Top Ten Holiday Traditions: A History


Ann Sumner Thorp

The holidays are right around the corner. For some people, this causes frantic running around while trying to buy presents and decorate the house. But for others, December brings holiday cheer and emersion in all things Christmas and Hanukkah. In both of these scenarios, one thing stays constant: holiday traditions. No matter what holiday you celebrate in December, traditions make it special. Let’s take a look at the top ten holiday traditions and the history behind them:

10. Holiday Songs
As soon as Thanksgiving is over (or even beforehand), radio stations begin playing Christmas music. From “Frosty the Snowman” to “Away in a Manger,” all you can hear for the month of December are classic Christmas songs. Because we have grown up listening to these songs, they are forever engrained, word-for-word, in our memory. Many of these songs have interesting histories. Silent Night, for example, began with a band of traveling actors in the Austrian Alps. While in Salzburg, these actors had to perform in a house because the church’s organ was broken (some blame mice, others blame rust). After their performance of the Christmas Story, the assistant pastor, Josef Mohr, decided to take a walk around the town. He went to a hilltop where he could overlook the village covered in snow. As he was gazing out over the town, he remembered a poem he had written a few years earlier. Since the church’s organ was broken, Mohr decided that his poem could possibly be turned into hymn able to be sung without an organ. Later, Mohr went the church’s organist, Franz Xaver Gruber who wrote a simple melody able to be played by a guitar. That Christmas, the congregation was able to hear this simple carol, and a few weeks later the carol began to spread to neighboring towns and eventually other countries.

9. Waiting for Snow
Every Christmas movie has one thing in common: winter weather. Whether the snow happens at the climax of the movie or is featured throughout the story, Christmas movies always have snow. We always associate Christmas time with cold weather and snow. From songs like “Let it Snow” to “Walking in a Winter Wonderland,” everyone hopes for at least a little cold weather during the holidays. Playing in the snow is another reason that people long for it. Making snowmen with your siblings, sledding down long, snowy hills, and having good ole snowball fights are classic snow activities that every kid (and adult) looks forward to during holiday break. We picture snow and ice around Christmas time thanks to the Victorians. In 1843, Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol. Because Charles Dickens grew up in Britain during a mini ice age that lasted from 1550-1850, Dickens was accustomed to heavy snow and ice around Christmas time, so he included it into his story to help it seem realistic to his fellow Englishmen. Not to mention the song “White Christmas” by Bing Crosby in 1942.

8. Watching Christmas Movies
Christmas movies make the holidays. Many T.V. channels show Christmas movies throughout the month of December such as Free Form (also known as ABC Family), which features their 25 days of Christmas in which they show one holiday movie each night leading up to Christmas. Hallmark Channel also shows many different fun Christmas movies, all with a (sometimes predictable) happy ending. Growing up, kids of all ages watch movies such as Frosty the Snowman and Rudolph the Red-Nose Reindeer putting them in the Christmas spirit and believing in all things Christmas. Everyone loves settling in by a fire with a mug of hot chocolate while watching Christmas movies with friends and family. They are a great way to put any scrooge into the Christmas spirit.

7. Holiday Baking and Treats
From Christmas cookies to apple pies, the holidays provide a great opportunity for anyone and everyone with a sweet tooth. Holiday treats are one reason behind the love of the holidays because people can take a break from healthy eating and indulge themselves in a sweet treat. However these delicious baked goods are also the reason that many people choose to eat healthy as their New Year’s resolution. Half the fun of these delicious desserts is making them. Decorating sugar cookies with colorful sprinkles and icing, licking the spoon after stirring brownies, and filling an apple pie with sugar-coated apples are all moments that I would never miss. Before Christmas was an official holiday, people all over the world would get together around this time to celebrate the changing of the seasons. These celebrations, like almost all celebrations, centered around food. Even though Christmas soon took over as the main celebration, the feasts remained. By the Middle Ages, spices, cinnamon, and exotic fruits were introduced and were considered delicacies by cooks. Families could only afford these expensive items during the most important time of year, so they would bake lots of desserts to eat and share featuring these now common spices with friends and family to celebrate.

6. Picking Out the Perfect Tree
This particular tradition was started in Germany when the German people would bring in evergreen trees into their houses and decorate them with candles and various colorful plants. Even though many people don’t chop down their Christmas tree themselves, picking out the perfect tree at the market can be fun and exciting. Some people like their trees short, others like skinny ones. Some want a tall tree, and others choose a big, bushy one. Picking out the tree is one experience that no one wants to skip. In the movie, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, the opening scene consists of the Griswold family picking out their perfect tree. For anyone who has seen the movie, they know that the tree is 2X too big for their house, but they make it fit with the top of the tree bending down close to the bottom. Although this scenario normally doesn’t happen in real life tree hunting, and you don’t have to cut down your own tree, Christmas tree hunting is fun for the whole family no matter where or how you do it.

