Why we do what we do for Christmas.
The 2020 Elf on the shelf would be Chucky from the movie Child’s Play.
From its Puritan roots to complaints of rampant commercialism (“What is it you want?” Charlie Brown asks Lucy in A Charlie Brown Christmas. “Real Estate.”), Christmas in America has been filled with traditions, old and new. Some date back to 16th-century Germany or even ancient Greek times, while others have caught on in modern times.
Here’s a look at 25 ways Americans have celebrated the Christmas season, from singing songs and reciting poems to decorating trees and swapping cookies to drinking eggnog and wearing ugly sweaters.
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.
The Rockettes – Since 1925, first known as the Missouri Rockets, this iconic dance troupe has been kicking up its heels, officially becoming the Radio City Music Hall Rockettes in 1934. From performing at movie openings to entertaining troops to making TV appearances, they’re perhaps best-known for their annual Christmas Spectacular.
A Charlie Brown Christmas – Decades later, it may be hard to imagine that this beloved TV special inspired by Charles Schulz’s Peanuts comic strip was first rejected by CBS executives. But when it finally aired on December 9, 1965, almost half of all U.S. TV sets were tuned to the broadcast, and the show went on to win an Emmy, a Peabody, an enduring following and even a trend of “Charlie Brown” Christmas trees. “I never thought it was such a bad little tree,” Linus says in the special. “It’s not bad at all, really. Maybe it just needs a little love.”
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!
Yule Log – Yule logs were part of ancient winter solstice celebrations, but it was Americans who turned the wood burning into must-see TV. Back in 1966, WPIX-TV in New York City aired a continuous 17-second loop of a fireplace for three hours along with holiday music. That led to an eventual better production and nearly 20 years of annual viewing. Today, you can view the yule log on demand and on the web. (In fact, HISTORY offers its own yule log themed to the series Forged in Fire.)
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.
The Nutcracker – For many, the holiday season is not complete without a trip to watch this ballet. With music by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky and originally choreographed by Marius Petipa, the romantic tale of the young Clara’s Christmas Eve premiered Dec. 18, 1892, in St. Petersburg, Russia. It was performed for the first time outside of Russia in 1934 in England, and made its way to the United States in 1944 when it was performed by the San Francisco Ballet. It became a must-see event in America in the 1960s, as performances spread across the nation.
Ugly Christmas Sweaters – You can blame our neighbors to the north for this silly, ironic tradition that really gained steam in the 1980s. According to the Ugly Christmas Sweater Party Book, the sweaters became a party trend in Vancouver, Canada in 2001. And the trend is seemingly here to stay. According to Fox Business, the ugly sweater industry is a multi-million business, with websites such as Tipsy Elves, retailers including Macy’s, Kohl’s and Target, and even food chains jumping on the ugly bandwagon.
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.
READ MORE: Santa Claus
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.
Boozy Eggnog – Nothing makes the holidays happier more quickly than a glass of spiked eggnog. Although the yuletide cocktail stems from posset, a drink made with hot curdled milk and ale or wine from medieval England, American colonists get credit for making it popular and adding rum. Even George Washington had a special recipe.
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.
It’s a Wonderful Life – Frank Capra’s classic Christmas film debuted in 1946, with Jimmy Stewart playing George Bailey, a suicidal man who is shown what life would be like without him by an angel. But before becoming an annual TV-viewing tradition, the movie was a bit of a flop at the box office when it premiered, although it did receive five Oscar nominations (but no wins). A lapsed copyright in the 1970s allowed TV stations to air the movie for free. It has aired exclusively on NBC and USA since 1994.
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.
Making Fun of Fruitcake – A favorite of the Brits (both Princess Diana and Kate Middleton served it at their weddings), fruitcake—that much-maligned mix of dried fruit, nuts and brandy—has been the subject of long-running American holiday jokes. Truman Capote wrote a short story about “fruitcake weather” in 1956, the small town of Manitou Springs, Colorado holds an annual Fruitcake Toss Day on January 3, and the dessert has become fodder for many a comedian. For example, in 1985 Johnny Carson cracked, “The worst Christmas gift is fruitcake. There is only one fruitcake in the entire world, and people keep sending it to each other.”
Cookie Swaps – For more than 100 years, Americans have spent time baking up a storm to exchange cookies at one of these events where participants bring a dozen of their favorite cookies, then guests trade and head home with an array of goodies. In her book, The Cookie Party Cookbook, Robin Olson writes that she found references to “cookie parties” dating back to the late 1800s, and that they began to be called “cookie exchanges” by the 1930s, and “cookie swaps” in the ’50s. “Historically, cookie exchange parties have been a ladies-only event. Exchanges were hosted by friends, relatives, neighbors, social groups, clubs, office co-workers, teams, schools and churches,” she writes. Now, they often include children and men and are frequently used as fund-raisers.
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.”
Luminarias – Simple, folded brown bags filled with sand and lit by votive candles are particularly popular in the Southwest. Dating back more than 300 years, they line sidewalks and churches in places such as Albuquerque and Santa Fe, New Mexico. In Phoenix, the annual Las Noches de las Luminarias at the Desert Botanical Garden features more than 8,000 luminaria bags.
Twelve Days of Christmas – Even though most hear the song between Thanksgiving and Christmas Day, the Christian 12 days of Christmas, which span the birth of Jesus and the visit of the Magi, actually take place December 25 to January 6. The earliest version of the poem-turned-song is thought to have been published in Mirth With-out Mischief, a children’s book from 1780, with the modern version credited to English composer Frederic Austin who set the poem to music. Each year the PNC Christmas Price Index totals up the total cost of the 12 gifts named in the song based on current markets. For 2019, everything from a partridge in a pear tree to 12 drummers drumming would run up a bill of $38,993.59.
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.