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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 day after Thanksgiving (the fourth Thursday in November), aka "Black Friday," festive merchandise starts appearing in stores as soon as the Halloween stuff is cleared away (sometimes even sooner). Many Americans get annoyed about Christmas decorations and displays going up before Thanksgiving, since "Christmas" lasts nearly a month anyway, but the practice is Older Than They Think: that timetable has been the norm since at least The '80s.
  • Sales: For many retailers, the holiday season is their biggest source of income, so they pull out all the stops to entice shoppers with various sales throughout the season. They are listed below in chronological order, starting with...
    • Black Friday: As noted above, Christmas retail formally launches on the day after Thanksgiving, making that Friday a flashpoint of holiday shopping. Stores usually open very early – 5 a.m. was once common – but in The New '10s it became trendy to open on Thanksgiving Day itself, at 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 a real-life version of a Retail Riot – a Zerg Rush of determined shoppers storming inside the stores to snag must-have items the minute the doors open, paying no heed to the safety of anyone in their way.
      The term "Black Friday" originated in the 1950s in Philadelphia and Rochester as a term used by the police to describe the huge amount of traffic which accompanied the start of the holiday shopping season. As usage spread during the early 1980s, retailers began to claim the term actually came from the expression "in the black" (to turn a profit; traditional accounting practices prescribed the use of black ink for gains and red ink for losses, hence "in the red"), because it was the day when stores would start making money after operating at a loss for the rest of the year. Despite its origins as a PR spin, this second definition has become widely accepted.note 
      Regardless, retail workers and other employees are more likely to regard it as a black day, a day to dread — and indeed, "black" often does suit the day. These sales are Serious Business to many, 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). Perhaps the most disheartening aspect of Black Friday is the fact that while it started as a gift-shopping day, its steep sales mean that most people in recent years aren't even buying gifts for their loved ones, but things for themselves, taking advantage of the markdowns on big-ticket items like TV's.
      Interestingly, Black Friday underwent a sort of osmosis during the 2010's, having been adopted by other countries around the world, even though that meant divorcing it from its "day after Thanksgiving" context since Thanksgiving is exclusively an American holiday.note  Even Israel of all places has taken to Black Friday sales, where not only is there no Thanksgiving, but most of the populace doesn't even celebrate Christmas.
    • Buy Nothing Day: Not a sale, but held at the same time as Black Friday, this is a celebration promoted by environmentalist, leftist, 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 social and environmental issues, particularly those related to over-consumption.
    • Small Business Saturday: This critter, created by credit card company American Express (a.k.a as far from a small business as it gets), 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 shopper in a big box store 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 likely a momentary drop in productivity – as workers shop online at their desks or on their phones. Retailers tend to offer price reductions and/or free shipping for that entire week. The name was coined in 2005, though it didn't become popular with the general public until The New '10s when e-commerce truly took off. It's also seen as a way to avoid the crowds (and pepper spray) of Black Friday.
    • Giving Tuesday: Launched in 2012 as the charitable counterpart to the commercial sales of the previous weekend; this day sees churches and nonprofits request donations for good causes while people still have their wallets open.
    • Last-Minute Shopping: Ah yes, the most American of traditions. Even with a whole month to take care of things, there's always a sizable group of Americans who wait until the week before Christmas to do the bulk of their gift shopping. Because of 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. Predictably, most retailers will offer sales during this time that rival the ones on Black Friday.
    • After-Christmas Sales: Always out to maximize their profits, post-Christmas sales are a thing too. They 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 fit/can't use. Alternatively or additionally, people spend the day redeeming gift cards. (Contrast Boxing Day.)
  • 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 for the extended family is always appreciated. While Thanksgiving dinner is more-or-less the same for everyone in the US, Christmas dinner varies by family. Turkey is still a popular choice since it's a big bird that can feed dozens, but many families will defer to the traditional Christmas meal of their culture. Examples include African-Americans eating ham, collard greens, and sweet potatoes; Italians observing the Feast of the Seven Fishes (it used to be twelve, one for each Apostle; nobody's quite sure when or why it went down to seven); and Chinese families eating out, meaning Chinese restaurants are often the only ones open for Christmas Day (see Peking Duck Christmas).
  • 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.) Since 1996 — going back to its days as The Family Channel — basic cable channel Freeform has offered up a "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 old Disney and Pixar 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 much further — giving over almost its entire 24/7 schedule (plus the entire schedule of its spinoff Hallmark Movies and Mysteries) to original Christmas movies starting a few days before Halloween! Most of these are warm and fuzzy Strictly Formula fare 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 snark magnet and Glurge, but in The New '10s have proven so wildly popular that Hallmark Channel broke its previous record in 2018 by producing 37 new films for it and its spinoff channel. Other channels/streaming services getting in on the act include Netflix and Up.
    • Most other channels prefer theatrical Christmas movies. TBS and TNT has famously run a 24-hour marathon of A Christmas Story over Christmas Eve and Day since 1997. (FX tried this same thing one year...with the movie Jingle All the Way, hence the "one year".) 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, and White Christmas are also staples. Again, everybody wants in on this act — AMC launched a rival promotion ("Best Christmas Ever") to Freeform's "25 Days of Christmas" in 2018, scheduling 600+ hours of themed programming including a cross-section of films and specials that Freeform once held the rights to.
