American Christmas Traditions and Their Origins

December 06, 2016
The holidays are full of traditions we take for granted, rarely questioning why we do them. But what happens when our children – or our professional au pair – begin asking us questions? When faced with the prospect of explaining why we leave Santa cookies and milk or why American adults drink eggnog at the holidays, many of us suddenly realize how little we know about our own traditions.

Consider the strings of lights on Christmas trees – how did this tradition get started? According to an article in Smithsonian Magazine, the history of Christmas lights stemmed from the invention of the light bulb. One of Thomas Edison’s colleagues, Edward Hibberd Johnson, who was also an investor in the Edison Lamp Company, wanted to capitalize on the Christmas tree fad that had spread from Britain to the U.S. in the mid-1850s. In addition to ornaments, what made a tree special were the candles – but that was a fire hazard. Instead, Johnson set up a tree in the street-facing window of the Edison shop, strung with red, white and blue light bulbs, and then called a reporter. The stunt worked! As electricity became more routinely available, the popularity of Christmas lights spread. Today, about 150 million light sets are sold in the U.S. each year.

christmas-tree-lit

According to the History Channel website, the American tradition of leaving cookies and milk out for Santa gained popularity during the Great Depression, when parents encouraged children to give to others and be grateful for any gifts they might get at Christmas. But, the original roots of this tradition go back much farther – all the way to Norse mythology and the Norse god Odin.

Eggnog drinkers are in two camps – those that can’t wait for the treat to appear in grocery stores and those who are baffled by its popularity. According to The Kitchn blog, the drink (eggs + milk + sugar + alcohol) came to America with early colonists. Journals from American’s early days say eggnog drinks were a Christmas tradition, but there isn’t much information as to why. A young America had lots of alcohol and was an agricultural country, which meant access to milk and eggs and alcohol. Maybe that was enough? Perhaps the eggnog, which can be aged for months, was simply saved for a special occasion during a time when there was less work outdoors.

eggnog

According to Listverse, Christmas carols as we known them evolved out of Christmas hymns, which started in Rome in the 4th century. More modern carols came out of France, Germany and Italy in the 13th century, where they were composed in the local language and sung at various festival and celebrations, not just at Christmas. Eventually the songs returned to the church and an association with Christmas, particularly in the Protestant churches, since the movement encouraged the arts.

carol-lyrics

Whatever traditions you partake in during the holidays, knowing a little more about their background and origin can make for an excellent opportunity to talk about them with your children and share them with your professional au pair.