iPad was an instant hit and went on later that year to be among the most requested presents under the tree.

Streaming took off in the 2010s as well. Though Netflix launched its streaming service in 2007, it wasn’t until this decade that streaming became a universal thing, with Hulu launching in 2010 and Amazon renaming its own video on-demand service as Amazon Instant Video in 2011. We bid Blockbuster a sad fare-thee-well, and committed fully to online streaming like only a society driven by instant gratification can. 

By 2015, Netflix had changed the way we watched holiday movies, rolling out its own original holiday content like the top Christmas elf at Santa’s workshop. Who could forget "A Very Murray Christmas" and Bill’s rendition of the melancholy Pogues classic? Though personally, I would rather forget the part with Miley Cyrus in it.

For better or worse, Time Magazine declared “selfie” a buzzword, and everyone was taking holiday pictures with one person, usually the one with the longest reach, pretending they’re Mr. Fantastic just to fit everyone in the frame. Admit it; you also thought it was kind of fun.

Suddenly, we also started living our Back to the Future 3 fantasies, thanks to Alexa, the Amazon Echo, and the birth of smart home technology. We still couldn’t make a Black & Decker microwave hydrate a pizza as small as a stroopwafel into a family-sized one, but we could certainly tell our appliances to do things without having to get out of our beds. So, we asked Alexa to play our favorite Christmas playlist, turn our living rooms into a winter paradise with smart bulbs, and do all our holiday grocery shopping for us – without lifting a finger.

Naturally, smart home devices have joined the ranks of popular Christmas gifts. Alongside shiny new iPhones, iPads, Nintendo 3DS units, Xbox Ones, PlayStation 4s, Nintendo Switch, and Blu-ray players (that didn’t last long) under the Christmas trees are Amazon Echoes, HomePods, Google Nests, and Philips Hues. The Sims 4, BB-8 (because he’s just adorable), and Red Dead Redemption 2 were under there as well. 

Hmmm, what else? Oh, the Telegraph also reported that kids were favoring tech gadgets over traditional toys more than ever, declaring the iPhone 4 to be their top favorite in 2010. Meanwhile, I didn’t get my first iPhone until I worked hard and saved up enough money for it. But, I guess, good for them?

Christmas 2020

(Image credit: LL_studio / Shutterstock)

Happy Xmas (Virus Is NOT Over): Christmas in 2020 

And so, here we are. 2019 ended with the threat of COVID-19 looming over our heads, and most people shrugged it off as nothing more than the flu. Heck, even after it crippled Italy and Spain, Americans were still declaring oh-so-loudly at airports that the common flu is worse as we all sat at the US Customs and waited for ill-tempered immigration officers to determine based on our passport stamps whether or not we could re-enter our own country.

A year and many, many senseless deaths later, many of us are still stuck in our homes, learning to bake and garden and master the art of doing conference calls in our pajama bottoms. (Though not this girl. I go all out, platform shoes and all because there’s literally nothing else to dress to the nines for.)

If there’s anything this start of the new decade has taught us, it’s that technological advances have nothing against Mother Nature. She coughs up a tiny little thing you can’t even see with the naked eye, and the whole world shuts down, paralyzing many industries including tech. Factories closed, parts ran out, stocks depleted. 

Yet, ironically, we’re more reliant on technology than ever. Isolated in our homes and most of us social distancing, we’ve relied on technology to keep us sane. We thanked the gods for delivery apps, got addicted to Animal Crossing, played Among Us with friends, and impulse-shopped online. A lot. Even though Black Friday and Cyber Monday sales were disappointing this year, which is hardly surprising.

We bought webcams and discovered the wonders of Zoom in a desperate effort to connect with… someone. We celebrated Halloween and Thanksgiving together over the app, and the way things are going, we’ll probably do so at Christmas and New Year’s Eve. 

Those who were lucky enough to get theirs will probably spend the rest of the holidays playing a PS5 or Xbox Series X. Others might find an iPhone 12, a new iPad Air, or a Nintendo Switch stuffed in their stocking by the fireplace.

As for the rest of us… Well, at least we still have Alexa to play us Joni Mitchell’s River on repeat while we bake Christmas cookies and eat our feelings (and half of our body weight), wishing, dreaming of a better new year.

Michelle Rae Uy
Computing Reviews and Buying Guides Editor

Michelle Rae Uy is the Computing Reviews and Buying Guides Editor here at TechRadar. She's a Los Angeles-based tech, travel and lifestyle writer covering a wide range of topics, from computing to the latest in green commutes to the best hiking trails. She's an ambivert who enjoys communing with nature and traveling for months at a time just as much as watching movies and playing sim games at home. That also means that she has a lot more avenues to explore in terms of understanding how tech can improve the different aspects of our lives.