21 "American" Christmas Traditions We Borrowed From Other Countries
These Yuletide traditions are staples stateside, but they have international origins.
Whether it's setting out milk and cookies for Santa or hanging stockings above the fireplace, there are countless Christmas traditions that are integral to the celebrations of families across the United States. However, while some of these traditions may seem as American as apple pie, their origin stories are anything but. From those that spring from Druid fertility practices to ones that have their roots in Roman rituals, keep reading to find out which countries are responsible for your favorite traditions.
Christmas Traditions From Around the World
1. The first Christmas card was sent in England by the founder of a British museum.
While Christmas cards have been around since time immemorial, the first holiday greeting was British in origin. According to the Victoria & Albert Museum, the institution's founding director, Henry Cole, sent the first known Christmas card, which included a drawing of a family gathering and the words "a merry Christmas and a happy New Year to you" in 1843.
2. Leaving milk and cookies for Santa is rooted in Norse mythology.
According to History.com, the legend is that the Norse god Odin had an eight-legged horse named Sleipnir, whom kids would leave treats for in hopes that Odin would favor them with gifts in return. The tradition gained popularity in America during the Great Depression, when parents tried to make children understand the importance of being grateful for anything they might receive on Christmas.
3. Putting up and decorating Christmas trees started in Germany in the 16th century.
While using trees in holiday celebrations is believed to have originally been a pagan practice, more recognizable iterations of the Christmas tree hail from Germany and date as far back as the 16th century. The modern Christmas tree, however, was popularized in the UK in the 1840s, when German-born Prince Albert displayed the first known British Christmas tree in Windsor Castle. Today, you can find a Christmas tree farm in any one of the 50 states. Together, these businesses are responsible for taking 25-30 million trees to market each season.
4. Christmas lights are a tradition from Germany that dates back to the 17th century.
While Thomas Edison's colleague Edward Hibberd Johnson is credited as the inventor of Christmas lights connected on strands, the tradition of illuminating Christmas trees comes from Germany, where it was being practiced as early as the 17th century, according to the Library of Congress. However, the lights back then were a lot less safe than the LED ones we string today—at the time, celebrants would simply attach candles to their trees and light them.
5. Legend says Christmas stockings originated in Turkey sometime in the 4th century.
The legend associated with the Christmas stocking is said to date back to the time of Saint Nicholas during the 3rd and 4th centuries in what is now Turkey. According to Smithsonian magazine, Saint Nicholas heard about the plight of a poor widower and his three daughters and wanted to help. He snuck into the house, saw the girls' recently laundered stockings drying by the fire, and filled them with gold coins before going silently into the night.
6. Christmas caroling originated in Britain in the 13th century.
While there's no clear answer as to when the first songs about Jesus' birth were written, the origin of caroling as we know it dates back to 13th-century Britain. At the time, instead of singing, Anglo-Saxons would go from door to door wishing their neighbors good health—or "waes hael" in Anglo-Saxon, according to Andy Thomas, author of the 2019 book Christmas: A Short History from Solstice to Santa.
7. Kissing under the mistletoe during the holidays comes from the Druids.
Ever gotten smooched under a sprig of mistletoe during the holidays? You've got the Druids to thank for that. According to Ronald Hutton, author of the 2009 book Blood and Mistletoe: The History of the Druids in Britain, mistletoe was believed to have fertility-restoring properties for barren animals—perhaps the reason the parasitic plant is associated with love and romance today.
8. Christmas crackers were developed by a British candy maker.
If you've ever opened a Christmas cracker and donned its paper crown for the holidays, you can thank Tom Smith. The British candy maker is credited with inventing the modern-day Christmas cracker in 1847 when trying to devise new packaging for some of his holiday sweets.
9. The concept of Santa Claus comes from Turkey.
While the jolly, big-bellied version of Santa is a relatively modern invention, the story of Saint Nicholas dates back to 3rd-century Turkey. The real Saint Nicholas was a bishop born in what is now Turkey in 270 AD and was said to have done frequent charitable deeds for others, which earned him widespread acclaim. However, according to the Saint Nicholas Center, it was in the 20th century that the modern Santa Claus got his red suit and sizable stomach.
10. Fruitcake is a pastry originally from Western Europe.
According to a 2010 article in Smithsonian magazine, fruitcake dates back to the Middle Ages, when imports of dried fruit to Western Europe from Asia gave rise to this sweet, dense treat, which became popular in multiple European nations during the same time period. European immigrants brought the tradition stateside—and you'll still see some of its European iterations, like German stollen and Italian panforte, in U.S. stores around the holidays today.
