Black Friday: While Christmas merchandise and decorations now begin to appear in stores in mid-October, if not earlier note and many department stores like JC Penney ship their holiday catalog as early as late August..., actual Christmas sales formally launch the day after Thanksgiving Day, which falls on the fourth Thursday in November. Stores open in the wee hours of the morning — 5 a.m. was once common, but in The New Tens the start is often midnight or earlier. In 2012, several major national chain stores began their sales on the evening of Thanksgiving Day, and in 2013 more followed suit. These sales are attractive because they offer deep discounts on popular items, with a catch: there are not enough of those items for everyone to get one. The result can be chaos — a Zerg Rush of determined shoppers storms in to snag must-have items the minute the doors open, paying no heed to the safety of anyone in their way.
The name is thought to come from the expression "in the black," which means turning a profit; these sales often secure a store's fortunes for the year. However, in recent years the "black" has come to indicate the darker side of the day. These sales are Serious Business to many people, to the point that fights have broken out at them — there have even been occasional deaths since 2008, including an incident involving anxious shoppers stampeding into a store the moment a worker opened the doors, trampling the employee to death. Even before that the term often had rather a different meaning to actual employees, who regard it with all the dread of Black Sunday; even when people don't get killed, physical assault is not as uncommon as one might expect (a notorious 2011 incident in California had a shopper unleashing pepper spray on her rivals).
Last-Minute Shopping: Oh hell yes, that most American of traditions. Even with a whole month to take care of things, there's always a sizable group of Americans who know that their gift will be on the shelves for a while and expect people to be shopping for gifts on Christmas Eve through midnight on Christmas Day. Due to this, the biggest shopping day of the season (in terms of actual items sold) is not Black Friday but a day much closer to Christmas, usually the last Saturday before.
After-Christmas Sales: Always out to maximize their profits, post-Christmas sales are not as popular as their Black Friday counterparts, but it is generally a bad idea to hit the malls the day after Christmas Day. The sales take advantage of people who are exchanging gifts they don't want/can't use. Alternatively or additionally, people spend the day redeeming gift certificates and/or cards. (Contrast Boxing Day.)
Buy Nothing Day: Held at the same time as Black Friday, this is a celebration promoted by environmentalist, leftist and, lately and increasingly, Christian groups as a backlash against what they feel to be the celebration of consumerism that goes along with the Christmas season. Instead of shopping, participants in Buy Nothing Day cut up credit cards, visit natural sites, partake in zombie walks, and hold protests to call attention to environmental problems, particularly those related to over-consumption.
Small Business Saturday: This critter first showed its nose in 2011 and promotes patronizing small/local businesses on the day after Black Friday. Perhaps it allows consumers to assuage their guilt over macing another customer in a big box store on the previous day?
Cyber Monday: The first weekday following Black Friday, this day represents the official beginning of the online Christmas shopping season and corresponds with a spike in online sales (and a momentary drop in productivity). Retailers tend to offer price reductions and/or free shipping for the week following Cyber Monday. Despite the outdated name, this "holiday" is a fairly recent creation; the name was coined in 2005.
Christmas/Holiday/Winter Break:No matter what they call it (Winter Break is usually the most common, especially in college for reasons explained below), schools across the country shut down for a break in December. Most primary and secondary schools close on the 23rd or the last Friday before Christmas, and reopen on the first Monday after New Year's Day, or on January 2nd or 3rd. At most colleges and universities, the fall semester ends in early-mid December and the winter break ends sometime in the middle of January (this kicks off what is known as the "spring" semester, which is oddly named given that, in a fair number of places in North America, January-early April can be the worst part of winter).
In California specifically, several Counties have extended Winter Break from ending on the 2nd or 3rd of January to ending on the 9th instead, due to the sheer number of children who go to Mexico for the break and don't come back until after Three King's Day on the 6th of January.
Christmas Dinner: Because Thanksgiving Day is the big "feasting" holiday in the US, this is not as big an event as the UK's Christmas lunch equivalent. Still, a nice spread is always appreciated, usually centered around turkey or ham (or lasagna for some people of Italian descent). It may be held on Christmas Eve or Day depending on family preference.
Often, even if a family has long since dropped anything dealing with their immigrant background, they maintain the traditional foods from their former country for this meal. Since the Chinese typically eat out, Chinese restaurants are often the only ones open for Christmas Day (see Peking Duck Christmas).
Among some Catholic families, Christmas Eve dinner is a big deal, ideally consisting of twelve fishes, one for each of the Apostles.
