It’s the most wonderful time of the year! The time between Thanksgiving and New Year’s is known as a time of giving gifts, visiting family and eating traditional feasts. The winter holidays are important to Americans of many backgrounds as this time of year holds important celebrations for Jews, Christians, Muslims (depending on the lunar calendar), Buddhists, Pagans, Zoroastrians and anyone who uses the Gregorian Calendar.
With such a blend of traditions, it should come as no surprise that immigration has shaped many of the most beloved American holiday customs, from playing dreidel to gifts from Santa Claus to the final countdown on New Year’s Eve.
European colonists brought Christmas to North America in the 1600s. Their observations were strictly religious, with few of the treats and trappings familiar to modern Americans. In the 1800s, Germanic immigrants brought the traditions of Christmas trees and visits from Santa Claus. Christmas trees did not become widely popular until after the industrial revolution when ornaments and special candles could be mass produced in Europe and shipped to the United States. Saint Nicolaus, or Sinterklaas, as he was known to the German, Dutch, Ukrainian and Swiss immigrants who originally celebrated him, was expected on December 6 not the 24th. He is still celebrated on that date in communities throughout the U.S. Other communities continue the Christmas celebration into January. After weeks of gatherings and feasts, Christians from South and Central America have a final celebration on January 6 known as Three Kings Day or the Twelfth Day of Christmas. Christians from Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Greece, Israel, Russia and several other Eastern European countries follow the Julian calendar and therefore celebrate Christmas on January 7.
Hanukkah, also known as the Festival of Lights, is an ancient Jewish holiday that commemorates the rededication of a Temple in Jerusalem after winning it back from the Greek occupiers in the second century BCE. Historically Hanukkah had been considered a minor event in the Hebrew calendar, but for modern American Jews, it can be one of the biggest celebrations of the year. The largest waves of Jewish immigration to the United States took place in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, fueled by both economic concerns and an increasingly hostile environment in Europe. New Jewish Americans were eager to show their enthusiasm for their adopted homeland, and the subject of hard-won religious freedom seemed particularly relevant. Hanukkah became a perfect opportunity to participate in American holiday-time feasting and gift-giving while keeping their traditions and building stable Jewish communities. A hundred years later, Hanukkah is celebrated by millions of Americans each year and has become one of the most valued traditions of North American Jewish communities.
Kwanzaa is the newest and the only December holiday to start in the United States, and it is now celebrated by millions around the world. It was created in the 1960s to reconnect American descendants of enslaved Africans with their heritage. Unlike other immigrants that could choose for themselves, African Americans were forced to give up their histories and cultural traditions. For seven days, observers of Kwanzaa celebrate their heritage and reflect on shared principles. The name comes from the Swahili phrase “matunda ya kwanza,” which means “first fruits of the harvest.” Traditional Kwanzaa foods include groundnut stews from Ghana and “doro wat” chicken from Ethiopia, while soul food or Creole dishes like black eyed peas and jambalaya tell the history of Africans and their descendants in the Americas. The food, greetings, symbolism and tales shared during Kwanzaa tell a story of forced migration and hard-won rights for African Americans and also build connections to the rich history and cultural traditions of Africa.
New Year’s Eve
The dawn of each new year is celebrated across the globe. Perhaps the most famous observance, the annual Times Square Ball Drop in New York City, was begun by an immigrant. Prior to 1904, New Yorkers celebrated New Year’s Eve with a tradition adopted from Chinese New Year celebrations, fireworks. However, early 20th century fireworks were fast becoming a safety hazard in crowded cities. A solution was offered by Adolph Ochs, a German-born, Jewish newspaper magnate and publisher of The New York Times. Ochs collaborated with the city to start a new, safer tradition at Times Square, which had been renamed in honor of the new Times headquarters. Ochs’ idea took hold, and the ball drop has become the grand finale to New Year’s Eve celebrations ever since.
Those are only a handful of the ways that American holiday traditions have been influenced by cultures from around the world. You can find out more about the Celtic pagan celebrations that gave us delicious Yule logs or how the original New Year’s resolutions were introduced in ancient Babylonia or simply make a point of participating in the many celebrations held in your community. For more information about how to celebrate our diverse history during the holidays, check out some of the resources below.
Celebrate Diversity During the Holiday – ideas and lesson plan for teachers.