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The Oddball, Nostalgia-Inducing Christmas Tech Art Of The 1980s And 1990s

It’s blocky at best. Sometimes it’s monochromatic. But whatever its technical limitations, it still brims over with holiday cheer and charm.

Starting in the early 1980s, personal computers began to impact everything about how large numbers of people lived their lives. So when you think about it, it’s no surprise that PC users quickly found novel ways to celebrate the holiday using their shiny new machines. The ability to share Christmas-themed imagery with others–at first via electronic billeting boards and services such as CompuServe, and eventually over the Web–only made the link between high tech and holidays more natural and enduring.

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There’s something about the warmth of the glow from a cathode ray tube screen that lends itself well to computerized Christmas celebrations. (Maybe it echoes some primal link to prehistoric man sitting around the fire telling stories?) So join with me around the electric hearth as we journey back through a tour of eclectic digital nostalgia.

Santa Claus ANSI Art

In a world before the Internet pervaded most households, the humble BBS held the key to online experiences for many PC users. These systems typically operated on a private, hobby basis, and users could access many of them for free by dialing in with a modem linked to a telephone line.

Users accessed the BBS through a text-only terminal emulation program that could, in the case of IBM PC machines, produce 16 color text and an extended ASCII character set of symbols. The use of these colors and symbols to create pictures became known as “ANSI art,” which gained its name from ANSI-standard control sequences that allowed text to be colored and the cursor to be moved upon the screen.

In the absence of other graphical capabilities, BBSes used ANSI art as online decoration, and BBS users frequently traded such artworks for amusement. Of course, Christmas ANSIs became popular, and in this particular piece of ANSI art, by Arif Vegdani, we see Santa calling up a BBS (or perhaps running one) on Christmas Eve when he should be delivering presents. Which makes me wonder: In the future, will Santa ever switch to digital delivery?

A Card That’s Computerized

When consumer-level personal computers were still novel, people did not waste time in figuring out ways to use them to celebrate Christmas. Various programmers and artists liked to create graphical demos or animations to show off their skills, and a few of these eventually became commercial products, such as Thoughtware’s JingleDisk, released for Apple II and Commodore 64 computers in 1985.

Upon inserting the disk and booting up your machine, JingleDisk presented you with an animated Christmas story set to traditional holiday music. And that’s about it. It’s not a game; it’s more like a digital Christmas card. But it’s lots of fun to watch.

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Christmas on The Early Web

In the mid-late 1990s, when GeoCities made it easy for anyone to get free web space and create a website, the spirit of Christmas rushed in like water through the floodgates, inspiring dozens of homegrown online tributes to the holiday that often featured clip-art, desktop backgrounds, MIDI versions of Christmas songs, song lyrics, Christmas recipes, needlepoint patterns, and more. Here we see a screenshot of one of these vintage pages that also happened to double as a tribute to the town of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. On the real page, of course, the snow globe was animated.

Digital Christmas Tree Forest

During the height of the GeoCities era, when personalizing and customizing your own website was the thing to do, many hobby sites offered selections of free Christmas graphics (including hundreds of Christmas trees, candles, Santas, stockings, bells, and candy canes) you could download and incorporate into your own web page. Here we see a selection of digital Christmas tree art I harvested from GeoCities web pages years ago. They did not grow naturally this way; rather, I arranged them into a forest myself. Pretty convincing, though.

Pass the Christmas GIF Art

Back in the BBS days, people not only traded ANSI art, but also GIF files (for later offline viewing), which they treated like digital gold. Sources of high quality graphics like scanners, video capture boards, and digital cameras were either scarce or non-existent back in the 1980s and early 1990s, so early PC users clutched on to any artwork they could get, including mundane photos of Coke cans or someone’s random dog. Inevitably, some were Christmas-themed. Here’s one of my favorite GIF images, created by “DAF” and likely rendered on an Atari ST computer, that features a cozy fireplace scene.

Holiday Shopping Made Virtual and Textual

In the age before Amazon.com made Christmas shopping absurdly easy, people regularly braved large crowds on weekends and after work all throughout December to make sure they had time to shop for all the presents they needed (I do not relish memories of those days). In this circa-1980s text adventure game, which was only available as a public domain release for the Atari 800 home computer, author Dan Johnson plays on that once-common source of holiday stress. Here’s the premise: It’s the night before Christmas and you haven’t crossed everything off your shopping list yet. Your goal is to brave the malls and finish your task with only a few hours left. Good luck! I do not envy you.

