December 22, 2016 2:38 pm

Holiday traditions spark up nostalgia in all of us, young and old. Twinkling lights on a Christmas tree, the smell of baked goods floating through the air, and freshly-fallen powdery snow invokes the warm feeling of tradition, family, and love in the holiday season. All holiday traditions have stories behind how they got started, some going back hundreds of years (and many starting in Germany!)

Artificial Christmas Tree

Nearly 79% of all American households will display a Christmas tree this holiday season, with 80% opting for an artificial tree and 20% choosing a real tree. The main reason people opt to purchase an artificial tree is convenience; it takes too much effort to find, cut down, transport, put up, and maintain a real Christmas tree. Prior to the late 1800s, however, artificial trees were not an option. The first artificial trees were made in Germany and consisted of wire covered with turkey, ostrich, goose, or swan feathers dyed green. Addis, a toilet brush company, created the modern artificial Christmas trees in the 1930s.

Christmas Lights

Before electric Christmas lights (and artificial trees), families used candles to light up their Christmas trees. However, due to the flammability of trees, this was very dangerous. Edward H. Johnson, a friend of Thomas Edison, created the first Christmas tree lights in 1882. They consisted of 80 hand-wired red, white, and blue lights and he wrapped them around his tree. Not only was Johnson’s tree illuminated, but it also resolved. Electric Christmas lights were not fully adopted until President Grover Cleveland requested the White House family Christmas tree be illuminated by hundreds of multi-colored bulbs in 1895. Today, we have lights in many varieties, including LED and blinking bulbs.


Although fruitcake is today considered a holiday dessert, it has a history that predates any modern Christmas tradition. In ancient Rome, fruitcake was made with pomegranate seeds, pine nuts, and raisins mixed into a barley mash. In the Middle Ages, honey, spices, and preserved fruits were added into the mix. If preserved in enough alcohol, fruit cake can remain edible for many years. In 2003, Jay Leno sampled a fruit cake on The Tonight Show that had been around since 1878.


Christmas trees look beautiful with lights, ornaments, poinsettias, angels, popcorn, and other traditional and non-traditional decorations. But, a Christmas tree just isn’t complete without tinsel. Tinsel was invented in Germany in the early 1600s and it was made of genuine silver, shredded into thin slivers. Because silver eventually tarnishes and could only be afforded as a Christmas decoration by the very wealthy, artificial garland was invented. Today, garland is made out of plastic and other materials and comes in many different colors, but the most popular variety is still silver.

Candy Canes

According to folklore, candy canes were invented by the choirmaster at Cologne Cathedral in Germany in 1670 when he, being annoyed with children stirring and making noise during Christmas Eve service, asked a local candy maker to make a sweet treat for them. In order for the sweet sticks to have a symbolic meaning, he asked the candy maker to add a crook to the top of each stick, to remind them of Bible stories where shepherds (with similar crooked sticks) visited infant Jesus. A recipe for straight white and red striped peppermint candy sticks was published in 1844. The candy cane has been mentioned in literature since 1866, mentioned with association to Christmas since 1874, and as recently as 1882, mentioned as being hung on a Christmas tree. The candy cane making machine was patented in the early 1920s and soon after, candy canes were mass-produced and readily available during the holiday season.

Christmas Cards

The first Christmas cards were created in 1843 when British businessman Sir Henry Cole asked artist John Calcott Horsley to print some images on cardstock. They were printed in black and white, colored in by hand, and pictured a group of people during a dinner toast, which was colored by hand. The first mass-produced Christmas cards were made by a London printer in 1862 and have been a Christmas tradition ever since. Today, the holiday card industry totals more than $7 billion in the United States. Modern Christmas cards are particularly creative and innovative, providing options such as personalized photo cards, 3D cards, and even cards that sing.

Elf on the Shelf

Elf on the Shelf has been a growing tradition for the past decade. Written in 2004, a book by the same title was written by Carol Aebersold and daughter Chanda Bell and illustrated by Coë Steinwart. The book tells a Christmas-themed story, written in rhyme, that explains how Santa Claus knows who is naughty and who is nice. It describes elves visiting children between Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve, after which they return to the North Pole until the next holiday season. Elf on the Shelf appeared in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in 2012 and hit #1 on the USA Today Bestsellers List in 2013. This recent tradition looks like it is here to stay.

As you finish up your shopping, put cookies out for Santa, and straighten the star at the top of your tree, remember these holiday traditions, some started hundreds of years ago, and some very recent. Happy holidays!

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