Christmas Movies: If you're a TV channel — especially a cable channel — wanting more than just specials to fill up airtime, themed movies are an option. Channels like Lifetime (which takes a break from its usual formula) and Hallmark Channel produce their own Christmas films each year and have been at it long enough that they just hand over prime time and the weekends to both reruns and newbies. In The New Tens they tend to start airing in November. Most of these are based on a simple concept (a lovable dog brings a family together, a Romantic Comedy set during the season, the various permutations of Saving Christmas, etc.) or a pre-existing property ("The Christmas Shoes" song launched a trilogy of films) and tend to be a rich well of Snark Bait. Other channels run popular theatrical Christmas movies: TBS famously runs a 24-hour marathon of A Christmas Story starting in prime time on Christmas Eve. Scrooged and other movies based off A Christmas Carol, National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation, Elf, Miracle on 34th Street, and Die Hard (you can't say it isn't a Christmas movie!) are also wildly popular. Back in the 1970s, It's a Wonderful Life became Vindicated by History when it was virtually public domain and seemingly every TV channel in the country ran it as inexpensive holiday-themed programming. Nowadays, only NBC runs it.
Christmas Day itself is a busy day at movie theaters, so several big-ticket releases usually open on the day or in time to hopefully cash in. Christmas-themed movies usually open in November to capitalize on seasonal excitement. (If a Christmas movie hits big, it can run for weeks on end; of course, due to its theme, it won't get a home release until a full year later, while most movies make it to DVD, etc. in 4-6 months in The New Tens). The final two months of the year are traditionally flush with big-ticket family films and Oscar Bait.
Christmas Music: While the UK phenomenon of the "Christmas Number One" is not repeated in the US, many recording artists bring out at least one Christmas-themed album in their careers. The appeal of making a Christmas album is obvious: if you come up with a classic (say, Mariah Carey's version of "All I Want For Christmas Is You"), you might as well have a license to print money. In the past decade, it has become common for certain radio stations to switch to an all-Christmas music format right after Thanksgiving Day, not letting up until the end of Christmas Day. Depending on the station's usual audience, the playlists can range from traditional carols and hymns to popular tunes to a mix of the two. In the past couple of decades a phenomenon has emerged of hijacking non-Christmas songs: notably "My Favorite Things" and "The Marvelous Toy" have joined the lineup of Christmas Songs.
Live Entertainment: Ballet companies big and small usually mount a production of the much-loved, Christmas-themed ballet The Nutcracker: this serves as a Cash Cow Franchise for them. Adaptations of A Christmas Carol, whether musicals or not, serve this purpose for playhouses. Christmas is also the season that the Trans-Siberian Orchestra makes most of their money.
Yule Log: Traditionally, a Yule Log is a special log burned during the winter solstice. In modern America, some television stations — especially home shopping channels — go off the air for Christmas Eve/Day, and a popular alternative to a blank screen is a looped video of a blazing fireplace with muzak versions of carols playing in the background. The originator of this tradition is WPIX-TV in New York City: their version of the log appeared nationally starting in 2004 on sibling outlet Superstation WGN.
PBS Kids Sprout's "Snooze-a-Thon" is essentially a variation on this. Beginning in 2008, Sprout began airing this beginning at 6 P.M. Eastern on Christmas Eve and into the wee morning hours of Christmas. It features a loop of clips of characters from the various programs offered by the network sleeping (including Caillou, The Berenstain Bears and Nina and Star, the hosts of The Goodnight Show), scored with relaxing music. The idea is that since Santa "knows when you are sleeping," this program will help children get to sleep, rather than irresponsibly airing programming that would otherwise keep them awake. For those that get an On Demand service, this program is offered year-round.
The "War on Christmas": In recent years, conservative political pundits have coined the term "War on Christmas" for the alleged attempts by "secularists" to diminish the religious presence of Christmas in American culture. Aspects of this war include removing religious displays on public land and the increased use of terms such as "Happy holidays" and "winter break" instead of "Merry Christmas" and "Christmas break." Pundits tend to blame either Political Correctness Gone Mad or an actual conspiracy to undermine Christian expression. This riles up like-minded Americans, and any attempt to distance the season from its religious roots might become a Rant Inducing Slight. (There's even a whole dramatic movie on this subject, 2012's Last Ounce of Courage.) Those accused of waging this "war" typically defend themselves by saying that America has a secular government and a diverse range of religious beliefs in its population. Further, generalized greetings such as "happy holidays" encompass both religious and secular holidays between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day, making them appropriate for all Americans. Bringing up the "war" might therefore be a Rant Inducing Slight from this side of the fence as well. You're damned if you do, and damned if you don't. The arguments have started to cool off lately, but embers are still stoked each year for a new round of pointless bickering.
Festive drinks: This encompasses winter-friendly hot drinks (cocoa, cider, etc.) along with a few others directly associated with the holiday. Of the latter category, the most notable is probably eggnog; tales of spiking supposedly non-alcoholic eggnog are as numerous as American office parties. Of course, the eggnog is often spiked already (as it should be) with some kind of brown liquor — preferably bourbon; if not, Scotch or perhaps a good rye (probably Canadian); if not, any old whiskey; and if none of those, brandy... or, in a pinch, rum. Alton Brown devoted an entire episode to the drink.