Christmas ANSI Art from a Master

Upon seeing this, you might think, “Why is this Christmas tree decorated almost entirely with Yen symbols?” But then you remember the ANSI art thing we covered earlier–and realize that it’s only an artistic flourish, using what text symbols were available, to give texture to a Christmas tree. This particular piece of ANSI art originated from the fine skills of (AKA “Ebony Eyes”), who was known far and wide back in the day for her ANSI art prowess. In 1989, Ruffner created two sets of ANSI “Christmas card” graphics that she encouraged others to personalize and share with their loved ones. As a result, her artwork showed up on hundreds of BBSes every year around the holidays.

The Same Tree, Over and Over

Remember how I said that, back in the 1980s and early 1990s, GIF artwork was so precious that people traded rather mundane images with intense relish? Well, here is one of them–a photomosaic consisting of digitally stretched and compressed versions of the same video-captured image of a Christmas tree, presumably in the snow, with a big moon hanging in the sky above.

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Today, it’s hard to imagine how magical it was to be able to manipulate photos instantly on a computer. Producing an artwork like this in the pre-digital era required making multiple photographic prints using fancy enlarger work, physically cutting the prints out and gluing them together onto a board, then taking a final photograph of the composite. It would have been a very time-consuming process, and as with most GIF artwork from that era, it is likely there is a deeper story behind this image that I do not know. But I’m sure its creator, Harold Evans, had a blast whipping this up in a computer.

A Very TI-99/4A Christmas

These digitally rustic celebrations of Christmas come to us from Nathan Lineback, a programmer by trade who owned a TI-99/4A home computer back in the 1980s. Using that machine, he drew these nostalgic holiday scenes of a traditional Christmas tree/fireplace combo and a quaint town front decorated for Christmas. Sure, these images are only black and white (or black and cyan, if you prefer), but it’s neat to see what people were inspired to artistically create despite the technological limitations of the time.

A Most Festive Virus

Back in the late 1990s, before everyone used Gmail (and instead used Outlook, yecch), many folks were susceptible to unscrupulous email attachments with malicious intent.

Well, it turns out, email’s virus woes date back much farther than that. In fact, one of the first email worms, launched in 1987, played upon users’ unrelenting attraction to Christmas in order to execute its nefarious schemes. This worm, now called “CHRISTMA EXEC” for its filename, tricked users into running it by displaying an ASCII-art depiction of the Christmas tree (rendered in asterisks) and promising a Christmas greeting message if the reader typed “CHRISTMAS.” (Here we see a portion of the worm’s source code that includes the Christmas tree art.) Unfortunately, that command executed the worm, which went through the user’s email address book and used those addresses to send out copies of itself, like an automatic chain letter.

CHRISTMA EXEC was responsible for clogging up many early internal company email networks back then, including that of IBM, which was forced to forced to shut down its entire email system to purge itself of this Christmas nuisance.

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Play, Learn, Celebrate Christmas

Like just about every other corner of the computer universe, computer games were not immune to the charms of Christmas. Here we see screenshots from but one of many Yuletide-related games that graced PCs in the 1980s and early ’90s.

This particular game, Barney Bear Meets Santa Claus, graced the Commodore Amiga platform in 1990 (this is but one of several in a series of Barney Bear educational games published by Free Spirit Software). In it, the player is presented with an illustrated Christmas story narrated by a speech synthesizer voice. After that, one can partake in several educational Christmas activities, including making a toy from interchangeable parts, finding a hidden elf, and recognizing patterns

Santa and His Mainframe

It turns out that computer-related celebrations of Christmas go back way further than the PC era. I recently found this 1960s-era greeting card from an unknown artist while browsing eBay. It incorporates computers into celebration of Christmas back when computers were typically hulking, room-sized machines. In the artwork, Santa has apparently purchased (or installed?) one of these newfangled “electronic brains” next to a Christmas tree. For what purpose he uses it, who knows–maybe to keep track of who’s been naughty and who’s been nice.