18 "American" Christmas Traditions We Stole From Other Countries
Whether it is serving milk and cookies for Santa Claus or hanging stockings over the fireplace, there are myriad Christmas traditions that are essential to celebrations for families in the United States. While some of these traditions may seem as American as apple pie, their origin stories are far from. Read on to find out which countries are responsible for your favorite Christmas traditions, from druid fertility practices to Roman rituals. Check out 30 amazing facts about Christmas trees to make the holidays extra magical.
Leaving milk and cookies for Santa Claus is rooted in Norse mythology.
Christmas eve traditions
According to History.com, the Norse god Odin allegedly had an eight-legged horse named Sleipnir, for which children would leave treats in the hopes that Odin would favor them with gifts in return. The tradition grew in popularity in America during the Great Depression when parents tried to teach children the importance of being grateful for everything they could get on Christmas. If you're looking to take your tree to the next level, experts say check out 20 Tips for Decorating Genius Christmas Trees.
The first Christmas card was sent to England by the founder of a British museum.
Children make Christmas cards
While Christmas greetings have been around since time immemorial, the first Christmas card was of British origin. According to the Victoria & Albert Museum, the institution's founding director, Henry Cole, sent the first known Christmas card in 1843, which included a drawing of a family reunion and the words "Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year".
Setting up and decorating Christmas trees began in Germany in the 16th century.
young black father and toddler son decorating Christmas tree
While the use of trees in holiday celebrations was originally considered a pagan tradition, more recognizable iterations of the Christmas tree come from Germany and date back to the 16th century. However, the modern Christmas tree was popularized in Britain in the 1840s when the German-born Prince Albert displayed the first known British Christmas tree at Windsor Castle. Sign up for our daily newsletter to receive more vacation trivia straight to your inbox.
Christmas tree lights are a tradition from Germany that goes back to the 17th century.
red house with white icicle lights outside
While Thomas Edison's colleague Edward Hibberd Johnson is considered to be the inventor of Christmas lights connected to strings, the tradition of lighting Christmas trees comes from Germany, where, according to the Library of Congress, it was already practiced in the 17th century. However, the lights back then were much less safe than the LED lights we line up today - at that time the celebrants simply attached candles to their trees and lit them.
Legend has it that Christmas stockings were made in Turkey sometime in the 4th century.
Woman putting gifts in Christmas stockings
The legend about the Christmas stocking is said to come from the time of Saint Nicholas in the 3rd and 4th centuries in what is now Turkey. According to Smithsonian magazine, St. Nicholas heard of the plight of a poor widower and his three daughters and wanted to help. He crept into the house, saw the girls' recently washed stockings drying by the fire, and filled them with gold coins before going silently into the night. For the late night shoppers, here are 23 last minute gifts that you can get on Amazon.
The Christmas carol originated in Great Britain in the 13th century.
Parents, children and grandfather sing Christmas carols for older women
While there is no clear answer as to when the first songs about the birth of Jesus were written, the origin of the Christmas carol as we know it goes back to 13th century Britain. Instead of singing, Anglo-Saxons at the time went door to door wishing their neighbors good health - or "waes hael" in Anglo-Saxon, according to Andy Thomas, author of 2019's Christmas: A Short History from Solstice book for Santa Claus.
Kissing under mistletoe on vacation comes from the druids.
Man and woman kiss under the mistletoe
Have you snogged under a mistletoe during the holidays? You must thank the druids for this. According to Ronald Hutton, author of the 2009 book Blood and Mistletoe: The Tale of the Druids in Britain, mistletoe was believed to have fertile properties for barren animals - perhaps why the parasitic plant is now associated with love and romance. For information on outdated customs, see 15 Weird, Forgotten Christmas Traditions Nobody Do anymore.
Christmas crackers were developed by a British confectionery manufacturer.
red christmas cracker on table
If you've ever opened a Christmas cracker and put its paper crown on for the holidays, you have Tom Smith to thank for this tradition. The British candy maker is credited with inventing the modern Christmas cracker in 1847 while trying to develop new packaging for some of its Christmas candy.
