Do you ever wonder why we have the Christmas traditions we do? I was sharing with Lilly today about the fact that people only used to exchange one gift, Christmas trees weren’t a thing, and why we give gifts. I decided to find out a little more info and thought I’d share with you…here are some traditions we celebrate and how they began:
Christmas Trees – Decorated trees date back to Germany in the Middle Ages, with German and other European settlers popularizing Christmas trees in America by the early 19th century. A New York woodsman named Mark Carr is credited with opening the first U.S. Christmas tree lot in 1851. A 2019 survey by the American Christmas Tree Association, predicted that 77 percent of U.S. households displayed a Christmas tree in their home. Among the trees on display, an estimated 81 percent were artificial and 19 percent were real.
Christmas Pickles – If there’s a pickle among your snowman, angel and reindeer ornaments, you’re likely taking part in the American tradition of hiding the green ornament on the tree, so that the first child to find it wins a gift, or gets to open the first present Christmas morning. The practice’s origins are a bit murky (or should that be briny?), but, it’s likely it grew from a Woolworths marketing gimmick from the late 1800s, when the retailer received imported German ornaments shaped like a pickle and needed a sales pitch.
Elf on the Shelf – Love it or loathe it, since 2005, moms and dads have either joyously or begrudgingly been hiding a toy elf each night from Thanksgiving to Christmas. More than 13 million elves have been “adopted” since 2005 when Carol Aebersold and her daughter, Chanda Bell, published the book Elf on the Shelf: A Christmas Tradition that comes with the toy. Social media has even inspired some parents to set up elaborate scenarios for their elves—as in: He TP’d the tree! She filled the sink with marshmallows!
Advent Calendars – Early versions of this tradition, started in Germany in 1903 by publisher Gerhard Land, offered a way for children to count down to Christmas by opening one “door” or “window” a day to reveal a Bible passage, poem or small gift. Since gaining mass popularity by 1920, the calendars have evolved to secular calendars that include daily gifts from mini bottles of wine to nail polish to chocolates to action figures.
Gingerbread Houses – Although Queen Elizabeth I gets credit for the early decorating of gingerbread cookies, once again, it’s the Germans who lay claim to starting the gingerbread house tradition. And when the German Brothers Grimm wrote “Hansel and Gretel” a new holiday tradition was born. Today, the edible decorations are available in a slew of pre-packed kits.
Cookies and Milk for Santa – While leaving treats for Santa and his reindeer dates back to ancient Norse mythology, Americans began to sweeten up to the tradition during the Great Depression in the 1930s, as a sign of showing gratitude during a time of struggle.
Candy Canes – Whether devoured as a treat or hung on the tree as decoration, candy canes are the No. 1-selling non-chocolate candy during December, and date back to 1670 Germany. The red and white peppermint sticks arrived stateside in 1847, when a German-Swedish immigrant in Wooster, Ohio placed them on a tree. By the 1950s, an automated candy cane-making machine was invented, cementing their mass appeal.
Door Wreaths – Wreaths have been around since the ancient Greek and Roman times, but the evergreen Christmas wreath, often adorned with boughs of holly, eventually took on Christian meaning, with the circular shape representing eternal life and the holly leaves and berries symbolic of Christ’s crown of thorns and blood, according to the New York Times. Today’s wreaths, which come in all varieties, from flowers and fruit to glass balls and ribbon to artificial and themed, are most often seen as a secular winter tradition.
Christmas Cards – The first official Christmas card debuted in 1843 England with the simple message, “A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to You.” The idea of a mailed winter holiday greeting gradually caught on in both Britain and the U.S., with the Kansas City-based Hall Brothers (now Hallmark) creating a folded card sold with an envelope in 1915. Today, according to the Greeting Card Association, more than 1.6 billion holiday cards are sold annually.
Christmas Lights – Thomas Edison may be famous for the light bulb, but it was his partner and friend, Edward Hibberd Johnson, who had the bright idea of stringing bulbs around a Christmas tree in New York in 1882. By 1914, the lights were being mass produced and now some 150 million sets of lights are sold in the U.S. each year.
Department Store Santa – Lining up at the mall to snap a photo of the kids on Santa’s lap may seem like a modern Christmas tradition, but it dates back to 1890, when James Edgar of Brockton, Massachusetts had a Santa suit made for him and dressed as the jolly fellow at his dry goods store. The gimmick caught on and a year later Santas could be found in many stores. While many point to Edgar as the original store Santa, Macy’s in New York claims it has been hosting Santa since 1862.
A Visit from Saint Nicholas – Best known as The Night Before Christmas, the reading of this classic by poet Clement Moore is an American holiday tradition. Believed to have been written on Christmas Eve of 1822, the New Yorker is said to have been inspired by his sleigh ride home. According to the U.S. Library of Congress, Clement, a professor at the General Theological Seminary in Manhattan, was “embarrassed by the work, which was made public without his knowledge in December 1823. Moore did not publish it under his name until 1844.”
Poinsettias – America’s Christmas flower, these plants native to Central America were brought to the United States (and given their name) by the country’s first U.S. ambassador to Mexico, botanist Joel Roberts Poinsett, in the 1820s. It was a California horticulturist named Paul Ecke who brought the traditionally red and green plants to the masses 100 years later. He donated the plants to TV shows, and, according to the Los Angeles Times, the poinsettia became the best-selling potted plant in the nation by 1986.
Salvation Army Bell-Ringers – Come December, bell-ringers span out to accept donations in their iconic red kettles. Collecting money for the needy since 1891, the tradition started with San Francisco Salvation Army Capt. Joseph McFee who wanted to raise money to offer a free Christmas dinner to 1,000 of the city’s most destitute. Inspired by a kettle he had seen in England in which people tossed in coins for the poor, he set up his own version, and the idea quickly spread across the country and the world. Today, the Salvation Army helps more than 4.5 million people during the holiday season and they don’t only accept cash—donations can be made via smart phones.
All info courtesy of history.com