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Living in the US

Festivals and Traditions in the US

There’s a good chance you might know many holidays celebrated in the US from your home country. However, even the most widely-known holidays like Christmas have their own uniquely American traditions. Below, we take a closer look at a select number of them.

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Some public holidays in the US have a political or historical background, while others are rooted in religious beliefs or in the traditions of the many different ethnic groups of the US. More often than not, food plays a central role in the celebrations. It is common for groups of family and friends to gather together and celebrate by eating dishes that follow traditional recipes, many of which have been handed down from generation to generation.

The Most Popular US Holidays

The following holidays are the most popular and highly celebrated festivities in the US.

Independence Day (otherwise known as “4th of July”)

Independence Day is the national holiday of the United States, and possibly one of the most important holidays of the year. The celebration commemorates the fact that back in 1776, the members of the Second Continental Congress declared their independence from the British Crown. Nowadays, this day is a celebration of all-things-American, from hot dogs and country music to exercising the freedom to choose and express yourself.

Americans often celebrate this day with their families and friends, enjoying the multiple Independence Day parades and outdoor celebrations, since it occurs during the summer time. If the weather permits, people set up picnics and barbecues in parks and their backyards and watch fireworks in the evening. American flags and red, white, and blue decorations such as banners and streamers appear everywhere, and most shops offer traditional American and flag-colored goods.

Halloween (31 October)

Although Halloween is not a federal holiday, it is very popular throughout the entire country. It was brought to the US by Irish immigrants, who used to celebrate the evening before the Catholic festival of All Saints’ Day. It was all about remembering the souls that had not made it up to heaven and keeping the transience of earthly existence in mind. It was probably this memento mori aspect that introduced the widespread use of skulls as the representative symbol, which was ultimately extended to include other symbols of death and decay.

Today, the main focus is on dressing up in scary or creative costumes and attending parties. Carved pumpkins, so-called jack-o-lanterns, are everywhere on Halloween, adorning doorsteps and window sills, front lawns, and porches which are also decorated with gravestones, spiders, zombies, and skeletons. The preparations for the celebration are taken very seriously, with people dedicating a lot of time and effort to come up with costumes ideas. The same goes for elaborate decorations in and outside the house.

A decorated porch indicates to the trick-or-treaters that they are welcomed to ring your doorbell and demand candy. Trick-or-treaters are kids dressed up in costumes, usually accompanied by their parents, that go from door to door and ask for treats by saying “trick-or-treat”. It is common to prepare a bowl of candy and hand them out throughout the evening or leave it at the porch for the kids to pick up a handful themselves.

During the time before Halloween, you will notice that many shops decorate their interiors as well and offer many Halloween-themed goods. And while the holiday, which commemorates the eve of the All Hallows’ Day, is very big in the US, All Hallows’ Day itself is not celebrated in the country.

Thanksgiving (fourth Thursday in November)

Thanksgiving is a celebration that originates from a tradition to give thanks for a good harvest. It is said to have its origins in 1621 when the first colonists in New England and Native Americans came together to enjoy a large feast at the end of the first harvest. Although historians doubt the accuracy of this story, it is the official version most Americans accept as fact.

Nowadays, Thanksgiving is usually celebrated with the extended family and, occasionally, also with very close friends. Even family members who live far away from their relatives come home for this holiday to spend time with their loved ones. In some cases, since Thanksgiving and Christmas are so close to each other, many family members choose to go home for Christmas only, and organize a Thanksgiving celebration in their city of residence among friends, calling it “Friendsgiving”.

A traditional Thanksgiving dinner includes a roast turkey, cranberry sauce, sweet potatoes, and other foods of the season that are served for a huge dinner. At the start of the dinner, people take time to share with everyone what they are grateful for that year. When the turkey is carved, people take out the wishbone and break it to see whose wish will be granted. They do it by pulling on each side of the bone: whoever gets the bigger part wins.

The day leading up to the dinner is often spent cooking and watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade or a football game on TV. Another televised story is the turkey pardon: The President of the United States grants life to a live turkey that has been gifted to them, allowing it to continue living on the farm until the end of its days.

Christmas Eve/Day (24/25 December)

Although this Christian festival is celebrated in many countries around the globe, Americans came up with a number of original holiday traditions. In recent years, Christmas decorations now go up almost immediately after Thanksgiving. Houses are decorated with mistletoes, fairy lights, a Christmas tree, and other seasonal indoor and outdoor decorations. Many people use this time to shop for gifts and take it as an opportunity to do charitable work.

The more religious people often attend the Midnight Mass held on Christmas Eve. While there’s still a tradition to hang stockings (often with your name on it) for Saint Nicolas to fill it up with presents, most children expect Santa Claus to slide down the chimney at night and leave presents under the Christmas tree. In anticipation, kids often leave milk and cookies out for Santa as well as carrots for his reindeers.

On Christmas morning everyone unwraps their gifts. People spend the day with their family and friends watching holiday classics (movies like It’s a Wonderful Life or A Charlie Brown Christmas) or basketball on TV or taking a stroll around the neighborhood admiring the Christmas lights. The main celebration takes place with a big dinner. The star dish of the dinner depends on the state, but, in most cases, it’s roast turkey or ham.

As the US is home to a highly diverse populace, Christmas is only one of a number of festivals taking place towards the end of the year. Hanukkah and Kwanzaa are celebrated around this time of the year as well, therefore this period is usually referred to as “the holiday season”.

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Other Memorable Public Holidays

Martin Luther King Day (third Monday in January)

The holiday marks the birthday of Martin Luther King (15 January), a prominent activist of the American civil rights movement. Cities and communities hold parades and marches remembering King and the values he stood for.

Presidents’ Day/Washington’s Birthday (third Monday in February)

This celebration is dedicated to one or a few of American presidents. In some states, it marks the birthday of George Washington (22 February) or Abraham Lincoln (12 February), in others, they remember both or another combination of past American leaders. And while it is a very much political holiday, many Americans celebrate their long weekend by going shopping as it is common for shops to organize big Presidents’ Day sales and promotions.

Memorial Day (last Monday in May)

Also known as Decoration Day, Memorial Day remembers the people who died while serving the country. On this day various communities hold patriotic events all over the country and people attend military cemeteries where volunteers decorate the gravestones with American flags. A big concert takes place on the lawn of the capitol in Washington D.C. and is live-streamed on TV. Memorial Day weekend is considered to be the start of summer vacation in the US so, for many, this is a cheerful celebration of American armed forces.

Labor Day (first Monday in September)

The day celebrates the labor movement and workers that bring prosperity and growth to the US. Many sporting events happen around the Labor Day, like NASCAR auto race and the kick-off National Football League season, so it’s common for people to spend the day preparing and then watching them on TV. Shopping is another popular activity because many shops organize big sales and promotions on the Labor Day weekend. As it is widely accepted that the day marks the end of summer holidays, many choose to spend some of their time outside picnicking or having a barbecue.

Veterans’ Day (11 November)

Often confused with Memorial Day, Veterans Day was first established as a holiday to remember the veterans of World War I. However, in the 50’s it was changed to commemorate the service of all the veterans that served for the US armed forces.

The celebrations are more solemn and serious than on the Memorial Day. A two-minute-long moment of silence is held all over the country at 11:00. Veterans are honored in patriotic events and by the whole community in general e.g.: they get offered free meals in restaurants and cafeterias.

If 11 November falls on a Saturday, many workers get the preceding Friday (10 November) off. If it happens to be on a Sunday, the proceeding Monday (12 November) is celebrated.

Updated on: February 12, 2019
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