The United States is a melting pot, where all the traditions and customs of several nations blend, and this facet is visible in its Christmas tradition too. The Christmas traditions and customs of America are mainly inspired by French, English, Polish, German, Mexican, Italian and Dutch, but some are uniquely American. Americans usually blend secular and religious customs and traditions with their own personal family customs, which often incorporates decorations, food, decorations, and rituals. These observances, customs, and traditions may have changed greatly over the years, but some are still followed. In this article, we’ll discuss the popular Christmas customs and traditions in America.
Christmas Traditions In America
Despite Christmas being a religious occasion, federal courts have declared it as a legal holiday, which means the federal employees are given paid holiday for Christmas. Most of the Americans, particularly the Christians visit the Church on the either on Christmas Eve or in the morning to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ.
Development of American Christmas:
Christmas in America was not always as jovial as it now. The early New England Puritans looked down upon elaborate Christmas celebrations. In fact, in 1659, the Massachusetts colonists even criminalized the observance of Christmas day, though briefly. Christmas was a regular workday in both Pennsylvania and New England. But the other parts of British North America celebrated the festival with utmost joy and enthusiasm. The costumed revelers would go door to door and give small gifts of food and drink.
The trend of modern and commercialized Christmas, which we see today began in the 19th century, with the custom of buying gifts and treats for the young ones. Hence, the seasonal Christmas shopping assumed economic importance. However, the tradition of gift exchange isn’t unique to America. It’s followed everywhere and goes back to the time when Magi brought gifts to baby Jesus. The gifts included gold, myrrh, frankincense, for the goodwill and security of baby Jesus.
Besides gift exchanging gift, the other tradition that began in the 19th century was of Santa Claus. Santa Claus, derived from German Saint Nicholas and Dutch Sinter Klaas was given the persona of a pilot of the reindeer sled and giver of gifts through the poem, “A Visit from Saint Nicholas”.
Even the tradition of a Christmas tree was inspired by the Germans, who put up their first Christmas tree in the 16th century. The Americans adopted this practice in the 19th century.
The cities and towns are lit beautifully to commemorate this festival. The most famous decoration is at the Rockefeller Center in New York City, where a huge and magnificent Christmas tree is placed. The Macy’s window decoration is also very popular.
The Christmas tree is put up and decorated in every part of the world, and the United States is no different. The family brings home natural or artificial evergreen tree and decorates it with tinsel, garland, baubles, lights or anything that suits their taste. In the olden times, Americans would use popcorn garlands to decorate their Christmas tree. Even today, we see some people decorating their trees with popcorn. Some families also hold a Christmas tree decorating party by gathering friends and family. They usually ask each guest to bring a unique ornament to decorate the tree and have fun with lights and music while trimming the tree. Legends say that Martin Luther, the Protestant reformer was the first one to add lighted candles to the Christmas tree to remind the kids of the wonderful creations of God. Some families even place Christmas gift boxes under the tree on the Christmas Eve to be discovered by the kids.
In Southwest America, luminaries or lanterns made with brown paper bags are displayed on the Christmas eve.
Christmas Celebrations In America:
Celebrations are the heart and soul of Christmas and Americans do not shy away from it. We see countless school holiday pageants and productions of “Nutcracker” ballet the entire month. Carolers are found everywhere, even on the streets. Some radio stations also adjust their format only to feature Holiday special music.
Mexican Americans often celebrate Las Posadas during Christmas, which is basically a procession reenacting Mary and Joseph’s search for Jesus’ place of birth in Bethlehem.
The Swedish Americans organize St. Lucia festivals, while the Puerto Ricans follow ‘parrandas’, where friends and families visit one house to another, singing traditional songs and waking them up with their music.
In the San Felipe Pueblo, around 35 miles south of Santa Fe, is held the most distinctive Christmas Eve dance. As soon as the priest delivers the Christmas Eve sermon and departs, the birdcalls burst from the loft, and a drum performance takes over. Dancers come over and move into the blazing light of the altar. These dancers are dressed in animal skins, masks, feathers, corals, shells and headdresses made with real antlers and perform eagle, turtle and buffalo dances. Women carry HAKAK tree sprigs, which they believe helped to create humankind.
The Moravian population of Pennsylvania welcomes the Christmas Fest with “Love Fest”. The fest basically includes musical services, in which the choir sings anthems and hymns. The congregation has to be served coffee and sweet buns within the time it takes to complete three hymns. Even beeswax candles are distributed to the group.
Sending And Receiving Christmas Cards:
Exchanging gift cards is another cute Christmas tradition followed in America and elsewhere in the world. It’s a wonderful way to let people know that you are thinking of them and want the best for them. No wonder over two billion Christmas cards are exchanged annually in America.
The phenomenon of sending and receiving Christmas cards began in 1822 in America, which led the Superintendent of Mails to say that would need an additional 16 mailmen to handle the delivery of the Christmas greeting cards.
But apart from buying readymade cards, people even make handmade cards and write the messages themselves for the personal touch.
Watching The Movie:
Watching a Christmas movie with family is no less than a tradition for Americans. It’s their way of relaxing, getting into a holiday mood and spending quality time with family. Some of the favorite Christmas movies include, “The Christmas Story”, “It’s a Wonderful Life”, “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas”, “Home Alone”, “Frosty the Snowman”, “Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and more. Apart from these classic Christmas movies, the entire family even flocks to the theater together to watch the newly released movies, as Christmas is the time Hollywood released blockbuster movies.
One tradition that is native and perhaps exclusive to America is the pickle. Some people find this custom a bit strange and have no idea why it exists at all. In early 1880s, the Woolworth store began selling glass ornaments in the shape of fruits and vegetables, with pickle being one of them. At around the same time, it was said that Christmas Pickle was an old Christmas tradition. The pickle ornament was the last ornament to be hung on the Christmas tree and the first child to find the pickle would get a present.
But this claim that pickle was a German tradition was false. The Germans had not even heard of any such tradition. While the rumors ceased, the tradition remained in America. Americans still follow the tradition of hanging the pickle on the tree and the child who finds it would be getting an extra present.
However, there’s another story linked to Christmas pickle, and this one is associated with St. Nicholas. A medieval tale states that two Spanish boys were traveling home for the holidays from their boarding school. They stopped at a hotel to spend the night, but the innkeeper was evil. He killed the boys and placed them in a pickle barrel. The same evening, St. Nicholas stopped at the inn, took out the kids from the barrel and brought them back to life. But another old legend states that the barrel St. Nicholas rescued the child from was a meat barrel, not pickle barrel.
Another story related to pickle features an American Civil War fighter born in Bavaria. He was kept a prisoner and was starving, when he begged a guard to give him the last pickle. The guard took pity on him and give him the pickle. The same pickle gave him the physical and mental strength to live on.
We can’t really vouch for these stories, and they are more likely invented by an ornament salesman to sell the spare pickle ornaments. But the fun fact is that the American City of Berrien Springs also holds an annual pickle festival during the early December.
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Christmas Foods Served In America:
Roast ham and turkey are the most popular main course items for Christmas dinner throughout the country, but some regions also serve “seven fish” seafood salad, roast pork, roast goose with red cabbage, crawfish jambalaya, etc.
In New England, lumberjack pie, made with mashed potato crust and filled with meat and veggies are a must for the Christmas feast, while Dutch of Pennsylvania serves their families and friends sand tarts. In the Southern states, Whiskey Cake and Grits Soufflé are often served while Empanadas are a staple of New Mexico.
Didn’t you enjoy learning about these Christmas tradition in America? We enjoyed it thoroughly! If you have any more inputs on Christmas traditions in America to share with us, let us know by commenting below.