Now that Christmas is just around the corner, it’s time to get into the holiday spirit. What better way to do that than to reminisce about our fondest Christmas memories and get inspired by new ones?
Due to its multi-cultural nature, the United States has many different traditions and ways of celebrating Christmas. There are many customs that are like those in the UK, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, and Mexico.
Flip Flop Daily continues our series of exploring Festivities all over the world – right here in the US.
We hope that this list gives you the same warm, fuzzy Christmas feeling that we had while writing this!
Christmas Eve Dinner
All over the US, families gather round the dining table to celebrate Christmas eve on December 24th. Each family has their own tradition of signature dishes to be served but the most common are inspired by European dishes.
Turkey or ham with cranberry sauce is the traditional meal for Western European families. Most Eastern European families prefer turkey and trimmings, kielbasa (a Polish sausage), cabbage dishes, and soups. Some Italian families prefer lasagna.
Many Italian-American families now celebrate Christmas Eve with a big dinner of fish dishes. It’s called The Feast of the Seven Fishes (‘Festa dei sette pesci’ in Italian). Italy’s southern Italian immigrants brought this feast over to the USA in the 1800s. It is now more popular in America than it is in Italy!
German immigrants in Pennsylvania were the first to put up Christmas trees in the USA as early as the 1750s. Christmas Trees became mainstream in the late 1800s and early 1900s as more people had them in their homes and cities started having communally lit trees in San Diego, Pasadena, New York, Boston, Cleveland, and Philadelphia.
Mark Carr loaded two sleds with trees from the Catskill Mountains and sold them in New York in 1851. This was the first recorded sale of trees in the USA. By the 1890s, the Catskills provided New York City with over 200,000 trees a year!
Andrew Jackson was the first US president to be photographed with a Christmas tree in 1835. This was a small, sugar frosted pine tree. Franklin Pierce was president when the first Christmas tree was set up in the White House. Grover Cleveland used electric lights for the first time on a White House tree. Calvin Coolidge established the tradition of placing Christmas trees on the lawn of the White House.
It is impossible to think of the holidays without gingerbread. From edible houses to candy-studded gingerbread men to spiced cake-like bread, gingerbread plays a significant role in the holiday season.
The gingerbread house originated in Germany during the 16th century. The elaborate cookie-walled houses have become associated with Christmas. They became popular after the Brothers Grimm wrote Hansel and Gretel, in which the main characters stumble upon a house constructed entirely of sweets deep in the forest. Whether gingerbread houses were inspired by the popular fairy tale or the other way around is unclear.
Recently, the world record for the largest gingerbread house was broken. Mall of America set the previous record in 2006. Traditions Golf Club in Bryan, Texas, erected the new winning gingerbread house, which spans nearly 40,000 cubic feet. It was built like a traditional house with a building permit. During its construction, 4,000 gingerbread bricks were used. This would require 1,800 pounds of butter and 1,080 ounces of ground ginger for a house this size.
During Christmas, many Americans, especially Christians, attend church services to celebrate the birth of Jesus. During Christmas Carol services and events, many churches tell the story of Christmas.
In New England and the eastern USA, the Puritans considered Christmas a religious festival. Massachusetts made it illegal in 1659 to do anything other than go to church to mark Christmas!
Christmas is a time when towns and cities decorate their streets with lights. During Christmas and the New Year, the Rockefeller Center in New York has one of the most famous Christmas streetlights in the USA, with a public ice-skating rink in front of the tree.
Americans decorate their houses with lights and sometimes even statues of Santa Claus, Snowmen, and Reindeer on the outside. As a snack for Santa on Christmas Eve, cookies and milk are often left out.
The American states of Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine have shops called ‘Christmas Shops’ that sell Christmas decorations all year round.
The Christmas Pickle is a strange custom that is a lesser-known tradition for some Americans.
One of the Christmas decorations is an ornamental pickle placed on a Christmas tree. The first person to find the pickle on Christmas morning would receive an extra gift from Santa Claus or is believed to have a year of good fortune.
