Christmas in America – Understanding American Christmas traditions and how to act properly at Christmas. “What does it mean?” The “Why?” we follow the Christmas traditions we do in America.
A simple guide for non-native speakers and visitors to the USA
In case you were wondering.
If you are a student, a recent immigrant to the USA, or simply visiting over the holidays, here is a quick guide to understanding Christmas in America, the culture and practices surrounding our unique holiday traditions.
Christmas, although originally a religious holiday celebrating the birth of Christ Jesus (The Nativity), has become a largely secularized tradition that anyone can feel free to participate in, and even celebrate.
Americans largely celebrate Christmas by:
Attending church with family
Christmas is one of two times a year that many non-attendees go to church service with friends or family, usually on Christmas Eve or even Christmas day itself depending on the religious practices of those you meet. These services are usually for non-church goers as well as regular worshipers, so you should not be worried about doing everything right or not understanding how to behave properly. You are welcome and a guest. Feel free to ask, before or after the service about the program, anything you did not understand, and any participation you may be expected to perform. You are not expected to give money to the church or service unless it is a special “offering” for the poor, then you may feel free to give but only if you choose to do so. Don’t expect everyone to sing out loud, although generally in church gatherings more people will sing than at a party or at the mall. If by yourself, locating and attending a church at Christmas is a beautiful way to understand the season and make some new friends or acquaintances. The people who regularly attend are usually going to be better people to meet if new to America, and often more helpful, than people you might meet at a club or at a party. They may assume you already are busy or have someplace to go and may not be conscious to invite you out or to their home. Christmas tends to be a very intimate holiday, and even many Americans feel somehow disconnected or sad at Christmas if their family is not close by, or they do not get together, choosing to celebrate with their own immediate family only or struggling with depression if alone.
Get together with family and friends
As mentioned, Christmas time is seen as the most intimate of holidays. even moreso than a birthday party. Therefore sometimes families are uncomfortable inviting strangers to Christmas assuming they already have plans or someplace to go. This should not be seen as a snub or offense but as an assumption. It happens to Americans as well. Every year. If interested in being invited to Christmas, one easy way to bring up the subject (especially if you are in America by yourself) is to ask other students, coworkers, friends what they are doing for Christmas. They will tell you and often follow-up by asking you what you have planned for Christmas. If you say that you have no plans because you are alone and your family is back in your home country, often enough someone will invite you to a meal, to get together, or at least be sympathetic to your plight. Sometimes they are not the one who has permission to invite others to a family gathering. Other times, they themselves are not looking forward to getting together with their family because they consider these family times to be stressful. If you are alone at Christmas, it is often good to ask about a good church in the area that has programs and try attending before Christmas Sunday to meet some new people, consider volunteering (see below), or try reading the Gospel stories to understand Christmas better. You might be surprised to find out that you are not the first one to be far from loved ones at Christmas, alone or feeling like a stranger. You might also seek out someone else who has no where to go and suggest a movie together or going to view lights. Watch a Christmas special or two. Call home and let them how much you realize you miss them and love them. Another idea would be to read the story of the origin of the candy cane, then go buy some, and hand them out asking people if they know the story. Everyone likes receiving a gift, even a candy cane, and this will allow you to practice your English, meet new friends, and learn about how other celebrate the holiday. You might even learn about Kwanzaa, Hanukkah, or even hear objections to the commercialization of Christmas!
(Also see Gathering for traditional Christmas dinner below)
There is currently in America a controversy over proper holiday/Christmas greetings, especially if you work in retail, at a business, or are in corporate communications. The issue is that a small number of people who are largely non-religious have very publicly objected to the use of “Merry Christmas!” as a greeting or well-wishing, preferring “Happy Holidays” (No one says “Season’s Greetings,” although you might see it in print or on a Christmas card) since it does not reflect a preference for any one religion. Since Christmas is a holiday based on the historical story of Jesus’s birth and claims of miraculous signs, angels, and wise men, it is interesting that this is an issue. However, if you wish to be politically correct (or cautious), you may say “Happy Holidays!,” however, understand that some people may be offended by the largely secular attempt to leave “Christ out of Christmas,” and may wish you a Merry Christmas in return. Usually responding in the same fashion as you are greeted is the best. The numbers who might be offended by either greeting is rather small.
