Culture, Shopping & Recreation
Festivals and Traditions in the US
While most public holidays in the US have a political or historical background, other festivals are rooted in religious beliefs or in the traditions that the many different ethnic groups in the US brought along to the new world with them. More often than not, food plays a central role. Family meals with dishes following traditional recipes, many of which have been handed down from generation to generation, are often at the heart of the celebrations.
Christmas Eve/Day (December 24th and 25th)
Although this Christian festival is, of course, celebrated in many countries around the globe, Americans did come up with a number of original holiday traditions. On Christmas Eve, many American families like hanging stockings over the fireplace, often with their names on them. Homes are decorated with mistletoes, holly, a Christmas tree, and other seasonal decorations. Outdoor decorations – such as fairy lights or Santa Claus figures – have become very popular as well.
Children often leave milk and cookies by the fireplace for Santa Claus, who will slide down the chimney at midnight and bring gifts for everybody. The main celebration takes place on Christmas day, often with a big family dinner.
As we have pointed out elsewhere in this expat guide, 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; others include Hanukkah and Kwanzaa, for example.
However, although public institutions, people working in retail, and some employers usually try to keep the festive season nondenominational and all-inclusive (e.g. wishing people “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas”), Christmas does have an inescapable quality to it. Walking through your neighborhood or your local mall or browsing the online retailers for gifts, you will soon notice that Christmas is the main focus of the season.
Valentine’s Day (February 14th)
While Valentine’s Day is historically not an American holiday, the contemporary version popularized around the world draws heavily from the American tradition. On this day, couples proclaim their love to each other, giving each other roses, candy, or other gifts, some of which can be rather upscale.
Sending one another Valentine’s greetings is also a common practice on this day. Please do not mistake them for signals of romantic interest. Most of the time, they are just friendly reminders that someone holds you dear and is thinking of you.
As the holiday has been heavily commercialized for decades, it is not without its detractors. Not everyone is willing to extend or receive Valentine’s greetings. It might be a good idea to just wait until your first Valentine’s Day in the US and see how the people around you celebrate, rather than rushing head first into (possibly unwanted or frowned upon) displays of affection.
Independence Day (4th of July)
Independence Day is the national holiday of the United States, and possibly the main holiday of the year for most of the population. The former fact becomes very obvious in the face of the sea of red, white, and blue you will find yourself in on July 4th.
Americans often celebrate this day with their families and friends, enjoying the many Independence Day parades and outdoor celebrations. The weather permitting, barbecues are the main attraction of the day, closely followed in terms of popularity by fireworks, which are traditionally displayed in the evening. Despite being the national holiday, Independence Day is less formal than other holidays.
Halloween (October 31st)
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. Once, 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 in dressing up in scary - or at least creative - costumes and attending parties. Carved pumpkins, so-called jack-o-lanterns, are an omnipresent sight on Halloween, adorning doorsteps, window sills, and virtually any other location around the house. Children go out to “trick-or-treat”, which means going from door to door collecting candy. Whoever refuses to give any is in for some pranks.
Thanksgiving (fourth Thursday in November)
Thanksgiving 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. This holiday also marks the end of the harvest season, which used to be very important in the formerly agrarian society of the US.
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. Traditionally, turkey, cranberry sauce, sweet potatoes, and other foods of the season are served for a huge dinner. 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.
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