Useful Notes / Christmas in America

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The boys of the NYPD choir,
Still singin' "Galway Bay",
And the bells are ringing out,
For Christmas Day!

The United States of America has many colorful, distinctive Christmas traditions that frequently appear in media. Compare and contrast with A Very British Christmas, Christmas in Australia and Christmas in Japan. See also American Holidays.

  • Christmas Creep: While the semi-official start of the American Christmas season is the Friday after Thanksgiving (the fourth Thursday of November), festive merchandise usually starts appearing in stores as soon as the Halloween stuff is cleared away. Many Americans get annoyed about Christmas decorations and displays going up before Thanksgiving, since "Christmas" lasts practically a month already.
  • Black Friday: As noted above, Christmas sales formally launch the day after Thanksgiving Day, making that Friday a flashpoint of holiday shopping. Stores usually open very early — 5 a.m. was once common — but in The New '10s a trend began to open on Thanksgiving Day itself, midnight or earlier. Black Friday (or 'Grey Thursday') sales attract shoppers by offering deep discounts on popular items, though of course there will not be enough stock for everyone. The result can be chaotic — a Zerg Rush of determined shoppers storming in to snag must-have items the minute the doors open, paying no heed to the safety of anyone in their way.

    Some say the name comes from the expression "in the black," which means turning a profit; these sales often secure a store's fortunes for the year. Retail workers and other employees are more likely to regard it as a black day, a day to dread — and indeed, "black" does describe 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 wherein anxious shoppers stampeded into a store the moment it opened, knocking down and fatally trampling the hapless employee who opened the doors. Even when people don't get killed, physical assault is not uncommon (a notorious 2011 incident in California had a shopper unleashing pepper spray on her rivals).