Christmas Cookies: It's customary at this time to bake cookies and share them with friends and neighbors (whole parties can be built around this activity). Families with younger children who get visits from Santa often leave out warm milk and cookies for him (carrots for the reindeer are optional). Santa is generally played by the father, who dons the red suit and beard to go tromping around on the roof or outside his children's window to enchant them, and ultimately gets to eat the sweets left out for him.
Because it's a huge country, Christmas traditions often vary dramatically from city to city.
Christmas in New York City exemplifies the stereotypical American Christmas for obvious reasons, borrows heavily from A Very British Christmas, and takes everything Up to Eleven. The Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade starts things off, followed by the lighting of the giant Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center, and lots of public spaces will have ice skating. There's often even more traffic than usual, because tourists come in to experience a real New York Christmas. The Radio City Music Hall Christmas Spectacular, running seasonally since the 1930s, is periodically updated but always features themed dance numbers starring the famous Rockettes and a "Living Nativity" finale. Sometimes, street decorations appear as early as after Halloween. Manhattan is the birthplace of the elaborate window display, and all the fancier stores have them to this day. And while the chances of snow falling on Christmas Day are less than 50%, it does snow in December. A lot.
Christmas in Los Angeles borrows more from Mexican traditions. The poinsettia, a leafy red plant native to Mexico City, can be found everywhere, even lining the walls in local newscasts. It's not uncommon for people to make special trips to Olvera Street, the old Mexican quarter of Downtown Los Angeles. Watch for posadas, a sort of hybrid between street theater and caroling, that's supposed to reenact Joseph and Mary's search for an inn. As with other denizens of warm climates (and Australia, where it's summer in December), Angelenos are not too fussed that the idea of the "traditional" wintry Christmas doesn't match their experience — it simply isn't considered that important.
Christmas in Chicago is its own beast. It usually starts off with the Magnificent Mile Lights Festival, where Mickey Mouse himself comes to town and the lights along North Michigan Avenue are lit. There's also the Christkindlmarket In Daley Plaza, a recreation of a German Christmas Market. Just like Rockefeller Center, Daley Plaza gets its own tree and it is also lit. An annual tradition is the Marshall Field's store on State Street (don't call it Macy's, Chicagoans are not happy with that name change) window displays. These are usually classic Christmas stories that are told in sequence through the windows. You're more likely to get a classic "White Christmas" in Chicago than New York or LA.
Incidentally, some parts of the US have events like the Polar Bear Plunge (as it's known on the Jersey Shore), where people swim in the ocean on Christmas (similar to the A Very British Christmas Boxing Day celebrations).
Federal holiday: In the United States, a federal holiday is a public holiday recognized by the United States government. Non-essential federal government offices are closed. All federal employees are paid for the holiday; those who are required to work on the holiday sometimes receive holiday pay for that day in addition to their ordinary wages. Currently, there are eleven U.S. Federal holidays. One of them, and only one, just happens to be on the day celebrated as the birthday of a religious god (or Son of God). You get one guess which holiday this is. It was first designated a federal holiday by Congress and President Ulysses S. Grant in 1870. The Constitution, which states that the government may not favor a religion, is ignored in this instance. Of course, if the government tried to change this, it wouldn't work anyway; since nearly all other businesses are closed on Christmas, and most employees would expect the day off, they couldn't get any work done. Needless to say, no politician would ever suggest changing this, as they would be tarred and feathered.
Religious services: While certainly not all Americans are Christians, a majority are, and many will attend services on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day (which service in particular is a function of one's denomination, culture, local conditions, and convenience). In fact, for a good deal of otherwise nominal Christians, this may be one of the few times in a year when they actually go to church (the others being Easter or weddings — hence the nickname CEOs, "Christmas and Easter Only" Christians). Parishioners who, the rest of the year, are able to find a place in the pews suddenly find that someone will have inevitably taken "their" seat. This is, justifiably, a source of snark for both regular parishioners and those just attending for Christmas. Some sort of religious music is, of course, de rigeur. There is often a Nativity play sometime during the season, usually featuring children.
Amusement/Theme Parks: If located in a climate that allows for year-round operation, they will play up the season as much as possible. The American Disney Theme Parks (and their rivals such as Universal) enjoy their biggest crowds this time of year, and are famous for their special decorations, parades (the one at Walt Disney World is pre-taped and televised Christmas Day), fireworks, and shows. Even rides can be altered for the season — Disneyland has a Haunted Mansion overlay themed to The Nightmare Before Christmas, for instance.
Christmas Hoops: The National Football League has a long-running stranglehold on games played on Thanksgiving, while College Football typically dominates New Year's Day. In recent years, the National Basketball Association has made a serious effort to claim Christmas Day as their own by scheduling marquee matchups and heavily promoting them, to some success.