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Holiday Wishbook 2018: American Holiday Traditions – Where do they come from?

By: Ellen Lampe


• Breaking the wishbone

The wishbone is a forked bone located between the neck and breast of a bird. Have you ever wondered why breaking this odd bone is such a classic Thanksgiving tradition?

The origins date back to the Ancient Romans, who saw the wishbone as a symbol of luck. They believed birds were oracles who could predict the future, and that saving the wishbone allowed people access to the chicken’s powers even after its death.

A chicken wishbone would be snapped apart by two people while they were each making a wish. The person holding the longer piece was said to have their wish granted.

The Romans brought the tradition to the English, who referred to it as “merrythought.” The tradition eventually made its way overseas to America, where, instead of chickens, Pilgrims broke the wishbones of plentiful wild turkeys.

Americans were the ones to coin to the term “wishbone” in the 1800s, around the time President Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday.

• Pumpkin everything

Pumpkins are native to North America, which explains the pumpkin craze here. However, pumpkins were not always such a beloved commodity.

Pumpkins were plentiful in colonial America, yet they were viewed as a last-resort food option. Settlers from Europe were unfamiliar with pumpkins and found them unappetizing. As time went on, however, people began experimenting with this abundant fruit and it began to grow on people.

A seasonal fruit, pumpkins became synonymous with autumn, as well as a  nostalgic symbol of America’s beginnings. Now, with endless pumpkin-spice flavors and scents, pumpkin décor and annual pumpkin patch outings, pumpkins have made one of the greatest comebacks of all time.

• Black Friday

Likely, you either love it or you hate it, but it’s undeniable that Black Friday has become nothing short of an American phenomenon.

While there are several tales behind the day, the commonly told history behind Black Friday has to do with accounting. Businesses operating at a loss are in the “red;” while businesses earning a profit are in the “black.” With the day after Thanksgiving being a popular time for holiday shopping, the heavy sales would put businesses from in the red to back in the black.

Unsurprisingly, businesses saw immense value in this day and began opening their doors earlier and earlier and hosting blowout sales.

The one-day bonanza now has turned into a four-day event, including Small Business Saturday and Sunday and Cyber Monday.

• Christmas lights

Winter Wonderland in Tilles Park

Did you know the first electric Christmas lights appeared in America?

In the late 1800s, Edward H. Johnson –  Thomas Edison’s friend and business partner in Edison’s Illumination Company – had the idea to use string lights to decorate his Christmas tree. Up until then, real candles were used to illuminate trees, posing a major fire hazard. Johnson’s high-tech glowing tree mesmerized those who passed by his New York City residence.

Years later, in 1895, President Grover Cleveland introduced the first electrically lit Christmas tree into the White House. However, this new-fangled trend was still reserved for wealthier folks, as string lights were hard to come by and considered highly advanced.

In 1903, the first pre-assembled kits of Christmas lights hit the market and the rest was history.

So, when you’re out looking at homes’ holiday lights this season or decorating your own house and tree, you can thank Thomas Edison and Edward H. Johnson for the novel idea!

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