History Unlocked-December 2017, Christmas Traditions

Christmas Time Traditions

By: Karen Kendus, Concord Township Historical Society

The end of the year offers a multitude of family get-togethers and holidays to celebrate. For my family, we celebrate Christmas, and find every reason there is to get together. Just this week, the women of my husband’s family (now including me) have started to review schedules to find a day for our annual cookie baking tradition. My maternal extended family recently picked Pollyanna assignments so we could start shopping nice and early. Meal assignments for the Christmas and Christmas Eve feasts were handed out around Thanksgiving when we were all together, and plans for picking up our Christmas tree at local tree farms were all set. I am still fascinated by how deep holiday traditions go and all the unlikely sources from whence those traditions came.

Surprisingly, the term “Pollyanna” as it relates to gift giving is not well known. It seems to be a regional term used by those in Pennsylvania. One could find the term, occasionally, in newspapers between 1914 and 1947, but then it largely disappears. Some credit it to the “glad game” found in Eleanor Hodgman Porter’s 1913 book Pollyanna, though this appears to be a loose correlation. There are other names for this, including Secret Santa, with variations on the rules, and appear to be popular within church groups, large families, or office colleagues. It seemed to be a way to allow for everyone to receive a gift, usually with a capped value, and exchanged during the holiday season. For my family’s Pollyanna, we split the children and the adults. Each group had their own Pollyanna exchange and names were chosen before Black Friday. Usually, a wish list (with items within the cost limit) was to accompany the picking, and everyone was to keep their person secret until after Christmas dinner, when we handed out the presents. My first memory of this was smaller. There were only 7 cousins, and 10 adults. Now that my cousins and I are grown, (and some have children of their own), we have expanded to 19 cousins and still 10 adults. Indeed, the actual exchanging of gifts is perfectly chaotic.

circa 1870

Many Americans have a Christmas tree. My family has always had a Christmas tree. And every year was pretty much the same. We would find a tree, either at a lot or, (more recently), at a local tree farm, bring it home, cut it down (because it was always too tall), and set it up in the living room. There are still brown streaks on the ceiling where we stood the tree up when it was too tall. One can track where we had our tree in previous years based on those marks. My mother would sit with the container of ornaments and hand out one at a time to each of us. Decorating the tree took an entire evening, and by the end, no one could see the boughs anymore. My dad took care of the lights, and we each took turns being lifted up to place the star on top. Christmas trees were a German tradition, probably started by the German Lutherans. The earliest known record of a decorated Christmas tree is 1605 in Strasbourg, Germany. Old World Germans decorated their trees with stars, angels, toys, nuts, and candies. Later, they added tinsel and lighted candles. The first record of a Christmas tree in the United States, around 1820, was found in the diary of a Lancaster man. However, Christmas trees were quite prevalent in the United States by this time.

1810 Dutch rendering

Santa Claus has his own legends and started out differently than the man we know today. He was likely based on a monk, St. Nicholas, born around 280 A.D. in modern-day Turkey. He did not make it into American popular culture until the end of the 18th century with the Dutch settlers in New York. Santa Claus evolved from St. Nicholas’ shortened Dutch name, Sinter Klaas. Washington Irving is credited with growing St. Nicholas’ popularity by added him to his book, The History of New York in 1809 (though much of what St. Nicholas did in that book, and the traditions surrounding it, are believed to be made up by Irving). Irving did not portray him quite the same way as we know him now. That is credited to Clement Clarke Moore who wrote a poem about a visit from St. Nicholas for his daughters in 1822. He contributed to the jolly elf image, with a “portly figure” and supernatural ability to come down the chimney. A political cartoonist in 1881 used Moore’s poem to draw a likeness of the man Moore described, and this image is what we all think of when we think of Santa Claus.

Food is a tradition in every holiday and language I think. Even for those holidays that include fasting, also include a time for food. Around Christmas, both my family and my husband’s family have cookie baking traditions. I am relatively new to my husband’s family’s traditions, but am loving it all the same. Every year, the women of my mother-in-law’s family, (my mother-in-law, her sister, her niece, my sister-in-law, and the children as well) meet to bake sand tarts. I had never heard of sand tarts before meeting my husband, but I quickly fell in love. They are

Sand Tarts

thin, crispy sugar cookies that are sweet and light. It’s tricky to roll them out thin enough, and then get them on the pan without ripping them. We use cookie cutters to make them into all sorts of shapes, and they are decorated and baked for only a few minutes. Delicious. Sand tarts probably originated with the Pennsylvania Dutch. The origin of the name sand tart is believed to be from “sand hearts” or “saints’ hearts” since they were originally cut into heart shapes. It is a wonderful day of baking and bonding and I look forward to it every year.

My family also has a cookie tradition, but it is on the smaller side. My parents had us make cookies for Santa Claus while growing up, but that tradition died when our belief in Santa did. My grandmother still makes a plate of her cookies, both Christmas and otherwise, for every household. (Based on the numbers above, she went from making 4 plates of cookies to 11 plates of cookies). And she makes all kinds. My favorites are the snowball cookies, which she makes only around Christmas time. She has to hide her extras because my uncle will eat them all before Christmas! She includes her peanut butter and chocolate chip cookies, which we all love. She makes Santa’s whiskers, a cherry and coconut shortbread cookie, and pizzelles, She hands out her plates of cookies before Christmas, if possible. Otherwise, they are delivered by her on Christmas day, when we all meet at my parents’ house for dinner.

There are many holidays and traditions being celebrated this December. As you greet family and enjoy your own holiday traditions this month, question where they originated and how they started. You might learn something interesting about why a tradition started. I hope you and yours have a wonderful and safe New Year as well!



Igou, Brad. 2010. Pennsylvania German Christmas Traditions. Amish Country News. http://www.amishnews.com/featurearticles/germanchristmas.htm. Accessed: 11/1/2017.

MAYACO. 2017. Holiday Traditions: USA. World Holiday Traditions. http://www.worldholidaytraditions.com/countries/u-s-a.aspx. Accessed: 10/31/2017.

Quinion, Michael. 2005. Pollyanna. World Wide Words: Investigating the English language across the globe. http://www.worldwidewords.org/qa/qa-pol2.htm Accessed: 11/22/2017.

Unknown. 2017. Santa Claus. The History Channel. http://www.history.com/topics/christmas/santa-claus. Accessed: 11/1/2017.