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. Many of the Christmas traditions that Americans cherish in the 21st century originated elsewhere, were brought here by immigrants and became American as they passed from generation to generation.
- In the 1800s, Germanic immigrants brought the traditions of Christmas trees. Christmas trees’ appeal expanded dramatically after the Industrial Revolution allowed for ornaments and special candles to be mass produced in Europe and shipped to the United States. Similarly, gift-giving began as a German tradition and increased in popularity as the price of everyday goods fell.
- Christmas cards were popularized in the U.S. by Louis Prang, a Prussian refugee and artist. After successfully selling his elaborately designed holiday cards in the United Kingdom, he introduced his new product to the United States. He saw his cards as a way to share fine art, as well as a substitute for the more time-consuming tradition of the Christmas letter.
- The classic Christmas tune White Christmas was written by Irving Berlin, a Russian immigrant who practiced Judaism.
- Joel Roberts Poinsett may have been an American diplomat and amateur botanist, but the “flor de la noche buena,” better known as a “poinsettia” in English, was native to Mexico before Poinsett sent cuttings home.
- Mistletoe played a significant role in both Norse and Celtic druidic mythology before evolving into a modern symbol of holiday love.
- Burning a Yule log began as a Scandinavian tradition, meant to bring luck or protection to the family in the coming year. These days, celebrants are more likely to enjoy a “bûche de Noël,” a style of cake shaped and decorated to resemble a Yule log that was popularized by Parisian bakers.
- 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.
Some 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 is now celebrated by millions of Americans each year and has become one of the most valued traditions of North American Jewish communities. The holiday became a perfect opportunity to participate in American holiday-time feasting and gift-giving while keeping their traditions and building stable Jewish communities.
It was also an opportunity to resist forced assimilation. Some rabbis saw emphasizing the Hanukkah holidays, particularly the food and gifts aspects, as an opportunity to keep Jewish children from being drawn into Christmas celebrations. In the mid-20th century, Jewish children were often pressured into celebrating Christmas in their schools. Jewish parents presented Hanukkah as an alternative tradition for their children to participate in.
Food traditionally associated with the holiday varies across Jewish cultures. U.S.-born people may be most familiar with the potato latke, but Jewish Hungarians traditionally fry up a cheesy version. Cheese is associated with the holiday due to the lesser known Hanukkah story of an Israeli woman named Yehudis, who was said to ply the leader of an occupying Assyiran force with salty cheeses to encourage him to drink himself into a vulnerable stupor. Jewish Italians also enjoy a fried or baked cheese pancake, called a “cassola” and made of ricotta. Italian Catholics have since adopted the dessert as a Christmas dish. Jewish Syrians prefer a variation on the latke called “kibbet yatkeen,” containing bulgur and pumpkin. For Jewish Israelis, jam-filled doughnuts called “sufganiyot” has gained popularity over the latke. Some Jewish Indians enjoy “gulab jamun,” a deep-fried, doughnut-like sweet dipped in a sugary syrup. Jewish North Africans make a similar dessert called “debla,” traditionally shaping the dough into a rose. The exact origins of Hanukkah gelt, a type of small, foil-wrapped chocolate coins, are unclear, but it may be linked to a Yemeni tradition of giving Jewish children a coin every day of Hanukkah to buy sweets.
Kwanzaa is the newest year-end holiday. It is 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 immigrant groups who could choose which aspects of their cultures and histories to preserve and which to let go, African Americans were forced to give up their traditions. After police brutality sparked the Watts uprising in 1965, Black Studies professor Dr. Maulana Karenga was inspired to create an opportunity to bring the Black community together. He researched harvest traditions across Africa to create a pan-African celebration, which became Kwanzaa.
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.” The extra “a” was added to make the word seven letters long, a number with symbolic significance in the tradition. The seven candles in a “kinara” symbolize the “seven principles” that Karenga assigned to each of the seven days of the holiday: Umoja (Unity), Kujichagulia (Self-Determination), Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility), Ujamaa (Cooperative economics), Nia (Purpose), Kuumba (Creativity) and Imani (Faith).
Traditional Kwanzaa foods are drawn from both African and American Black communities. Groundnut stews from Ghana and “doro wat” chicken from Ethiopia are common, as is soul food or Creole dishes like black eyed peas and jambalaya. The diverse feasts tell the history of Africans and of their descendants in the Americas. On the final day, December 31, celebrants hold a traditional African feast called a “Karamu.” Kwanzaa is a secular holiday and celebrated by people of all spiritual backgrounds alongside other religious traditions. 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 created by an immigrant. Prior to 1904, New Yorkers celebrated New Year’s Eve with fireworks, a tradition adopted from Chinese New Year celebrations. 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. Observers often toast the new year with a fizzy glass of Champagne. Clever French advertisers in the late 1800s attempted to tie the drink to a number of occasions, but it was the association with New Years that stuck. Genuine Champagne was made in the Champagne region of France and imported to the United States for the occasion, often to be sold by French immigrants.
Classic New Year’s song Auld Lang Syne was an import from Scotland by way of Canada. Scottish poet Robert Burns penned the version of the song we know today, drawing on an old Scottish folk tune. The song gained popularity in the British Isles before making the jump across the pond in 1929, when Canadian-born immigrant Guy Lombardo led an orchestra in a televised New Year’s Eve broadcast that concluded with a rendition of the song. It quickly gained popularity across the country. He would go on to end his annual broadcasts with the iconic New Year’s tune for decades after.
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 less popular celebrations held in immigrant enclaves 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.