7 beloved Christmas traditions in America and their origins

From decorated trees to “Die Hard,” Americans celebrate the holidays in many ways

What the stories behind our most beloved Christmas traditions? — Photo courtesy of ArtMarie / iStock Via Getty Images

American Christmas traditions are so deeply ingrained that we accept them as part of holiday celebrations without question. But have you ever been knocking back some eggnog and asked yourself why we decorate evergreens, hang stockings, and dangle lights from our dormers each December?

Some of the answers are stranger than you’d suspect — and that’s not including some of the quirkier Christmas traditions out there.

From the familiar to the obscure, here are ways that Americans celebrate the holidays — and why.

Seeing Santa Claus

Santa Claus always knows if you're naughty or niceSanta Claus always knows if you’re naughty or nice — Photo courtesy of SeventyFour / iStock Via Getty Images

For generations of Americans, the annual Macy’s Thanksgiving parade marks the official start of the Christmas season. The turkey is usually still in the oven as the parade concludes with the arrival of Santa Claus on his sleigh.

Like many American holiday traditions, the gift-bearing legend of Santa was brought here by immigrants. Our Santa is a hybrid of the Green Saint Nicholas, England’s Father Christmas, and the Dutch Sinterklaas. In the U.S., many children visit Santa for photos and to tell them their Christmas wishes, and then they patiently (or not) wait for the big day to arrive on December 25 to see if their wishes came true.

Setting out cookies and milk out for Santa on Christmas Eve is a longstanding ritual for many families. The origins aren’t entirely known, but like Santa himself, it could be a blend of traditions adopted from other countries or even a marketing ploy by the dairy industry. Either way, it’s one way kids can show their appreciation for the big man in the red suit making his rounds in one magical night.

Decorating the Christmas tree

Christmas trees light up the seasonChristmas trees light up the season — Photo courtesy of rappensuncle / iStock Via Getty Images

Decorating evergreen trees with lights and ornaments dates back to the medieval tradition of staging plays on Christmas Eve to tell the story of Adam and Eve, which often featured a “tree of paradise” decorated with apples. In the U.S., the annual Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree Lighting in New York City broadcasts live on television; it’s practically a holiday all its own. The National Christmas Tree Lighting on the Ellipse near the White House in Washington, D.C., is another crowd-pleaser.

Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, which calls itself Christmas City USA, claims to have raised the first decorated Christmas tree in 1747. It’s just one of the thousands of communities that host annual tree-lighting ceremonies. In fact, you don’t even need a tree: In Chandler, Arizona, where trees are scarce, hundreds of painted tumbleweeds serve as the town’s Christmas tree.

Most Americans buy cut Fraser fir, Balsam fir, or white spruce trees from temporary tree lots or local farms to grace their living rooms. The U.S. Department of Agriculture even offers permits for those who want to venture into their nearby National Forest and cut their Christmas tree.

Attending church on Christmas Eve or Day

Christmas Eve services are a popular Christmas traditionChristmas Eve services are a popular Christmas tradition — Photo courtesy of PoppyPixels / iStock Via Getty Image Plus

Amid all the Santa decorations, it can be easy to forget that Christmas is primarily a celebration of the birth of Jesus. For many Americans, attending Christmas mass is a joyous part of the holiday. Christmas Eve mass is especially popular among those with young families, because it frees up Christmas Day for gift-giving and celebratory gatherings.

Catholics often tune into broadcast of the midnight mass held on Christmas Eve at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York to mark the holiday.

Gathering for a traditional Christmas dinner

Turkey or ham are often the centerpiece of any Christmas feastTurkey or ham are often the centerpiece of any Christmas feast — Photo courtesy of LauriPatterson / Getty Images

Roast turkey rules the roost at Christmastime just like Thanksgiving. In the U.S., it’s the most common entree served for dinner on both holidays. Holiday turkey dinners date back to the earliest days of the European colonies in America, when the native birds were both large and plentiful — perfect for a big meal.

Prime rib is another traditionally popular dish, often served with sides like roast potatoes and winter vegetables. In the South, you might see a country ham on the Christmas table.

Like the U.S. melting pot itself, you’ll see many culturally significant dishes around the Christmas feast. Many Italian-Americans, for example, still observe the Feast of the Seven Fishes on Christmas Eve, a marathon seven-course seafood meal originating in a time when most Christians abstained from eating meat during the Advent season.

