There are so many Christmas traditions in the US! Where did they all come from? America is often called a “melting pot” and its Christmas traditions can be seen the same way! It is a country of immigrants from all over the world who each brought their culture’s unique traditions to the New World. Read on to find out how Americans came to celebrate with Santa Claus, stockings, trees, gifts and more!
Brief History of Christmas in the United States
The Christmas celebrations typical in Europe made their way into America in the southern colonies, where one could find feasting, gift-giving, hospitality, dancing and fireworks. The French in Louisiana, English in New York, and German in Pennsylvania also brought with them their Christmas traditions. “Most settlers and adventurers arriving in the New World welcomed Christmas as a day of respite from the routines of work and hardship.” However, not everyone in the new American colonies shared a love for the day. The Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony did not observe Christmas, with Governor John Winthrop even attempting to suppress it. One author writes, “The Puritans showed their disdain for this pagan festival by planning hard work for the day and passing a law forbidding the celebration of Christmas.”
By the late 19th and early 20th centuries, however, Christmas celebrations had become very popular and reflected the expanding commerce that America became known for following the Industrial Revolution. While it would be too negative to attribute the rise of Christmas in America solely to “capitalist greed,” it “has always been more secular than sacred,” and the business aspect has played a significant role in its popularity. But while the marketplace has had its influence, other factors have contributed, too, such as a longing for connection to the past and genuine desire to connect with others, such as in the giving of gifts.
Christmas Traditions in the United States
It was in the 19th century in America that many of the traditions we know today became embedded in the culture. While these customs vary within different time periods and regions of the country, some of the more universal traditions in American Christmas tradition include the following.
No doubt the most significant icon in American Christmas is that of Santa Claus, and it is in the 19th century that we find his “appearance and formalization . . . as its dominant symbol.” The legend of St. Nicholas was not original to America, but a few prominent men of Dutch origin in the 19th century popularized the old Dutch saint in the U.S. For example, Washington Irving, who wrote History of New York in 1809, introduced him to a more national audience. Then, through the imaginations of a few different writers and poets, gradually St. Nicholas was transformed into the modern American Santa Claus, with jolly and bright demeanor, and sleigh and reindeer, who was without precedent before then. Among the most significant contributors to this image was the famous poem, “An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas,” later to become known as “The Night Before Christmas.”
Stockings on the Fireplace
Preparation for the arrival of Santa involved hanging stockings to be filled with gifts from St. Nick. The story is told that the ancient St. Nicholas dropped bags of gold into the stockings of three daughters of a poor man in order to deliver them from a life of slavery or prostitution. It thus became a custom to set out stockings to be filled on Christmas Eve, and in America these “represented the shoes that children of New Amsterdam had once set in the chimney corners on St. Nicholas Eve”—the fireplace possibly being symbolic of a place of happiness and good luck—though they could also be set in other places, such as on a bedpost or banister. The tradition of hanging stockings on the fireplace continues today.
Decorating an evergreen tree was another American Christmas tradition that emerged in the 19th century. The use of greenery in celebrations had a long history, as it was prominent in midwinter festivals in Babylonian, Egyptian, and Druidic cultures. For the Romans evergreens were symbolic of fertility and regeneration. The use of the evergreen tree in Christmas celebrations spread throughout Europe and eventually made its way to the United States, in large part through the Pennsylvania Dutch in the early 19th century. The Christmas tree has traditionally been extravagantly decorated, with gifts, toys, sweets, and other ornaments hung on the tree, though now we often find gifts under the tree. In the United States, the trees of choice have traditionally included the balsam fir, Douglas fir, white pine and Scotch pine.
Though holiday giving was an old custom, the giving of gifts at Christmas is a fairly recent innovation for Americans, the earliest account coming from German immigrants in Pennsylvania in 1745. Puritans did not often exchange gifts, though exceptions are sometimes found. Following the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century, gift-giving eventually became a cemented part of Christmas celebration in America.
Mistletoe, Holly, Ivy, and Poinsettias
The shrub known as “mistletoe” is infused with legend of healing power and came to be used by Christians in Christmas celebrations. Kissing beneath it “seems to have been a custom confined to the servant class until the 19th century, when it was more generally adopted.” Ivy represented constancy, and holly symbolized good luck and life. Before the end of the 19th century, “mistletoe twined gracefully with holly leaves on Christmas card borders,” and poinsettias appeared not much later. Use of poinsettias, also known as Christmas Star (Euphorbia pulcherima), was an old Christmas custom brought to the United States by amateur botanist Joel R. Poinsett.
Different from many other American Christmas customs, the sending of Christmas cards was without connection to earlier history. However, by the 1850s they were mass-produced and sent as an acceptable form of Christmas greeting. Often they served as an inexpensive way to complete a long Christmas list and soon became imperative for fostering relationships, also serving as a substitute for traditional gifts.
While the above are the more iconic traditions in American Christmas, many others could be added. Some others to mention briefly include: Nativity scenes; Christmas pageants; Christmas carols and door-to-door caroling; “Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus,” an 1897 editorial written to a little girl who had sent a letter asking if Santa Claus really existed; the feeling of charity and general goodwill toward others, especially the unfortunate (one visible example is the Salvation Army bell-ringers collecting money at Christmas); the Christmas shopping season, the official beginning of which is the day after Thanksgiving (“Black Friday”) and is helped ushered in by the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade; the lighting of the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Centre in New York City; and, finally, many beloved Christmas stories and films such as Christmas Carol, Miracle on 34th Street, It’s a Wonderful Life, and A Christmas Story.
 Gerry Bowler, ed. The World Encyclopedia of Christmas (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2000), 233.
 Penne L. Restad, Christmas in America: A History (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), 8.
 Ibid., 9.
 Herbert H. Wernecke, Christmas Customs Around the World (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1959), 71.
 Karal Ann Marling, Merry Christmas! Celebrating America’s Greatest Holiday (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000), 43.
 Restad, Christmas in America, 106, 125.
 James H. Barnett, The American Christmas: A Study in National Culture (New York: Macmillan, 1954), 24.
 Restad, Christmas in America, 46.
 Ibid., 47.
 Ibid.; Bowler, World Encyclopedia, 199.
 Bowler, World Encyclopedia, 217; Restad, Christmas in America, 45.
 Restad, Christmas in America, 51.
 Bowler, World Encyclopedia, 227.
 Restad, Christmas in America, 57.
 Ibid., 58.
 Marling, Merry Christmas, 162.
 Bowler, World Encyclopedia, 228.
 Restad, Christmas in America, 65.
 Bowler, World Encyclopedia, 92.
 Ibid., 148.
 Restad, Christmas in America, 120.
 Bowler, World Encyclopedia, 178.
 Restad, Christmas in America, 117.
 Bowler, World Encyclopedia, 36.
 Marling, Merry Christmas, 305.
 Restad, Christmas in America, 117.
 Barnett, American Christmas, 71-72.
 Bowler, World Encyclopedia, 234.