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.
View all posts by Ruth Margolis.
  • Carole

    Not all Americans celebrate like the above. I couldn’t have Christmas without Christmas pudding and custard or brown sugar sauce. Mom always made that. And while we had turkey, we had stuffing, corn, mashed potatoes, and gravy, along with cranberry sauce :) No panettone (only if you are Italian), we did have fruitcake (homemade by me and Mom) and Mom made mince pie :) I do wish we had Boxing day here, but now we have stores that simply HAVE to open on Christmas (in case you forgot something). It’s a disgrace.

    BTW, no one beats Harrod’s for holiday decorations :)

  • CC

    We’re not all crazy National-Lampoon’s-Christmas-Vacation types with lights all over the house. I don’t eat Turkey, EVER, but I do eat parsnips and sprouts. We don’t make the traditional British pudding, but I did see a recipe for it the other day and am contemplating making one this year. We do Christmas crackers, though, and I have British friends who do Boxing day every year, and we get an invite to that– it’s great fun! Sometimes I wish I lived in another place other than America, I don’t feel very American and don’t like most of the things that you’ve listed above that you say are typical of us. Watching “the ball drop” also sounds disgusting to me and it is boring to watch…at the bottom of my list as well. Oh, and we don’t go to the movie theatre on Christmas, any day other than Christmas day is fine for the movies, I would prefer to listen to the Queen’s speech. I do listen to Lessons and Carols from King’s College every year.

  • Amber

    I don’t know anyone who goes to the movies on Christmas day. We might watch a classic Christmas movie at home, but we don’t go to a theater.

  • Tanya

    All my family is American and I’ve lived in America all my life, and our Christmas traditions sound more like the British ones in this article.

  • gn

    Greetings can be a bit of a trap.

    * If you say “Happy Christmas!” you will stick out like a sore thumb. Everyone here says “Merry Christmas!” but….

    * Make sure that the person you are greeting actually celebrates Christmas (rather than Hanukkah, Kwanzaa or whatever). My first Christmas in the US I innocently gave Christmas greetings to a colleague (who turned out to be Jewish). The response: “Actually I celebrate Hanukkah”. Hence the bland “Happy Holidays” greeting, which seems to be gaining in popularity here.

  • Caroline A

    OK i kinda feel like you’re making fun of Americans a bit too much 😉 You wouldn’t say Happy Holidays at Thanksgiving and 98% of people wait until December to put up Christmas Trees and decorations. Its true there is no christmas pudding and boxing day but i’ve never had to work the week between Christmas and New Year (i work in the Entertainment industry in Los Angeles) and Christmas day isn’t a big release day for movies.
    I love Christmas in the US. The lights the decorations everything is bigger this time of year for sure… PS. In recent years ive been able to find “Holiday” Crackers!

    • expatmum

      She is making fun of Americans, but she’s also poking fun at Brits. All in fun btw -“Lackluster Brits might be content to drape a single dreary string of lights”

  • expatmum

    Every year I get out my recipe for a boozy Christmas cake, with visions of a “domestic” day in the kitchen, followed by slices of delicious, moist cake some months later. Then the American husband and YankeeBrit kids start making fun of fruit cake etc. and I realise that if I make a cake, it’ll only be me eating it. Sigh…

    • A.W.

      I think you should make that cake anyway! In the end, your kids
      will definitely remember it as part of their tradition as they grow up. Also, Brit fruitcake is way better than ours!!!

  • A.W.

    The “Happy Holidays” thing is all about inclusion because we are historically deemed the melting pot. Anyone whose work has them dealing with the public from Thanksgiving to New Years will know that this phrase is a must. (Side point: be kind to all the retail employees you encounter this season because it is the time when many people are at their rudest.) I use it respectfully when addressing people that I don’t know well enough to pull out the phrase that matches their own beliefs/culture. BTW “Happy Christmas” to you!