The origin of the tradition is attributed to several different places, including Germany. In recent years, this theory has been disproved, and it is now believed to have been a German American tradition that dates to the late 19th century.
The Christmas pickle capital of the world, Berrien Springs, Michigan, held a pickle parade from 1992 to 2005. Following a 16-year hiatus, the Pickle Festival returned in 2021.
After Protestant missionaries introduced Christianity to Hawaii in 1820, Santa Claus arrived in Hawaii for the first time in 1858, carrying gifts for the children under King Kamehameha. In December, Hawaiians line up on the docks to watch the ships’ refrigerated containers unload fir trees. Due to Hawaii’s tropical climate, these Christmas trees cannot grow on land. It’s not uncommon to see Hawaiian families decorating almost anything and calling it a Christmas tree when they can’t get a real fir tree! Palm trees and outdoor plants are adorned with lights and shiny ornaments everywhere you look.
To Hawaiians, Santa Claus is called Kanakaloka and his reindeer are called Leinekia. Rather than arriving on a sleigh pulled by flying reindeer, Santa arrives in an outrigger canoe paddled by elves in aloha shirts. It has even been known for him to ride a surfboard into Hawaii, pulled by dolphins through the waves.
Spicy Southwestern Food
Christmas is associated with some special foods from the Southwest. The making of tamales, which is often done in large groups, is one of the most beloved traditions. Tamale dough is made from ground corn, and it is filled with chicken, pork, beef, green chile, red chile, and cheese. Tamales are wrapped in corn husks before cooking to keep them moist.
Another traditional food is biscochitos, which are little butter cookies. These crispy and spicy cookies are a delectable Christmas treat. The unique taste of biscochitos comes from a combination of cinnamon and anise seeds. They are traditionally made with fleur-de-lis, but can be made with a variety of holiday symbols as well.
Another dish associated with Christmas is posole. Small pieces of pork, chiles, and dried lime-flavored corn (posole) are included in this thick stew. In the absence of posole, people use hominy. The result is a spicy dish that will keep you warm on a cold winter’s night.
There are some customs in the Southwest USA that are like those in parts of Mexico. Among them are luminarias and farolitos. This is one of the most dramatic Christmas traditions in the whole world.
It consists of paper sacks with shapes cut into them, which are partly filled with sand and then topped with candles. On Christmas Eve, they are lit and placed along paths. The candles symbolize ‘lighting the way’ for Mary and Joseph to find a place to stay.
Modern luminarias can be used repeatedly each night, so they can be displayed from Black Friday to Christmas or New Year’s Eve.
Colored bags, particularly red and green, are another modern twist on luminarias. Some people cut shapes into bags, such as stars, Christmas trees, or even Nativity scenes.
In many Southwest cities, luminaria walks are held at public buildings, old cathedrals, or throughout entire historic districts. To get into the Christmas spirit, people can walk around tens or hundreds of thousands of luminarias. Residents often decorate their front yards with luminarias on Christmas Eve, making driving through regular neighborhoods even more vibrant.
It is astounding to see hundreds or thousands of these illuminated paper sacks lit by candles in some locations, creating an incredibly majestic atmosphere. The tradition dates to the 19th century.
Wrapping it all up!
Christmas in the United States is a unique, colorful and unforgettable experience. Whether you celebrate the holidays on the shores of Hawaii or in the Southwest, you will surely create fun new memories every year.
Every state and every family has its own distinct traditions inspired by customs from all over the world. The common thread is a celebration of family, food and faith.
Whatever tradition you may practice, we wish you a wonderful holiday celebration with your family!
We hope you enjoyed reading about how some of the most popular Christmas traditions in the United States came to be and learning lesser-known customs you may have never heard of before. Most of all, we wish you’re getting fully into the Christmas spirit now! Happy holidays from all of us at Flip Flop Daily!