The Immigrant Origins of Christmas

Paola Flores-Marquez

Many of the traditions that we typically associate with Christmas have their origins in other countries. Immigrants, eager to celebrate a familiar and important holiday in their new home, shared their customs with neighbors who adopted them and added their own. Immigrant integration is the process of creating something new from the traditions and cultural practices of both newcomers and the receiving community. Many holiday traditions that we now consider standard fixtures of an All-American Christmas are the result of this process.  Here are a few examples of beloved Christmas traditions integration has given us.


Christmas card

The first Christmas cards were created in England, but they did not become popular until 1875 when Louis Prang—a Prussian immigrant to the United States—dropped the holiday image in favor of a simple “Merry Christmas.”


Christmas tree

Tallinn, Estonia, and Riga, Latvia, both claim responsibility for the first Christmas tree, but it was 16th century German Christians who brought the tree inside their homes. The practice was popularized by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert.



A Mexican legend tells the story of a young girl who wanted to bring baby Jesus a gift during Christmas Mass, but could not afford one. She did her best with some weeds she found growing by her home. When she laid them at the church altar, she found they had transformed into the beautiful red flowers.



English immigrants brought eggnog to the United States in the 1700s. They replaced the brandy or sherry typically added by British aristocrats with rum.


Cookies for Santa

The practice of leaving cookies for Santa began in medieval Germany, where children hoped the Norse god Odin would bring them gifts. U.S. parents during the Great Depression used the practice to teach their kids to show gratitude even in the midst of struggles.



We can thank ancient druids for mistletoe’s association with Christmas. The plant’s ability to grow in cold climates made it a symbol of vitality. The British descendants of those druids declared it was bad luck to refuse a kiss under mistletoe in the 18th century.


Candy canes

Candy canes can be traced to 17th century Germany, where a popular legend says a choir master gave the shepherds crook-shaped candy to children to keep them quiet during Christmas Eve church services.


Wrapping gifts

Wrapping gifts to disguise a gift originated in Asia. The oldest pieces of wrapping paper found have been traced to Ancient China during the 2nd Century B.C. Edo Japan used cloth, while 1st century Koreans used silk.



The tradition of hanging Christmas stockings comes from Scandinavia, dating back to a time when children believed the Norse god Odin would leave candy in the socks of children he deemed kind.



Ancient Greeks and Egyptians used gingerbread for ceremonial purposes and it made its way to Europe in the bags of 11th century crusaders. The brothers Grimm popularized the gingerbread house with Hansel and Gretel and Pennsylvanian German immigrants brought the tradition to the U.S.


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