11. The first Advent calendar was created in Germany.
The earliest mention of a modern Advent calendar is seen in an 1851 children's book, according to the German Christmas Museum. However, the printed Advent calendar is attributed to Gerhard Lang, who is credited with creating the first commercially available version of the Advent calendar—complete with doors and treats—in his native Germany in 1908.
12. Hanging a wreath on your front door stems from a Roman gift-giving tradition.
If you typically decorate your door with a wreath at Christmastime, it's because of the Romans. According to a 1988 article in The New York Times, Romans would frequently give friends and family members branches to celebrate the new year, with those pieces of greenery eventually being fastened into the wreath as we know it today.
13. Gingerbread houses are another holiday tradition adopted from Germany.
Like many other Christmas traditions, gingerbread houses hail from Germany. According to the 2015 book The Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets, gingerbread was already a popular treat in Germany by the Middle Ages, with the city of Nuremberg becoming particularly famous for its houses constructed of the treat.
14. Baking Christmas cookies has European origins.
The idea of the Christmas cookie is European in origin—and probably a lot older than you might imagine. According to the 2008 book Entertaining from Ancient Rome to the Super Bowl: An Encyclopedia, gingerbread cookies, and gingerbread houses likely became popular during the same time period, with the former initially used more as Christmas tree decorations than as treats.
15. The first Christmas market was founded in Germany in the 1400s.
If you enjoy frequently Christmas markets during the holiday season, you're continuing a German tradition. While similar markets would have been common throughout the Holy Roman Empire, the first modern Christmas market is said to be Dresden's Striezelmarkt, founded in 1434.
16. "Ugly Christmas sweaters" hail from Canada.
For a more recent trend that Americans didn't invent, look to the custom of wearing garish holiday-themed sweaters somewhat ironically. Per The Washington Post, "ugly Christmas sweater" parties first became popular in Vancouver, Canada at the beginning of this century. The U.S. embraced the concept too, expanding it into themed work days, retailers who specialize in making loud holiday apparel, and even ugly sweater fun runs.
17. Germany also invented candy canes.
Whether you decorate with them, bake with them, or just snack on them, candy canes are a popular Christmas treat. Carly Schildhaus of the National Confectioners Association told History.com that candy canes were likely invented in 1670 "when the choirmaster at the Cologne Cathedral in Germany handed out sugar sticks among his young singers to keep them quiet during the Living Creche ceremony." Why the distinctive shape? "In honor of the occasion, he bent the candies into shepherds' crooks," Schildhaus added.
18. Poinsettias were once only grown in Central America.
The bright red flowers can be found in homes, businesses, and on church altars throughout the U.S. all Christmas season, but poinsettias weren't well-known in America until Joel Roberts Poinsett—botanist and the first ambassador to Mexico—brought the plant back to his home country in 1828. (Hence the name.) One story associated with the flower is that of a poor Mexican girl who can't afford a proper gift to bring to church for the baby Jesus. So she offers weeds with a pure heart, and they magically transform into beautiful poinsettias. It really is the thought that counts.
19. Seeing The Nutcracker is as Russian as you can get.
We all love to indulge in the occasional Christmas movie during the holiday season, but seeing a live performance of The Nutcracker is a great way to elevate that Christmas tradition. It's also one that came out of Russia. Scored by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky and originally choreographed by Marius Petipa, The Nutcracker first premiered on Christmas Eve of 1892. It wasn't until 1934 that the ballet was performed outside of Russia and 1944 that it finally made its way to the United States.
20. Christmas pickles are also rumored to have originated in Germany.
If you're not yet familiar with the Christmas pickle tradition then here it is: Each year, an ornament shaped like a pickle should be the last one hung on the Christmas tree. The first child to locate the green ornament, buried in a mess of pine needles and other shiny objects, will be the first to open their gifts come Christmas morning.
Some say the tradition stems from Old World Germany while others insist it can be traced back to an American soldier who saved himself from starvation by eating a pickle on Christmas Eve. The real Christmas story, however, has nothing to do with either account. The legend was instead created by salesmen during the late 1800s to increase sales of German glass ornaments in American stores.
21. Having fish for dinner on Christmas Eve is a popular tradition in Italy.
Many families in the U.S. enjoy "The Feast of the Seven Fishes" for their big meal on Christmas Eve. The Southern Italian tradition can be traced to the Roman Catholic custom of avoiding meat the day before a holiday, as well as to the seafood-heavy diet of that region.
That's it for our list of Christmas traditions, but be sure to check back with us soon for more ways to enjoy a memorable holiday season. You can also sign up for our newsletter so you don't miss out on what's next.