    Generally, I get my tree up late (still not up) and don’t do a lot of other decorating. This is for two reasons… I hate getting everything out and taking it back down. Also, the amount of electricity wasted is insane, but I wouldn’t stop someone else who gets so much joy out of decorating BIG.

    Going to the movies on Christmas Day is something that I’ve found more of my Jewish friends doing than anyone else. A lot of people who are alone or away from home on the day do this too. I would say it’s a way to not feel so alone when you actually are.

    Food should be a celebration of your heritage. Recipes passed down are a way to learn about your family and friends. I think “expatmum” should make that cake anyway! In the end, your kids will definitely remember it as part of their tradition as they grow up. My husband’s mom is German, and he & I had a lot of different traditions. The fun, however, was in the mashing up of these into a wonderful thing all our own.

    Boxing Day definitely sounds more fun than “the biggest return day of the year”. I generally avoid all things shopping on the day after Christmas for that reason. People are crazy when it comes to sales & unwanted gifts. It brings the word “savage” to mind!

  • CJ

    I have to say, I don’t know anyone who goes to the movies on Christmas either, except for people who don’t celebrate that holiday.

  • Please

    She has NO clue what she’s talking about in anything she has written. Every article is biased lies. What a sad excuse of a human and most likely she gets spit on by Americans for the snotty nosed comments she makes. I know if I was around you I would also make your life here as miserable as you write down. You are not welcome to write about us and your continuing to do so is a horrible discrimination that shouldn’t go unpunished. You have failed your country as a Brit.

    • Alright

      On closer inspection your articles have improved and one actually helped information wise, but you should take down 10-things-americans-say-and-what-they-really-mean or reword. and instead of saying what annoying Americans say, just say what Americans say. Sorry for freakin out.

  • Rachel

    Spot on. I had far too much fun reading this list.

  • Ebrader

    Fairly accurate, except our fruitcakes sound to be about the equivalent of your pudding. Especially the whole “loved by few, choked down by many” part!

  • Who do you talk too?

    I can’t believe there’s no mention of the movies “It’s A Wonderful Life” and “A Christmas Story” marathons! Or even the infamous TV yule log (a video of a crackling fireplace accompanied by popular xmas tunes). i don’t know how it is in LA but I live in the NJ/NYC area and xmas is a big FAMILY movie day: everyone’s off, and there is a movie for everyone. I used to be an usher and xmas day would be crazy busy with groups of mismatched family members trying to reach a consensus.
    Also on New Year’s Eve it’s the Twilight Zone and New Year’s Day is the Honeymooners marathon.

  • Kim W.

    I thought this blog by Ruth was hilarious!! I loved it..I’m American and I thought it was a “hoot”! Bravo. Don’t take everything so seriously…..have a sense of humor!

  • Cyndi Poole

    I have MANY British friends and acquaintances as well as of other nationalities, some of whom currently reside in the US and others who live abroad. I don’t know anyone who is so hostile toward us as you, Ruth. In fact other than a little friendly ribbing, no one I know is so critical or insulting to us or other cultures. If it’s so horrible for you here, if our traditions, colloquialisms, styles, etc. are so terribly unbearable to you why don’t you be done with us and take your pompous, arrogant arse as well as the rest of you back from where you came!

  • Chrigid

    Now I know Americans have a sense of humor and the English have a sense of humor, but this article has no humor in it at all, so all the mistakes are just gratuitous mistakes.

    [ ] If you set up a real tree right after Thanksgiving it will dry out by Christmas.

    [ ] Those Jews who don’t celebrate Christmas as a secular holiday go to the movies and eat Chinese food. No one else does this (although many are jealous).

    [ ] Long before Chistmas, the pumpkins have rotted and been thrown out.

    [ ] There are over 500,000 Christmas pudding sources on google, including Amazon.

    [ ] You can make all the requisite pudding sauces in your own kitchen.

    [ ] You watch too much television. The New Year’s Eve ball drop is for tourists, kids and non-New Yorkers who watch it on television. The rest of us search out fireworks.