Christmas season is undoubtedly the most joyous and tradition-filled time of the year in America. Families all throughout the country gather around their trees, sing carols and hang their stockings, hoping to find them filled with gifts on Christmas Day.
Neighborhoods brighten up with glowing lights, people seem merrier and even the cold winter nights feel cozier. There’s something about the holiday spirit that gives people hope and joy.
Just like anywhere else in the Christian world, we celebrate Christmas on December 24-25 in the USA. But celebrations start much earlier than that and customs go far beyond exchanging gifts and decorating the Christmas tree.
Beloved Christmas Traditions in America
America is a land of big cultural diversity. So not surprisingly, it also has a mix of customs and traditions from almost every region of the world. But despite the fact that nearly every Christmas custom we have in the USA has come from another country, America has some its own holiday traditions as well.
Having lived on two continents, our family has adopted both the American and the Romanian Christmas traditions alike. So here are some family Christmas traditions that make our holiday special.
Counting Down the Days Till Christmas (Advent Calendar)
The custom of counting the days until Christmas on an Advent calendar has started in Germany, back in the 19th century.
Although the name of the original inventor is still contested, Gerhard Lang seems the most likely contender. When he was a child, Gerhard’s creating mother stuffed twenty-four cookies into a square of cardboard to symbolize the days leading up to Christmas.
As an adult, Gerhard remembered his mom’s idea and started manufacturing his very own advent calendars.
Advent calendars are particularly liked by kids, who love counting down the days till Santa Claus will bring them gifts. Not surprisingly, the custom was totally embraced by Americans since the early 1900s.
The count-down tradition is usually celebrated with an inexpensive chocolate Advent calendar that you can buy in almost any store at Christmas time. For those with bigger budgets, there are all sorts of other clever creations. Like wooden Advent calendars with small drawers, or wooden sleighs that light up.
Each day throughout December the children open up one drawer to discover what’s hiding inside. This is a great gift for any child, in celebration of the exciting days leading up to Christmas.
Setting Up the Christmas Tree
The practice of decorating fir trees with candles and ornaments was brought to America by the German settlers, in the 18th and 19th century. At first, the Puritanical religious groups promptly rejected the custom because of its pagan connotations.
However, in 1840 when an English publication depicted Queen Victoria celebrating Christmas around a decorated ever-green tree, the wealthy Americans started replicating the lifestyle of the British upper class.
In the beginning, the ritual of setting up a Christmas tree was limited to immigrant communities and to wealthy people. One group decorated for tradition, the other for status.
Towards the end of the 19th century, the Christmas tree popularity began to grow in the United States. Christmas ornaments were arriving from Germany and other European countries. But as the custom of decorating fir trees spread throughout the country, many Americans started creating their own Christmas ornaments.
Today, having a Christmas tree in your home became one of the most beloved American tradition.
Christmas stocking is one of the characteristic symbols of Christmas. In homes all across America, people embrace the tradition of hanging their sock-shaped bag above the fireplaces, bedposts or doorknobs, on Christmas Eve. When Santa arrives that’s where he leaves the gifts, which are usually candy or small items that fit inside.
The tradition of the Christmas stocking originated in Europe back in the 4th century, and was inspired by the life of the Bishop Saint Nicolas of Myra.
According to the legend, Saint Nicholas heard about the predicament of a poor widower and his three daughters. He snuck into the house and saw the girls’ recently washed stockings drying by the fire. Wanting to help the poor family, he filled the stockings with gold coins before disappearing into the night.
In America, the custom of stuffing Christmas stockings started from a 19th century poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas.” The poem mentioned that “the stockings were hung by the chimney with care / In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there.”
As the poem was read every Christmas in homes across the country, the tradition of hanging stockings spread with it.
Americans love to Deck the Halls like no other nation. People on this continent are clearly passionate about the aesthetics of Christmas! Before moving to the USA, I have never seen so many whimsical decorations.
Come December, the city squares, streets, and buildings begin glowing with vibrant decorations. Lights hang from every storefront and lamppost, hotel lobbies display perfectly trimmed trees, and parks turn into temporary ice skating rinks.