A common misconception is the use of “Xmas” to remove “Christ from Christmas” (as an abbreviation for Christmas) rather than it simply shortening the term. Actually in Greek the “X” symbol stands for Christ” and was often written as “Xρ” or “Xt”; as was “Xian” or “Xtian” for Christian. Simply avoid use of “X-mas” as there is no reason to ever use it.
A “style guide” to the proper usage of greetings during the Winter Celebration, formerly known as Christmas: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/paul-raushenbush/happy-holiday-vs-merry-ch_b_4384874.html
The whole debate sounds like a #firstworldproblem to us. For more, please read http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2013/12/12/merry-christmas-or-happy-holidays/
Scenes that reenact the birth of Jesus in a manger (or feeding trough) along with Mary, Joseph, and the wise men (along with assorted animals) is one way people recall and remember the gospel story of the prophesied coming of Jesus to Bethlehem. Also called a “crèche” sometimes these are also enacted in “living nativities” by people who dress up and act out the various roles for the public. Often these are also found in houses, in various sizes, sometimes priceless and sometimes as toys for the children to use to play with. You should always ask before touching just like the train under most peoples’ trees. However, these are not “icons” or “idols” or represent any kind of spiritual power, even though they may be treasured by the owner of the house. One should show respect with nativity scenes, especially in picking up the baby Jesus, since the nativity is representative of something “holy,” even though it itself is not “holy.”
Sometimes singing Christmas carols when in groups, or at larger family gatherings.
Unlike karaoke in the East, Americans aren’t too fond of singing out loud in front of others, as they are easily embarrassed by their own performance. This can quickly change if too much alcohol is present. So if you attend an event and people are singing heartily, you are either in a close family gathering amidst people in close relationships or at an event where people may have had too much alcohol and the party should be close to wrapping up for the evening (ending). Malls don’t tend to do karaoke in the USA. Neither do night spots.
It is becoming more and more rare (and special) when a family or friends go door-to-door singing for the enjoyment of families inside their homes. Often these carolers were rewarded with hot chocolate to drink or candy and well wishes. If going door-to-door today, it is now more common to take neighbors a small gift at Christmas such as baked goods, fudge, or other sweets, rather than to sing.
Going to the mall
Even if you are not looking to buy anything, people will go to the mall to see the shops, the decorations and see Santa in order to get a photo. It seems as if shopping has become the tradition that overshadows every other holiday tradition or practice each year in America. Stores regularly announce larger and larger expectations of holiday sales and then generally speak afterwards about how Christmas sales did not meet their expectations. Going to the mall (or stores) may also cause you to wonder if indeed the spirit of Christmas is truly present in the hearts of people or simply trying to get finished buying things to meet others’ expectations. Trying to get a parking place can also sometimes be a challenge as well as dealing with frazzled, sometimes rude people who would be better off staying home and thinking about the meaning of Christmas. Malls tend to get crazier and crazier the closer to Christmas you get. Often extra jobs are available at Christmas time, called “seasonal work” because it is temporary work to help stores when they are at their busiest time. Understand that these workers are often not as well trained, may not have answers to your questions and may not be trying to really serve their employer but simply make extra cash for a month or two.
If you are legally allowed to work in the USA, it might be a good time to look for employment opportunities as many places will be hiring. If you impress a boss with hard work, he/she may consider keeping you after things return to normal, especially if other regular employees prove unreliable, or quit after the holidays.
White Elephant/ Secret Santa exchange of gifts
Company Christmas parties and sometimes friends will have a fun “gift exchange” bringing one gift or present, rather than each person being expected to purchase a gift for each friend or coworker, which can quickly become overwhelming. Usually, this “white elephant” gift will be either something someone already owns and doesn’t want, to something funny, or something under a certain amount of money ($15.00 for example). The object of a white elephant exchange is to be creative, unique, and a good time, rather than the gifts themselves. Gifts cards are the lamest item you can bring to a gift exchange and show that you put no effort at all into your co-workers or friends, and that you are a dull person. Usually the host will announce any rules for gifts and at the party, the rules for the exchange itself. If a family or couple is attending sometimes each person in attendance will bring a “gift” if they’d like to play/be a part of the white elephant exchange. Care should be taken to understand who is coming to the party and whether “baser” or “crude” humorous gifts are allowed to avoid embarassment. These types of gifts are not directed at any one individual, and you should not take offense if you pick such a gift. The object is to make the group laugh, not to embarass or humiliate anyone in attendance although some good-natured teasing make occur. A “secret Santa” gift exchange present should be a thoughtful item based on the person you are buying the gift for. Sometimes you will need to ask a friend of theirs what they like to learn more about them before choosing a present.
