Where Are the Uniquely American Christmas Traditions?

Christmas traditions are wonderful… but the thing about being a relatively young country is that we don’t have many of our own.

Christmas is two thousand years old, but America is only one-tenth that. No wonder we don’t have many of our own unique Christmas traditions.

Where are the uniquely American Christmas traditions? The British can take credit for everything from chestnuts roasting on an open fire to Father Christmas and to Boxing Day. Even the Spanish have caganers and the Pooping Log. Germans gave the world Christmas trees. What about us?

Our Roots Are Showing

Christmas lights aren’t quite as old a tradition as Christmas trees, but they go back to 16th century Germany. Apparently, they were an innovation of none other than Martin Luther, the founder of Protestantism. Christmas cards? Very American now, yes, but first widely distributed in England.

In fact, historians have traced greeting cards as far back as the 1400s in Europe. The oldest known is a Valentine’s Day card.

But Wait… There’s More

Like most traditional Christmas activities, Christmas carols are also European (mostly German and British) along with wassailing. Mistletoe, and decking the halls with boughs of holly? European again. Christmas presents? Probably a holdover from the ancient Roman holiday of Saturnalia (December 17).

Well, jeez. What do we Americans have to offer, besides the insane department store Christmas sale?

Well, Let’s See…

We’re not completely bereft of Christmas holiday traditions. For example, many of us eat a nice, fat turkey not just for Thanksgiving, but also for Christmas dinner. Turkeys are native to the New World, so we must have contributed them to the worldwide Christmas tradition.

And then there’s the Yule Log video. It may seem a little silly, but this adaptation of the ancient Yule Log tradition (a pagan custom subsumed by Christmas by A.D. 1000) originated in New York City in 1966.

The president of WPIX TV station convinced the mayor to allow him to film a brief clip of a burning fireplace in Gracie Mansion. The original clip was 17 seconds long, cost $4,000 to film, and incurred additional costs when a spark damaged a $4,000 antique rug because the producers removed the fire grate.

A Popular Classic

WPIX engineers looped the original Yule Log video clip to create a commercial-free 2-3 hour broadcast accented by music ranging from classical to Nat King Cole and the Boston Pops. In 1970, WPIX filmed a second video clip six minutes and three seconds long to replace the old one, which was wearing out.

That’s the one New Englanders still enjoy today…and now you can get it on DVD if you want to enjoy this most American of Christmas traditions in your own home, at any time of the year.