Private homes compete for the glory of Christmas decorating as well, building displays that leave you speechless. And when it comes to Christmas lights, the more the merrier.
Entire neighborhood become a Winter Wonderland, with block after block having its own holiday theme. Passers-by line up to to admire the dazzling light display and fanciful figurines representing Santa Claus, Snowmen, and Nativity scenes.
Apparently, the home decorating tradition started in Germany, in the 17th century. However, this custom wasn’t as wide spread in Europe when we lived there, so I think this is more an American tradition.
Leaving Cookies for Santa Claus
Leaving out a plate of cookies and a glass of milk for Santa is a well-established custom among American families with small children. Some families even extend the giving to Santa’s flying reindeer, leaving out carrots or apples.
The tradition began in the 1930s during the Great Depression, when parents were trying to instill a sense of thankfulness in their children. In that time of great economic hardship, it was important to give to others and to show gratitude for the gifts you receive on Christmas.
Watching Christmas Movies
When it’s cold outside and the fire flickers inside, we like to make ourselves comfortable with a hot cup of apple cider and watch movies. Heading out (or staying in) to watch movies together on Christmas is one of the most popular family traditions in the United States. A recent survey revealed that 72% of Americans agreed that watching holiday movies brings them comfort. Some start the tradition even before Thanksgiving.
Holiday movies are popular not simply because they are “escapes.” They also give us a glimpse into the world as it should be. Classics such as “A Christmas Carol” (1938), “Miracle on 34th Street” (1947), or “The Holiday” (2006) offer hope in believing it all might turn out alright in the end.
Attending a Christmas Parade
Nothing gets Americans into the holiday spirit as much as the Christmas parades. They mark the official opening of the Christmas Season. There are floats and boats dripping with shimmering lights, marching bands, and photo ops with Santa Claus.
The tradition of Christmas parades began back in 1887. The first parade took place on the Illinois River to celebrate the completion of the Upper Free Bridge. So Santa made his first appearance on a river barge, long before he got his own sleigh and reindeer float.
Whether it’s the Grinch that stole Christmas at the Mayor’s Annual Parade in Baltimore, the Holiday Boat Parade in Honolulu, or the Hollywood Christmas Parade, America gets into a parade frenzy at this time of year.
One of America’s most famous parades in the USA is the Tournament of Roses in Pasadena, California. The event, which is also known as the Rose Parade, takes place every year on January 1st, in celebration of the New Year.
Opening Up a Gift on Christmas Eve
One of the best things about Christmas is giving and receiving gifts. Traditionally, people in America open their gifts on Christmas morning. However, some American families have the tradition of opening one present is on Christmas Eve, and the rest on Christmas Day.
The tradition is rooted in the European culture, where people open their presents on Christmas Eve, after attending mass. In Europe, Christmas Eve is a day with its own traditions and for many is just as important as Christmas Day.
The ritual of opening one gift on Christmas Eve was most likely invented to help kids cope with the excitement and impatience building up towards Christmas Day. Tearing off the wrapping paper of a single present surely helps release some of the suspense!
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Traditional Christmas Concerts
The custom of listening to Christmas music came to America together with the first settlers who wanted to keep their traditions alive.
Although in the beginning most of the songs they sang were from Europe, during the Great Depression era a new wave of American written songs appeared.
The popularity of Christmas music exploded in the 20th century, with the appearance of radio, television, and film. Today, we can’t even imagine Christmas without our traditional songs, be they old or new, religious or secular. All throughout December, amateur and professional choirs and orchestras give holiday concerts in venues all around the country.
Among of the most popular holiday traditions in America are the Tuba Christmas concerts. Bassoon and tuba players – young and old, amateurs and professionals – gather to perform an annual concert of holiday music. The free performances are usually held in malls or public squares all around in the country.
Another treasured musical event is the Messiah Sing-along concert takes place in many towns and cities across America. The most famous Messiah Sing-along is the one at the Wall Disney Hall. Attending this concert is one of the most fun things to do in Los Angeles in December. Over 2000 people gather here every year to sing Handel’s famous work.