The idea of Santa Claus comes from Turkey.
young girl sitting on Santa's lap
While the funny, bulbous version of Santa Claus may be a relatively modern tradition, the story of Saint Nicholas dates back to 3rd century Turkey. The real Saint Nicholas was a bishop who was born in what is now Turkey in 270 AD. He is said to have done frequent charitable deeds for others, which earned him widespread recognition. However, according to the Saint Nicholas Center, the modern day Santa Claus got his red suit and big belly in the 20th century. For more interesting information about the season, see 55 Things to know about Christmas to get you in the holiday mood.
Fruit cake is a pastry that originally came from Western Europe.
Frozen fruit cake
According to a 2010 article in Smithsonian magazine, the fruit cake dates back to the Middle Ages when imports of dried fruit from Asia to Western Europe resulted in this sweet, dense indulgence that became popular in several European countries over the same period. European immigrants introduced the tradition to the US - and you'll still see some of its European iterations like German Stollen and Italian Panforte in US stores around the holidays today.
The first advent calendar was created in Germany.
According to the German Christmas Museum, the earliest mention of a modern Advent calendar can be found in a children's book from 1851. However, the printed Advent calendar is attributed to Gerhard Lang, who created the first commercially available version of the Advent calendar - complete with doors and delicacies - in his home country Germany in the year Attributed to 1908.
Hanging a wreath on your front door comes from a Roman tradition of giving.
Christmas wreath on black front door
If you usually decorate your door with a wreath at Christmas time, it is probably thanks to the Romans. According to a 1988 article in the New York Times, the Romans often gave friends and family members branches to celebrate the New Year, with those green pieces eventually being pinned into the wreath as we know it today.
Gingerbread houses are another holiday tradition from Germany.
Mother and son build gingerbread house together at the kitchen table
As in many Christmas traditions, the construction of gingerbread houses began in Germany. According to the book The Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets from 2015, gingerbread was already a popular delicacy in Germany in the Middle Ages. The city of Nuremberg became particularly famous for its gingerbread houses.
The baking of Christmas cookies has European origins.
Christmas eve traditions
The idea of the Christmas cookie is of European origin - and probably much older than you can imagine. According to the 2008 book Entertaining from Ancient Rome to the Super Bowl: An Encyclopedia, gingerbread and gingerbread houses likely became popular during the same period, with the former originally used as Christmas tree decorations rather than treats.
The first Christmas market was founded in Germany in the 14th century.
elderly white couple shopping at Christmas market
If you've ever bought ornaments or had a hot cocoa at an outdoor Christmas market, who to thank for them? The answer is again Germany. While similar markets would have been common throughout the Holy Roman Empire, the first modern Christmas market is said to be the Dresden Striezelmarkt, founded in 1434.
"Ugly Christmas Sweaters" are from Canada.
Young woman in Christmas tree sweater and reindeer antlers
For a newer trend that Americans didn't invent either, consider the custom of wearing somewhat ironically garish holiday-themed sweaters. According to the Washington Post, "Ugly Christmas Sweater" parties first became popular in Vancouver, Canada earlier this century. The US has embraced the concept too, expanding it to themed work days, retailers who specialize in making noisy vacation wear, and even ugly jumper fun runs.
Germany also invented candy canes.
Candy canes and peppermint rind
Whether you decorate with them, bake with them or just have a snack, Germany also has candy canes to thank. Carly Schildhaus of the National Confectioners Association told History.com that the treat was believed to have been invented in 1670, "when the choirmaster of Cologne Cathedral in Germany was handing out candy canes to his young singers to keep them quiet during the Living Creche ceremony." Why the distinctive shape? "On this occasion, he bent the candy into shepherd's humps," added Schildhaus.
Poinsettias were once only grown in Central America.
Poinsettia centerpiece on table with Christmas tree in background
The bright red flowers can be found in homes, shops, and church altars throughout the season, but poinsettias were not known in America until Joel Roberts Poinsett - botanist and first ambassador to Mexico - brought the plant back to his homeland in 1828 . (Hence the name.) One story associated with the flower is that of a poor Mexican girl who cannot afford a real present to take to church for the baby Jesus. So she offers weeds with a pure heart and they magically transform into beautiful poinsettias. It is really the thought that matters.
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