Celebrating the Holidays in America: Things to Know

You might see this set up in your neighbour’s yard. Giddy up! (WiseGeek)

Christmas and the surrounding celebrations come with their own set of rules in the U.S. So if you want to party like a local this December, read on. 

1. What “The Holidays” really means
The term encompasses not only Christmas, but the abundance of festivals that take place at the end of one year and the beginning of the next, from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day. Seeing as half the big-ticket events have been and gone, I’ll focus on the day with the tree, baubles and presents.

2. Lighten up
Lackluster Brits might be content to drape a single dreary string of lights (preferably 15 years old with half the bulbs blown) over an artificial tree, but this simply won’t do in America where more is more. Here, illuminating your entire home, inside and out – and quadrupling your electricity bill – is mandatory. Ideally, you should set up your display the day after Thanksgiving. So, if you haven’t already, get to work. That three-wise-men-stroking-a-reindeer tableaux won’t arrange itself. 

3. Movie time
Traditionally, Christmas is a big day for new film releases in the U.S. Instead of cozying up to watch the Queen’s speech and The Great Escape, then having their annual family row, Americans might spend the post-lunch slot in the cinema. If you’re looking for a way to avoid fraternizing with relatives you can’t stand, this might be one custom worth embracing.

4. Call him Santa Claus
You probably still address the merry bearded bloke in red and white as Father Christmas. Over here, the cheerful chubster is known as Santa Claus. And it’s milk and cookies you want to leave out, not sherry and mince pies. Finally, be sure to cover any leftover decorative Halloween pumpkins with “no nibbling” post-its to warn off Rudolf and pals. A couple of decoy carrots might also help.

5. Christmas dinner, but not as you know it
While both nations see fit to plonk a giant dry bird at the center of the dinner table, the trimmings are different. Instead of roast potatoes, parsnips and greying Brussels sprouts, Americans might serve sweet potato pie, green bean casserole and mash.

6. No Christmas pudding
This traditional British dessert – loved by few, choked down by many – doesn’t exist here. Neither, sadly, does the accompanying brandy butter. Having surveyed my American friends, it seems there’s no one pud served on Christmas day in the U.S. But cookies in festive shapes with icing seem popular.  Others mentioned panettone, fruitcake and mince pies.

7. No Boxing Day
While we Brits extend our celebration to December 26th, Americans often get straight back to work. Boxing Day - our nearest equivalent to Black Friday – is traditionally celebrated by clocking up serious debt on the high street, and there’s nothing to stop you doing this here. Just don’t expect your employer to automatically give you the day off.

8. New Year’s Eve, U.S. style
When I first heard an American talk excitedly about “watching the ball drop,” I thought it sounded like a medical procedure or adolescent right of passage that definitely shouldn’t be performed in public, let alone televised. Then I found out what it meant. Every New Year’s Eve, a globe made of crystal and lights is lowered down a poll in New York’s Times Square, starting a minute before midnight. At 12, it reaches the bottom. Millions stop what they’re doing to observe this event. Actually, I think I preferred my version.

What are your plans?

Ruth Margolis

Ruth Margolis

Ruth is a British freelance journalist who recently swapped east London for Brooklyn. She writes about TV for Radio Times and is working on her first novel.

See more posts by Ruth Margolis