Kissing Under the Mistletoe
The ritual of kissing beneath a bunch of mistletoe is an old Christmas tradition that has been known to Americans since the 19th-century. As part of the custom, men can steal a kiss from any woman standing under the mistletoe. Refusing the kiss will bring bad luck.
Back then, the only way to get mistletoe was by climbing up a tree, and cutting it off with an ax. Today however, you can walk right into any Trader Joe’s or garden supply shop and buy a nicely boxed swatch. Which is why you’ll see mistletoe hanging up in many houses at Christmas time. But the ritual of kissing under it is less practiced.
Watching the Nutcracker Ballet
Ever since 1944, when the San Francisco Ballet company performed Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker on Christmas Eve, the ballet became one of America’s most beloved holiday traditions. Over time, many other companies throughout the US started performing the ballet during the Christmas season.
Today, the Nutcracker is a ritual in many of US cities where snow doesn’t even fall, like Hawaii or Florida. The ballet is very popular because speaks to everyone. Particularly children, who love the story. Many of them get their first exposure both to ballet and to classical music through this work.
A Final Thought
For many people, Christmas is not Christmas without these customs and traditions. But why do we love our Holiday rituals so much? It’s most likely because they remind us of our loved ones, of our childhood, and of happy times.
Rituals and traditions mark some of the most important moments in our lives. They are the glue that holds the family together. And when we share them, they bring us close to one another.
We are wishing all our readers a blessed Christmas, complete with the excitement of giving and receiving presents. A Christmas inspired by its spiritual beauty. May the coming year bring this blessed land of ours a little closer to that day of eternal Christmas. The day when it will be peace on Earth!
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One tradition that we enjoy, is reading from the New Testament the account of the birth of Jesus Christ. It helps keep the celebration in focus.
Absolutely. Religious families in America do that, of course.
Very lovely post on Christmas traditions around the world. Watching Christmas decorations in the neighborhood and watching Christmas movies is our favourite hobby. But I would love to watch the Nutcracker ballet by Tchaikovsky’s.Also loved to know about the sweet milk and cookies treat for Santa Claus.
Pretty interesting to read about the various traditions followed. Was quite familiar with a few like the stockings and cookies. However, it was nice reading about a few of the others like the Advent calendar. I wish I had known earlier, would have bought one for my daughter who counts down to Xmas (more cos its her bday). Cheers
You can buy one for next Christmas, Ami.
I love Christmas and it’s nice to learn more about the different traditions. We actually just started having advent calendars and it is actually fun. It just made the countdown so much fun.
This was an interesting read. Though, we do celebrate Christmas in India, I didn’t know about many of these rituals such as the advent calendar or leaving cookies for Santa. It’s also good to know about the Nutcracker ballet, would love to watch that.
I am not surprised to hear that your Christmas traditions in India are different from the ones in the USA. Each country around the globe has its own.
We did all these but the Nutcracker. How I missed leaving a cookie and a glass of milk for Santa though. And of course my husband had to wake up early to make sure the cookie and milk were eaten by ‘Santa’. One Christmas Eve my son decided to leave a sandwich. Haha…
That’s funny! Your husband had an early breakfast that morning, I imagine.
Linda (LD Holland)
What an interesting look at the various Christmas traditions. I really never knew where many of them came from. We always love to head out and see the neighbourhoods all lit up with colour. I must say that I was told that my Santa wanted beer and not milk!!!! And I loved the idea of getting one gift on Christmas Eve.
All of those are my traditions, growing up in Canada with a German heritage, we have a even blend of holiday traditions. I wondered how the tradition of mistletoe got started, and will now never refuse a kiss!
Hahaha, better play it safe and kiss even a frog, than having ‘gad luck!’
Ineteresting read about the Christmas tradtions in the US. We have most of them in Germany too. But this was the first time I read about the Christmas parades. I would love to see one, also the life-sized nutcrackers look a bit scary….
What a lovely article focusing on the traditions of Christmas! Our family’s traditions make the holiday so much more meaningful for us, and we love to hear how others celebrate.
Indeed we do, Tami.