A Brit’s Guide to the Holiday Season


Have you experienced “Black Friday” first hand? (CSM)

As we’ve discussed, when Americans talk about the holidays, they’re not talking about plans for next summer. The holiday season in the U.S. begins with Thanksgiving and ends after the Christmas/Hannukah/Kwanzaa break (which also includes New Years.) It sounds like a lot of planning and partying but the reality is that Thanksgiving preparations help stave off the Christmas mania somewhat. Yes, there’s a flash of red and green on the shelves before October’s even over, but Halloween (not quite a national holiday) and Thanksgiving merchandise usually has the edge.

Thanksgiving (with the spoken emphasis on the second word) is a bit like the British Harvest Festival, although not so church-centered. It’s a celebration and thanks-giving for a bountiful harvest, occurring on the fourth Thursday in November and is a secular day off work. Many Americans tell me Thanksgiving is their favorite time of year. While it can be lots of hard work (many families sit down to dinners of twenty and more people), there is no gift giving to worry about. It’s literally just time to be with family and friends.


Here is a typical American table setting for a Thanksgiving dinner. (CRI)

As well as enjoying an over-indulgent Thanksgiving meal, many Americans take part in a local Turkey Trot. These are family-friendly runs that typically raise money for local charities and food banks. And of course, there’s football. As the NFL home page says, “NFL games are as much a part of Thanksgiving as turkey, mashed potatoes and pumpkin pie.” Thanksgiving Day football first began when Yale played Princeton back in 1876 and it’s been a regular NFL fixture since the NFL was born in 1920. I’m sure the earliest Thanksgiving celebrants had a little more than football on their minds however, (#survival).

A fairly recent addition to the holiday season is Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving. It is said to get its name because businesses end up in the black after this weekend. Black Friday really kicks off Christmas preparations as it’s is a huge shopping day where prices are often ridiculously slashed. With gifts in mind, some bargain hunters camp out all night for a spot at the head of the queue. (Apparently many of the same deals are available online, so the really savvy shopper need never leave the comfort of home.) Black Friday isn’t a federal (national) holiday, but is a public holiday in some states. There is some concern that it’s ruining Thanksgiving because many huge retailers are now opening on Thanksgiving evening in an attempt to boost holiday sales. For some, this is sacrilege but for others, like me, if it’s a choice between watching football and shopping…..

As soon as the Thanksgiving leftovers are scarfed down, hearts and minds turn to the next holiday. This generally means Christmas, although many Americans celebrate Hanukah or Kwanzaa and some celebrate more than one. Hanukah is the eight-day Jewish holiday, which may fall at any time from late November to late December. (There are various spellings for this celebration.) Kwanzaa is the six day celebration (December 26-January1) honoring African culture in the African American community. Many schools in the U.S. now incorporate all three holidays into a more diverse winter-themed celebration at the end of the semester or term.

Christmas in the U.S. isn’t too different from its British cousin, although Brussels Sprouts, chipolatas and Christmas pud are noticeably absent. One thing that might surprise Brits is the total lack of Boxing Day. If Christmas lands in the middle of the week, you could well find yourself back at your desk bright and early on the 26th.  Oh and of course, there’s no televised Queen’s Speech!

How do you celebrate the holidays? 

See More:
Thanksgiving Notes for Brits
How to Cope with the Expat Christmas Blues
Celebrating the Holidays in America: Things to Know


Toni Hargis

Toni Summers Hargis is a British author who has lived in the USA since 1990. Toni blogs as Expat Mum and is the author of Rules, Britannia - An Insider's Guide to Life in the United Kingdom and The Stress-Free Guide to Studying in the States; A Step-by-Step Plan for International Students. She has made frequent appearances on radio and TV discussing US/UK matters.
View all posts by Toni Hargis.
  • Alfirin

    I cook a version of brussel sprouts with bacon for my American extended family over here … and despite normally detesting vegetables, they love them for both Thanksgiving and Christmas meals. I’ve also adjusted them to a British sherry trifle, but I don’t think I’ve much hope of getting them to eat Christmas pud!

    • http://expatmum.blogspot.com/ Toni Hargis

      I tried that sprouts recipe a few years ago and there were a few grudging nods of approval but let’s just say I wasn’t asked to repeat it.

    • cynara0362

      I introduced friends here to Christmas pudding last year and while they all claimed to enjoy it, none of them want it again this year. :)

      • gn

        I force Christmas pudding on my (US) family every year. I make it more fun by pouring brandy and setting it alight. Everyone enjoys that part :)

  • Martha Turner

    Don’t plan to go to a restaurant on Black Friday. All the shoppers are eating out, too.

    I’ve never heard of a Thanksgiving Turkey Trot.

    • http://expatmum.blogspot.com/ Toni Hargis

      If you Google it, almost every city has one.

      • Pat Weiser

        In St Paul MN, 2013 is the first one. I had to google it, never heard of it either before now.

    • Garrison

      I love eating out on Black Friday (but not shopping)… it’s a great communal experience.

  • gn

    Take UK Christmas and divide it into two.

    Presents, Santa Claus, trees, music, and religious significance are allocated to US Christmas.

    Everything else (eating, being with family, shopping) is allocated to US Thanksgiving.

    • Garrison

      Yes and no… these things will vary by time and place and person. I agree that Christmas is a far bigger deal in Britain, where Thanksgiving doesn’t share the load and where it often can feel like the entire year is a long countdown to December. But it is, by a wide margin, the most important and revered holiday in the US as well. Macy’s may well open at 8 pm on Thanksgiving, but they’d never be allowed to get away with it on Christmas Day.

      Eating, shopping and spending time with family are essential to the American Christmas as well as Thanksgiving. It may be a smaller meal (not in my family, but in some) or a different side of the family (we do extended for Thanksgiving, immediate for Christmas… others trade off) and the shopping may not be a particularly beloved ritual, but they’re still part of it.

      I’m really fascinated by the holiday season in general and love both holidays… I also love being in Britain in the festive season (though I don’t get over there often). To me, Christmas and Thanksgiving are yin and yang, separated by a month of food, light, friends, family, college football and all of the other great traditions this time of year offers.

  • Tara

    We’ve had Brussel sprouts for Thanksgiving dinner for the past 5 or so years. But I did have to google Christmas pudding…sounds suspiciously like our fruit cake!

  • jadekitty

    Thanksgiving is more than a harvest holiday. It’s wrapped up in our founding of America myth as well. There’s a lovely story about the arrival of the Pilgrims (the Calvinists that you Brits kicked out) and how the Native Americans shared their food. It’s all mad up, but doesn’t it sound nice? I do think that even though the stores may be open for Thanksgiving, it is a holiday that all Americans participate in. While Christmas is increasingly secular, Jews, Muslims, and Hindus clearly don’t observe and go about life as a regular day.