“Ugly Sweater” parties
This is another fun American tradition usually at a party where each person attempts to locate and wear the most hideous Christmas sweater they can find or borrow from an old aunt or ? (There may be rules against purchasing a sweater -unless at a goodwill/used clothing store. There certainly should be.) I am not sure where all these sweaters come from each year but must believe there is a market being created for hideous looking sweaters to supply this new demand for Christmas-themed, crocheted sweaters. Usually the company in attendance will determine who wins and award a prize.
Leaving cookies and milk for Santa | writing Santa
Baking is a tradition long associated with Christmas. Whether fruit cake or cookies, fudge or stollen, some small amount should always be left for “Santa” by the children on Christmas Eve itself, near the tree or stockings. This is a last-minute bribe of Santa by all kids, but especially those who have not been “nice” all year long. Usually consumed by mom or dad after wrapping or putting together any presents that require assembly.
Christmas cards and Christmas newsletters
For the longest time, the sending of a greeting card at Christmas was a way of saying “I wish you were here,” and to let others know you were thinking of them. Although many of the cards represent religious themes or may include a religious message, they are not inherently religious and you should feel free to give, or receive one. This, as well as the mailing of presents and packages, causes Christmas to be one of the busiest times of the year for mail. This tradition is changing however, as many families use their home printer to instead send out a Christmas newsletter updating friends and family on family news and accomplishments over the past year. It is also being eroded by Skype and social media so that a Christmas card itself is not as important. Sometimes not receiving a Christmas card is seen as a snub by some or if a card is not received in return, the recipient may find themselves removed from the list the following year. If you chose to mail a card or letter, the personal greeting you write is the most important part, showing your love and attention to this special recipient. As families become busier and busier at Christmas each year, this guilt over not having time to personally write or even address each envelope is another reason some people are beginning to abandon this tradition. Or send out e-Cards instead to save money like this parody.
Decorating the Christmas tree and home
The holiday tradition usually includes going to pick out a cut pine tree (there are several varieties and families usually have a favorite type of pine, fir, etc. as well as price and size, both height and diameter), and decorating it usually using decorations and ornaments that either each have some special meaning or follow an overall theme. Sometimes the tree will have a train circling the tree’s base and even sometimes a small village with lights that reflect a miniature town with snow, trees, lake, etc. Sometimes the trees are also decorated with candy (Such as candy canes – See another story of the Candy cane here) and popcorn on a string.
Giving gifts to one another is a special tradition at Christmas that is wonderful and precious, but has also become complicated by many levels of expectation, cost, obligation, and even desperation causing fights for the most popular toys that often sell out and disappointed children. The traditional “rule” is that children should never be disappointed regardless of their selfishness and expectation. “Good” children should keep expectations realistic, talk to their parents beforehand, and accept what they are given with graciousness and a thankful heart. However, this tradition especially is the subject of many jokes each year and the theme of many Christmas shows and stories. Christmas being an opportunity for parents to talk with their children about wants and true “needs,” about gratefulness, selfishness and many similar themes. In America especially, Christmas costs families quite a lot of money with larger and larger gifts to meet larger and larger expectations. Often these gifts are bought on credit leaving families indebted through part of the next year. (We will be covering more about gift-giving, and expectations among friends, visitors and hosts, and others such as co-workers in another post.)
Gathering for traditional Christmas dinner with the family (or friends)
Being invited to a family dinner is a great honor. Families tend to value Christmas and Thanksgiving as time for reflection, eating, football games and generally being close/celebrating the bonds of family. Families will generally try to travel to be together during these times and food generally should be prepared personally, rather than purchased from a restaurant or deli. Often, different members of the family will each bring one part of the meal, such as the bread, or dessert or the drinks. If you intend to bring something, ask ahead how many people may be in attendance. Often, as a guest, you will not be allowed to bring anything and be expected to enjoy the hospitality of the family itself. You should always offer however because each family tradition is different and some families will tell you something you can bring in order that you do not feel indebted or embarrassed by their hospitality and feel as if you must reciprocate sometime. It is their way of reaching out to you and trying to make you feel as if you are a part of the family.