    • The Die Hard Debate: Movie fans have spent years arguing over whether action movies like Die Hard, Lethal Weapon, Batman Returns, The Long Kiss Goodnight, etc. count as Christmas movies, since they take place during the holiday season but are otherwise standard action fare.
    • 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 then only a handful of times.
    • Non-seasonal but widely-enjoyed films frequently programmed as neutral alternatives (often via Marathon Running) include The Wizard of Oz, The Sound of Music, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Harry Potter, Back to the Future, Jurassic Park, James Bond, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and Disney and/or Pixar animated features (though the Frozen and Toy Story films are particularly popular because of their wintry and toy/gift themes, respectively).
    • 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'll be raking in royalty checks for life. Some of the songs that play on the radio have been in the Christmas music rotation since The '40s and remain popular long after the artist's normal fare has been forgotten, such as "White Christmas" by Bing Crosby. Oddly enough, it's not a requirement for the artist to personally celebrate the holiday. Christmas albums from Barbra Streisand (Jewish) and The Jackson 5 (Jehovah's Witnesses) have been well-received regardless. In the past decade, it has become common for certain radio stations to switch to an all-Christmas music format right after Thanksgiving (and some even get started right after Halloween), not letting up until the end of Christmas Day or even New Year's. Depending on the station's usual audience, playlists range from traditional carols and hymns to popular tunes to a mix of the two. Another odd fact is that many songs associated with Christmas technically have nothing to do with the holiday, such as "My Favorite Things," "The Marvelous Toy," or even "Jingle Bells," which is just a song about winter.
  • 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 (now Universal Kids) "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": Since the Turn of the Millennium, conservative political pundits have alleged that "secularists" are working to diminish the religious presence of Christmas in American culture. They cite the removal of religious displays on public land and the increased use of neutral terms like "Happy Holidays" and "Winter Break" instead of "Merry Christmas" and "Christmas Break" as proof that this war is succeeding. Some blame the overreach of "political correctness" for downplaying the holiday's religious elements; others speculate that it is part of a larger conspiracy to undermine Christianity itself. Those of a mind to agree can find evidence of the "War" in things as banal as Starbucks coffee cups. (There are even dramatic movies on this subject in The New '10s, such as Last Ounce of Courage and Christmas with a Capital C.) Those of a mind to disagree typically answer that America is officially neutral with regard to religion, and that its population holds a diverse range of religious beliefs. Mid-winter celebrations predate America and Christianity, and further, generalized expressions such as "Season's Greetings" are catch-all good wishes for the many seasonal events that fall between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day. The adversarial tone of the phenomenon has deepened since the turn of The New '10s as the organization 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! Coffee and tea are similarly given festive flavors for the season, as coffeeshops switch out their pumpkin-spice lattes for peppermint and/or gingerbread-flavored concoctions.
  • Sports: Since the basketball season runs through winter due to being played indoors, it's traditional for the National Basketball Association to schedule at least three games on Christmas Day, which are broadcast on ABC or ESPN. Some teams have their own tradition of hosting game every year; for the occasion, one team participating in each such game typically wears green while other wears red.
    • If you're watching a professional hockey game, you might hear holiday music mixed with the regular fare on the organ.
  • Christmas Cookies: It's customary at this time to bake cookies and share them with friends and neighbors, and/or offer them for dessert at Christmas dinner. It's come to the point that whole partiesnote  are built around this activity. Seasonal favorites include ginger snaps, sugar cookies with festive designs, and for the grown-ups, rum balls (cookie balls soaked in liquor that aren't baked and still contain potent alcohol). 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, region to region.
    • 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.
      • However, perhaps the defining Christmas tradition is the practice of buying confetti eggs– eggshells filled with confetti– and sneaking up to smash them on each other's heads.
    • 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 story in sequence. Thanks to the Midwestern climate and Lake Michigan, you're more likely to get a classic "White Christmas" in Chicago than New York, D.C., or L.A.
    • Some parts of the U.S. 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.
    • Some churches provide a wide range of large number of services on the days leading up to Christmas such as a celebration for Las Posadas, candlelight services, early Christmas services for people who will be traveling on the holiday, even Longest Night services (services held around the Winter Solstice services which basically manifest as All Souls Day Lite). because of the variety and intensity of Christmas services they put on, some churches may opt to not have services on Christmas Day at all.
    • 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 (1649–1660), 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.
    • In a related development, some U.S. towns and cities have standalone festivals centered on light displays which become regional tourist attractions for the season.
  • Snow: Your chances of enjoying a white Christmas (along with such activities as sledding, snowball fights, and building snowmen) are largely dependent on where you happen to be. White Christmases are somewhat common in the northern states, though it varies even within each state. In the Rocky Mountains, Upper Midwest, and New England, most likely it's already been snowing for over a month, so enjoy some Christmas skiing, sledding, or what have you. On the other hand, snow and freezing temperatures aren't supposed to happen in the southern states, and when it does, it's a freaking event (and occasionally a cause of weather-related panic). And of course, if you're in Hawaii, your "Mele Kalikimaka" will have exactly 0% chance of snow, unless you go mountain climbing for Christmas.