5 Uniquely American Christmas Traditions

5 Uniquely American Christmas Traditions

The United States has a culture that has been enriched over the decades by the practices of immigrants from all over the world. In this country, known as the Great Melting Pot, our food, art, music, and even our holidays have all been influenced by the customs brought here by new citizens and their descendants. Americans still, however, also have many traditions that are unique to this country, that developed here or evolved from other countries or cultures. During the holiday season, you’ll find many things that those living in the US choose to practice or do that are unique to this country. Here are five American Christmas traditions that you won’t quite find anywhere else in the world.

Christmas Shoppers: Shopping Center at Christmas Time, 1969

Christmas Shoppers: Shopping Center at Christmas Time. Photographer: Thomas J. O’Halloran, 1969.

Black Friday

The day after Thanksgiving, Americans traditionally start their holiday shopping with Black Friday sales. The term Black Friday dates to the 1950s when the city of Philadelphia would become overrun with people heading in to see the Army-Navy football game. This popular matchup was played on the Saturday after Thanksgiving during that era, and fans, shoppers, and tourists would pour into the city on Friday in anticipation of a rowdy holiday weekend. The Philadelphia police and city officials became overwhelmed with mass chaos related to this influx of people and began calling the day after Thanksgiving “Black Friday.” By the 1960s, retailers in Philadelphia had embraced Black Friday as an opportunity to bring in big sales, and other cities began to follow the trend. Today, Black Friday remains a uniquely American Christmas tradition and the official kick-off of the holidays.

Movie poster for It's A Wonderful Life, RKO, 1946.

Movie poster for It’s a Wonderful Life, RKO, 1946.

Christmas Movies

Though people living outside the US watch and enjoy Christmas movies, the cozy holiday film tradition has become its own industry here in America. In 2022, Hallmark Channel alone has added 40 new Christmas movies to its already substantial library of holiday offerings. Perennial favorites also appear with regularity on streaming channels and many people feel that the holidays haven’t really started until they’ve watched A Christmas Story, Elf, or Home Alone. The Golden Age of cinema provided films that are still mainstays at Christmas, including It’s A Wonderful Life (1946), Miracle on 34th Street (1947), and A Christmas Carol (1938). Perhaps Americans’ fascination with Christmas movies lies in the films’ themes of hope, and as eternal optimists, we always feel that a better future is just around the corner.

Pumpkin Patch; vintage linen postcard. Tichnor Brothers Collection, Boston Public Library, 1930-45.

Pumpkin Patch; vintage linen postcard. Tichnor Brothers Collection, Boston Public Library, 1930-45.

Pumpkin Pie

A fall favorite that seems to border on obsession sometimes, pumpkin is distinctly American. Pumpkins, a type of squash, are native to North and Central America and were historically a staple of the diet of many Native Americans, who introduced European settlers to many tasty pumpkin dishes. These gourds – which are technically a fruit – hold a special place in each of the major American holidays at the end of the year. In October, pumpkins represent the harvest and are carved into Jack-o-lanterns at Halloween. In November, pumpkin pie takes center stage after a traditional Thanksgiving meal. In December, the sweet and spicy pie remains a centerpiece of Christmas dinner. Whether homemade or store-bought, most Americans can’t imagine their holidays without some delicious pumpkin pie.

Image of vintage Christmas card depicting Santa Claus, Christmas tree, plate of cookies, and toys

Vintage Christmas Card

Leaving Cookies and Milk for Santa

Each Christmas Eve before going to bed, American children who celebrate Christmas leave a plate of cookies and a glass of milk for Santa Claus to find when he visits their homes. This fun tradition actually has its roots in Norse mythology. Centuries ago, during the Yule season, children in that region would leave food, such as carrots, out for the horse of Norse god Odin in the hope that he would leave gifts in exchange. In the United States, this tradition evolved and grew in popularity during the Great Depression in the 1930s, when parents wanted to instill a sense of gratitude and of giving in return for presents they would be fortunate enough to receive for Christmas. Today, children in many different countries practice this special ritual that Americans have taught their children for generations.

Colorized photo of Christmas Parade, Los Angeles, 1940

Christmas Parade, Los Angeles, California, 1940. Colorized.

Christmas Parades

Christmas parades may not be uniquely American, but their ubiquitous appearance in nearly every major city in every state in the country may be. In addition to big city parades, many small towns and regional areas in the United States hold their own parades, often culminating in the arrival of Santa Claus on a fire truck or decorated parade vehicle. Along with Black Friday, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade is considered by many to be the traditional start of the holidays in the US. This Christmas-themed parade began in 1924 and is now the largest holiday parade in the world and is broadcast into the family rooms of anyone who cannot attend in person. Elaborately decorated parade floats and oversized balloons put an over-the-top spin on this iconic American celebration of the start of the Christmas season.

No matter where you live in the United States, if you celebrate Christmas, you’ve probably participated in at least one, if not most, of these holiday traditions. Though not all of these practices solely take place in America, those of us here in the US have put our unique stamp on these Christmas traditions and have made them into the uniquely American customs they are today.

If you are searching for more uniquely American things, you can check out our selection of American themed calendars. Our US cities series of calendars features vintage linen postcards from big cities around the country. Our 2023 Vintage America Calendar showcases poster art of the US, and our 2023 Vintage American West Calendar is a collection of black and white photography from the days of the Old West. The 2023 Vintage American Landscapes is a gallery of striking photographs taken by Ansel Adams for the US National Park Service. And our 2023 Vintage National Parks Calendar features old postcards from our nation’s historic outdoor sites. You can see all our 2023 vintage, retro, and pop culture calendars here.

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