Christmas morning with family (or friends)
Often you will be invited to celebrate Christmas by coming over at lunch or early dinner, as mornings can be hectic, kids get up extra early to open presents, mom and dad probably went to bed very late and are in bathrobes or “sweats” and not ready for company. Families may also feel a little embarrassed by the amount of toys their kids receive or expense. Small presents for children are received with gratefulness when brought but should not be bought for much money or else the family may feel guilty or under obligation to reciprocate, unless you know the family well. If you are invited to a Christmas morning, ask about who opens what when. Sometimes one child (or a parent) volunteers to play “Santa” and pass out presents. Sometimes one present is opened by turn or all may be opened at exactly the same time based on family tradition. Some presents may wait for Grandparents to arrive later in the day. If you receive a present it is usually expected that you will open it/unwrap it while present and thank those who gave it to you similar to other members of the family.
Whether going to Disneyland or to Florida, some families use their Christmas vacation to indeed plan and go on vacation. Sometimes this is done to escape the cold and snow, and for others to experience a “White Christmas” in the snow. Families that go on vacation over the Christmas holiday will often skip many of the other traditions surrounding Christmas. They may not decorate (since they won’t be home to enjoy it), or buy a tree or have a Christmas meal planned (since they will be out of town).
Drive or walk around and see Christmas lights and decorations on the houses
You may be invited to go see “lights” at Christmas time. either driving to different neighborhoods or walking certain streets. As life gets busier fewer houses decorate so it is no longer unusual to see every other house decorated with lights rather than every house as was common 30-40 years ago. Christmas lights are seen as a way to bring cheer and make the season “feel” special. Sometimes elaborate decorations can be a way for families to compete/challenge one another in a friendly, good-humored way for status/bragging rights in the neighborhood.
Watching or reading various holiday/Christmas classics:
It’s very common for families to read or watch various Christmas classics sometime between Thanksgiving night and Christmas eve. These include the books “The Grinch that Stole Christmas,” “The Christmas Carol,” “Twas the Night Before Christmas,” “The Polar Express,” “The Velveteen Rabbit,” and “Yes Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.”
As well as the movies/TV shows: “It’s Christmas Charlie Brown,” “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “Miracle on 34th Street,” “The Christmas Story (with Peter Billingsley),” the stop-motion classics (by Bass and Rankin) “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town,” “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” and “Frosty the Snowman.”
Of course there are many other older classics that are now icons such as “The Bells of St. Mary’s,” “Meet Me in St. Louis,” “White Christmas,” and some movies that are trying to reach that status like “Home Alone” and “Home Alone 2,” and “The Polar Express.”
Volunteering at a local soup kitchen or shelter
Often at Christmas, families and individuals will volunteer time to serve the needy or serve the homeless or poor around town even on Christmas Eve or Christmas day itself. This is seen as a way to help children understand the needs of the less fortunate and help them become more compassionate, caring individuals.
Visiting others at the hospital
There are many opportunities to visit and even read to others at the hospital over the holidays. You can call or visit ahead of time and ask about volunteering during the holidays so that no one needs to be alone. It is a great way to not only encourage others but meet other great people who are also volunteering! And make sure you yourself have health insurance that covers you in the USA – Either as a student (J1 visa or F1 visa) or as an immigrant or visitor. Because we don’t want you to have an accident or get sick and end up in the hospital yourself and needing someone to come visit you! You are smarter than that!
Going to the movies the day after Christmas?
Hollywood usually opens blockbuster films during this time of year with hopes that Americans will be in the mood to go to the movies. As you plan your holiday schedule, keep movie watching and popcorn in mind. Others might consider attending with you if you invite them and going to a theater is a low-risk invitation easy to accept if interested.
Returning presents the day after Christmas
I urgently request you avoid this holiday season tradition, skip going to the store or mall the day after Christmas, since it is crowded, often full of people looking for deals, long lines, and harried store employees. Stores see this day as a last opportunity to get people to buy stuff or spend gift cards and so offer deals as inducements to get people to shop.