    Interestingly, Black Friday has undergone a sort of 'osmosis' during the new tens, being adopted by other countries across the world. While by far less insane than in America, the United Kingdom has welcomed Black Friday with open arms (and plenty of bruises, too).
    • 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. Convenience Store Gift Shopping may come into play.
    • 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 (created by credit card issuing bank American Express) 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) as office workers (or at least, office workers with inadequate or nonexistent employer controls on their browsers) shop instead of work on their computers. 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 Kings Day on the 6th of January.
  • Christmas Dinner: Because Thanksgiving Day is the big "feast" 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, and it's 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. This changes a bit among America's very large Catholic population of at least partial Italian descent, where it changes to a dinner of seven fishes (nobody's quite sure why), and invariably includes baccalà (dried salted cod).
  • Christmas Specials: While the UK's Christmas TV specials are usually special episodes of regular programs, the phrase refers to original, stand-alone shows in the US. Each year brings along a new batch of such shows, ranging from Variety Show specials starring a popular celebrity (usually a musician) to animated shows. The most popular of the latter — How the Grinch Stole Christmas!, the various Rankin/Bass Productions specials, and A Charlie Brown Christmas — have been repeated annually by the big broadcast networks for decades now. Variety specials are usually one-offs, but performers as varied as Andy Williams, Bob Hope, Johnny Cash, and even Kathie Lee Gifford toplined new ones annually for varying stretches of time. Meanwhile many regular scripted shows, especially sitcoms and cartoons, will do a Christmas Episode of their own. (See It's a Wonderful Plot, Yet Another Christmas Carol, Mall Santa, and How the Character Stole Christmas for the most popular stock plots.) For well over a decade now, basic cable channel Freeform has offered up the popular "25 Days of Christmas" promotion in December (plus a "Countdown to..." forerunner starting at the end of November), which gives prime time and weekends over to classic B and sometimes A-list animated specials, marathons of Disney Animated Canon and Harry Potter films, and plenty of popular...
  • Christmas Movies: TV networks — especially cable channels — wanting more than just specials to fill up airtime turn to themed movies. Lifetime takes a break from its usual formula and produces their own Christmas films each year; they've been at it long enough that prime time and weekends feature reruns and newbies starting in November. The Hallmark Channel goes further, with 22 new films in 2016 alone by way of giving over almost its entire 24/7 schedule to Christmas movies starting a few days before Halloween! Most Christmas TV movies are simple, warm and fuzzy stories in a seasonal setting — a lovable dog brings a family together, a Romantic Comedy or drama, permutations of Saving Christmas — sometimes adapting a pre-existing property ("The Christmas Shoes" song, the Grumpy Cat meme, etc.). They tend to be a rich well of Snark Bait. Most channels prefer popular theatrical Christmas movies, with TBS famously running a 24-hour marathon of A Christmas Story over Christmas Eve and Day. Scrooged and other movies based off A Christmas Carol, National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation, Elf, Miracle on 34th Street (usually the 1947 original), Home Alone, White Christmas, 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 and its sister networks run it, and only a handful of times.
    • 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, because if one of them 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 four months in The New '10s). The final two months of the year are traditionally flush with big-ticket family films and Oscar Bait. (Academy rules require a film to have exhibited in a Los Angeles County theater for one week in the calendar year that is being submitted for, and as Christmas Day is a week before New Year's Day, several films run there and in New York that week before expanding in the new year.)
  • Christmas Music: The UK phenomenon of the "Christmas Number One" single is not repeated in the US. Instead, 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, "All I Want for Christmas is You" by Mariah Carey), you might as well have a license to print money. Some of the songs that play on the radio have been in the Christmas music rotation since The '50s, or even longer. 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, playlists 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 such as "My Favorite Things" and "The Marvelous Toy" for the season, too.
  • Live Entertainment:
  • Yule Log: Traditionally, a Yule Log is a special log burned during the winter solstice. In modern America, some television channels — especially home shopping channels — go off the air for Christmas Eve/Day, and the most 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.
    • Now on Blu-Ray and DVD! Variations are also offered on some cable systems' On Demand services — logs, snowy scenes, twinkling ornaments, etc. all get the screensaver treatment to a variety of different instrumentals.
    • PBS Kids Sprout's "Snooze-a-Thon" is a recent, very specific variation: 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. Since 2008, Sprout airs this beginning at 6 P.M. Eastern on Christmas Eve and into the wee morning hours of Christmas. 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, a 20-minute version of this program is now offered year-round.
    • And now there's The Applegate Bacon Yule Log!
  • 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 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, and also winter solstice celebrations predate Christianity and Christmas itself was based on the Roman one. Further, generalized expressions such as "Season's Greetings" are nice catch-all good wishes suitable for every religious and secular holiday 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 adversarial tone of the phenomenon has deepened since the turn of The New '10s as the organisation American Atheists, led by David Silverman, have taken to posting prominent billboards in Times Square and elsewhere encouraging the public to reject the religious elements of the season. The arguments generally cool down in the off season, but the embers remain hot until they can be revived the next 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 infamous 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. (Rum—again, dark—will do in a pinch, or if you're in Florida or of Caribbean descent.) 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; it's come to the point that whole partiesnote  are 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 might well don the red suit and beard to go tromping around on the roof or outside his children's window to enchant them (America's Funniest Home Videos has no small number of clips of what happens when Hilarity Ensues here), 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 on (when else) Thanksgiving, followed by the lighting of the giant Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center the Wednesday after, 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 Washington, D.C. is primarily notable for the lighting of the National Christmas Tree on the Ellipse of the South Lawn of The White House and the Capitol Christmas Tree on the West Front Lawn of the Capitol. Because it's not DC if there's not a pointless political argument, every few years there's a dispute about whether the tree should be a Christmas tree at all, or if it should be called a Christmas tree (the Capitol tree was called a "Holiday Tree" for a while in the '90s and early 2000s), whether or not it can include a Nativity scene, whether or not they should include other religious symbols, etc., etc., etc.; and this being America, all of this has led to numerous lawsuits. Otherwise DC's Christmas is fairly typical, although given the large proportion of Washingtonians originally from somewhere else, a substantial section of the city's population leaves town to see family across the country; the rush to Union Station, Dulles, Reagan, and BWI is probably one of DC's biggest Christmas traditions.
    • Christmas in Chicago is its own beast. It usually starts with the Magnificent Mile Lights Festival, where Mickey Mouse himself comes to town and the lights along North Michigan Avenue (location of all the topflight shops) 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. Another annual tradition is the Marshall Field's store on State Street's (don't call it Macy's, Chicagoans are not happy with that name change) window displays, which usually depict a classic Christmas stories in sequence. And thanks to the Midwestern climate and Lake Michigan, you're more likely to get a classic "White Christmas" in Chicago than New York, DC, 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 a lake/river/ocean on Christmas or New Year's Day (similar to the A Very British Christmas Boxing Day celebrations), almost always as a charity fundraiser.
  • 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 rigueur. Churches and religious schools usually stage a Nativity play sometime during the season (see A Very British Christmas), sometimes incorporated into the Christmas Eve/Day service.
    • It is important to note that despite it being a major Christian holiday - some denominations do not celebrate Christmas at all. In early American history, it was prohibited by Puritans when they briefly held power in England during the English Interregnum (16491660), and in Colonial America where the Puritans outlawed the celebration of Christmas in 1659. Christian sects and communities that reject the observance of Christmas for theological reasons include Jehovah's Witnesses; some adherents of Messianic Judaism; most Sabbatarian denominations, such as the True Jesus Church and the Church of God (7th-Day); the Christian Congregation in the United States; and certain reformed and fundamentalist churches of various persuasions, including some Independent Baptist, Holiness, Apostolic Pentecostal, and Churches of Christ congregations.
  • 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, beefed up with pop musicians, 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. Some parks in colder climes open up without rides, but lots of Christmas light displays. Some U.S. towns and cities have standalone festivals centered on light displays which become regional tourist attractions for the season.
  • 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.

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