5. Decorating the Christmas Tree
After picking out the perfect tree, the only thing left to do is decorate it. With boxes and boxes of ornaments galore, decorating the tree may take a while, but it is worth it. The decorations are what make a tree unique to each family. After putting on lights and garlands, the ornaments are next. Whether your ornaments have been passed down through generations, homemade, or store bought, the tree always looks picture perfect with all of the decorations. Before Christmas was a major holiday, evergreen plants and trees were considered special during the winter months because they wouldn’t lose their green leaves. Some people even brought leaves and branches of these plants into their homes as decoration to remind themselves that spring was on the way and with it the new growth of plants and warmth. In Germany, this evolved into bringing in full-sized trees and decorating them with candles to brighten them up. Once electric light was invented, the candles were replaced by light bulbs. In the early 20th century, Americans began decorating their Christmas trees with homemade ornaments and garlands. Now, decorating the tree with ornaments has become a natural Christmas tradition.

4. Driving Around Looking at Christmas Lights
What better way to get in the Christmas spirit than looking at Christmas lights. Not only do you get to spend time with family or friends, but you get to drive around town and look at beautiful lights decorating houses and businesses. Some houses go “all out” with inflatables, light shows, and all types of colorful lights. However some houses are simpler with candles in the windows or a reef on the front door. Both types of holiday decorations are fun to both set up and drive by because they show people fully immersed in the holiday spirit. The tradition of Christmas lights began in Germany where people decorated their trees with candles as a way of showing their Christmas spirit. A little further down the timeline, families would put candles in their windows to show that they celebrated Christmas and others who celebrated it were welcome in their house. Fast forward even further and we see Thomas Edison making the first string of 80 small light bulbs. In 1880, Edison demonstrated the first outdoor light display, and afterwards this tradition soon took off.

3. The Elf on the Shelf (WARNING: spoiler alert below)
The elf serves as Santa’s “eyes and ears” in a house. In 2005, this popular toy was brought to life and popularized in a children’s book written by Carol Aebersold. Families name the elf and place it somewhere in the house. They then move it at night to make it look like the elf is alive and watching the children for Santa. Because the elf is brought out towards the beginning of December, he sets the ball rolling for believing in Santa. The elf is a great way to get your kids in the Christmas spirit, and also a great way to help them behave in December since the elf reports directly to Santa. The elf on the shelf is perfect for families who believe in Santa and are looking forward to his arrival on Christmas Eve.

2. The Menorah
The menorah is a candelabrum with nine different branches. On each of the eight nights of Hanukkah, a new branch is lit. The ninth branch holds the “helper” candle used to light the other branches. This year the tradition of the menorah will begin on Tuesday, December 12, 2017. This tradition began close to 2000 years ago when after driving out the Greek army, the Jews wanted to light the menorah in their Temple to celebrate their victory and thank God. However, the Greeks had destroyed almost all of the oil used to light the candelabrum. There was only enough oil left to light the menorah for one night, but amazingly, the oil lasted for eight nights, hence the lighting of the menorah for eight nights during Hanukkah.


1. Santa Claus
Around 280 A.D., the myth of Santa Claus began with a man named St. Nicholas who lived around Turkey. St. Nicholas was known for his kindness to people in need, and through his many gifts to the poor, his legacy quickly spread through many regions, eventually reaching as far as Europe. For centuries, people gathered and held feasts in honor of his death on December 6th. In the late 18th century, newspapers in New York reported of Dutch families celebrating his death. After this, St. Nicholas’s image quickly spread to the rest of the country with the adoption of St. Nicholas’s Dutch nickname, Sinter Klaas. From here it quickly grew into the legend of Santa Claus as we know it today. On Christmas Eve, children leave out milk and cookies for Santa and hope that he visits their house with his reindeer and presents.

Honorable Mentions

2. Candy Canes
Who doesn’t love this delicious peppermint, red and white striped candy? However they weren’t originally red and white. They began as plain white sticks in Germany during the 1670s. A choirmaster wanted the children to sit still during the nativity scene at the church, so he gave them this candy to eat. He shaped it as a “J” like a shepherd’s crook to remind the children of the shepherds who visited the baby Jesus when He was born. Later on, the “J” also became known as the “J” for Jesus. The white stripes represented Jesus’ purity, and the red stripes represented His blood shed on the cross. Overall, candy canes are both a great story and a great treat!

1. Christmas Cards
Christmas cards are a great way to catch up with friends and family over the holidays by sending them a quick card that says you’re thinking about them. The tradition of Christmas cards was first started in the United Kingdom by Sir Henry Cole in 1843. Cole worked in an early version of the Post Office as the Assistant Keeper. He wanted the office to be used more by ordinary people, so he designed a card with his friend John Horsley who was an artist. The cards were printed and sold to people who wanted to send a letter but didn’t have enough money to pay for it. Thanks to Cole and Horsley, Christmas cards took off and are now an important holiday tradition in many families.