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5 Popular Holiday Traditions and Where They Come From

The holidays wouldn’t be what they are without our favorite traditions: decking the halls, exchanging gifts, baking cookies, hosting holiday-movie marathons … the list goes on. But have you ever paused to wonder why we observe these age-old traditions every year? Let’s explore some popular holiday festivities in the U.S. and where they originated.

Decorating the tree.

Evergreen trees have been a part of winter traditions since long before the advent of Christianity. But it was 16th-century Germans that introduced the custom of putting up a tree in the home for Christmas, which they decorated with nuts, apples, and gingerbread. German settlers later brought the tradition to America, but it didn’t become widely accepted until 1846, when the fashionable Queen Victoria and her family appeared in a sketch in the Illustrated London News. They were shown standing around their decorated Christmas tree, and the trend soon caught on around the world as a classic Christmas pastime.

Playing dreidel.

The iconic Hanukkah game of dreidel actually has nothing to do with Hanukkah, at least not originally. In fact, the spinning top game has been played for centuries by various peoples and cultures. In medieval England, Ireland, and Germany, a similar game called totum or teetotum was played at Christmastime, and the modern-day dreidel game is likely the equivalent of the German version. Although Jewish historians have several theories explaining the game’s connection with the Hanukkah story, it’s still unclear how it became associated with the holiday. Like many traditions, dreidel is likely another example of a secular activity being integrated into a religious custom.


As Buddy the Elf says, “The best way to spread Christmas cheer is singing loud for all to hear.” And we agree. But why do some people go gallivanting from door to door in joyful chorus at Christmastime? The history of caroling comes from a 13th-century English custom called wassailing, in which people went house to house to wish others good health during the winter. The term wassailing is derived from the Old Norse word “ves heill,” which means to “be well and in good health.” Wassailing eventually merged with the Christian custom of singing songs during Christmas services, which evolved into what we know today as caroling.

Eating potato pancakes and jelly donuts.

Getting a free pass to fill up on delicious (albeit, questionably nutritious) foods is one of the highlights of the holidays. During Hanukkah, that includes eating sufganiyot (jelly donuts), latkes (potato pancakes), and other fried foods. Why oily foods? The tradition stems from the Hanukkah story, commemorating the miracle of the oil that burned for eight nights straight. But why potatoes and donuts, specifically? It turns out, potato latkes have only been around for about 400 years; the original latkes were made of cheese in honor of the heroine Yehudis, who saved Israel with some cheese and wine (and a sword). And according to the writings of a 12th-century rabbi, eating fried donuts is an ancient custom that has long been observed, though the jelly filling wasn’t added until the 16th century by Polish Jews.

Exchanging gifts.

Whether you’re celebrating Kwanzaa, Hanukkah, or Christmas, exchanging gifts is likely a part of your celebrations. So, what are the origins behind each practice? In the Kwanzaa tradition, homemade gifts are exchanged to celebrate creativity and individuality, though the spirit of the holiday is more about togetherness and heritage than gift-giving. At Hanukkah, the traditional custom is to hand out gelt (chocolate coins) to children. But today, it’s common to see toys, clothing, and other gifts given during the holiday, which is likely borrowed from the Christmas tradition. Speaking of Christmas, gift-giving is often attributed to the three wise men who brought gifts to the baby Jesus. But it didn’t become a popular Christmas festivity until the 18th century, when the social elite began giving gifts to children in an effort to deter begging and associate Christmas with more wholesome, family-centered values.

Sources: Reader’s Digest,, My Jewish Learning, Arcadia Publishing,, EDSITEment, The Atlantic


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