You might see bibingka, a doughy coconut rice-flour cake, in Filipino households; tamales on Mexican-American tables; or roast duck at Chinese Christmas gatherings.

Egg nog, an alcohol-spiked milk punch, is the drink most commonly associated with Christmas; coquito is a Latin-flavored cousin originated in Puerto Rico and made with coconut milk and rum.

For festive dessert, sweets range from mountains of cookies to holiday-flavored ice cream.

Hanging Christmas stockings

These stockings are pure poetryThese stockings are pure poetry — Photo courtesy of Serhii Sobolevskyi / iStock Via Getty Image Plus

Both the modern conception of a reindeer-towed Santa Claus and the American tradition of hanging stockings “by the chimney with care” have their origins in early 19th century literature, specifically the poem written by Clement Clark Moore in 1823 that later became known as “The Night Before Christmas.”

For two centuries, stockings (first actual ones, now ornate replicas) have been receptacles for small gifts or candy, while the bigger Christmas swag can be found under the tree.

Watching Christmas movies

"It's a Wonderful Life" is one of the most beloved Christmas movies ever“It’s a Wonderful Life” is one of the most beloved Christmas movies ever — Photo courtesy of National Telefilm Associates

There’s a canon of Christmas movies that is nearly as sacred to Americans as the holiday itself. Afforded some precious down time at the holidays, gathering around the warm glow of the TV to watch movies together is a solid tradition; although, the choice of film may vary.

For some, it might be classics like 1947’s “Miracle on 34th Street” or the quintessentially American parable “It’s a Wonderful Life,” starring Jimmy Stewart. For others, any version of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” is a must-watch, including the wickedly funny Bill Murray ’80s comedy, “Scrooged.” Charming new classics like “Elf,” starring Will Ferrell, can’t be seen enough during the holiday season.

To some, Christmas movies are in the eye of the beholder. The 1983 comedy, “Trading Places,” spans the entire holiday season; another more modern take on a holiday story is the Brit-produced “Love Actually.” Perhaps most bafflingly endearing of all is the tradition of watching “Die Hard,” the endlessly quotable Bruce Willis action film set around an office party in a high-rise hotel building. (“Now I have a machine gun. Ho ho ho.”)

Hanging Christmas lights

Lights keep the holidays bright and cheeryLights keep the holidays bright and cheery — Photo courtesy of vasiliki / iStock Via Getty Images

Christians view Jesus as “the light of the world,” and the anniversary of his birth was heralded by lighting candles long before electric lights were invented. Edward Johnson, a friend of Thomas Edison, was credited with creating the first string of Christmas lights in 1882, and Americans have been using colored lights to decorate their homes ever since.

Large-scale holiday displays have also become a tradition, like the annual lakeside Holiday Festival of Lights in Charlestown, South Carolina, Lightscape at the San Diego Botanic Garden, and the Celebration in the Oaks in New Orleans’ City Park.

Coastal cities like Key West, Florida, and Annapolis, Maryland, celebrate the season with lighted boat parades, while New Mexico communities like Taos, Santa Fe, and Albuquerque host holiday evening strolls on pathways lined with candle-filled luminarias or farolitos.

Some quirky Christmas traditions

Hang ten with Surfing Santas in Cocoa Beach, FloridaHang ten with Surfing Santas in Cocoa Beach, Florida — Photo courtesy of Surfing Santas

No two Christmas celebrations are exactly alike, and the American melting pot is reflected in some quirky regional and cultural holiday traditions.

Some German-American families hide a pickle in their Christmas tree. The person who finds it can earn the right to open the first gift under a tradition known as Weihnachtsgurke (literally, “Christmas Eve Cucumber”). In New Britain, Connecticut, the Little Poland celebration includes pierogis and kielbasa for the holiday meals.

In Louisiana’s Cajun country, bonfires are lit atop levees on Christmas Eve to guide Papa Noel, while New Orleans celebrates with an annual parade by the Krewe of Jingle.

Pub crawls with revelers dressed in ugly sweaters or as Santa Claus are a more recent invention in many U.S. cities, and some coastal cities, like Cocoa Beach, Florida, and Dana Beach, California, have Surfing Santas, where hundreds of bearded, red-coated surfers take to their boards to raise money for local charities.

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