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Christmas Traditions in America

Christmas in the United States is pure magic. Everywhere you look there are festive decorations and that unmistakable Christmas spirit. Christmas traditions in America like decorating Christmas trees, leaving cookies for Santa, and opening presents on Christmas morning are practiced nationwide. It’s a time that really brings out the best in people. The holiday truly captures the essence of joy and togetherness across the country, thanks to the traditions that define it.

Christmas Festivities and Events

From Thanksgiving through New Year’s, Christmas traditions in America thrive. American towns and cities come alive with all sorts of Christmas events and activities. Parades, tree lightings, light displays, live nativities, Santa visits, nutcracker ballets, and holiday markets fill the festive calendar.

In New York City, the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree is an iconic symbol of the season. The tradition dates back to 1931 when workers decorated a 20 foot tree. Today, the enormous tree is viewed by millions. The Rockettes Christmas Spectacular is another beloved NYC tradition featuring glamorous dance numbers.

In Chicago, the Christkindlmarket in Daley Plaza brings a taste of German Christmas markets to the Windy City with vendors selling food, drinks, and gifts.  Santa’s Village at the Opry Mills mall in Nashville features one of the largest indoor Christmas lights displays. Meanwhile, in the charming towns of New England, residents gather for candlelight carol sings and horse-drawn carriage rides through snow covered streets.

While snow may be a rare sight in Hawaii, the Aloha State celebrates Christmas with its own unique flair. From festive luaus featuring roasted pig and tropical fruit to concerts showcasing traditional Hawaiian music and dance, Christmas in Hawaii is a vibrant fusion of island culture and holiday cheer.

Out west, Las Vegas features brilliant light displays on the Strip. The Newport Beach Christmas Boat Parade in Southern California has been dazzling crowds for over a century. Wherever you go, there are plenty of merry events and experiences getting Americans in the Christmas spirit.

Regional Christmas Cuisine

While turkey is the star of Thanksgiving, the traditional Christmas meal varies across the United States. In the South, baked ham is a staple centerpiece. It is often accompanied by cornbread dressing, green beans, macaroni and cheese, sweet potato casserole, and pecan pie. 

Christmas dinner with rolls, turkey, candles, glass of milk.

The Feast of Seven Fishes is a long-standing Christmas Eve tradition in Italian-American communities. In the Southwest, tamales are a must-have celebratory food. East coast cities with Portuguese populations enjoy a Christmas salted cod dish called baccalà.

Other favorites around the country include roast beef, lasagna, rack of lamb, eggnog, and all sorts of pies and cookies. No matter the main course, festive drinks and decadent desserts are holiday highlights.

Holiday Sweets

  • Christmas Cookies- Baking and decorating classics like gingerbread and sugar cookies is a beloved family activity.
  • Fruitcake- The divisive fruitcake is a Christmas baking tradition dating back centuries. Not everyone enjoys this dense candied fruit cake. 
  • Gingerbread Houses- Building and decorating gingerbread houses is a popular family activity. From simple graham cracker creations to elaborate constructions with candy canes and gumdrops galore, these edible masterpieces bring smiles to everyone’s faces.
  • Candy Canes– The classic red-and-white hard candies are used for decorating as well as eating.
Two gingerbread houses on a table.


  • Christmas Tree- No Christmas celebration is complete without the iconic Christmas tree. Families often gather together to choose the perfect tree from a local farm or select one from a nearby lot. Then comes the joyful task of decorating the tree with an array of ornaments.
  • Outdoor Light Displays- It’s hard to miss the Christmas spirit when neighborhoods are aglow with dazzling light displays. Americans take pride in decorating the exteriors of their homes with strings of colored lights, inflatable characters, and even synchronized light shows set to music.
  • Wreaths- Wreaths are popular Christmas decorations because of their circular shape, which is seen as a symbol of eternity. They are traditionally made with evergreen plants like holly, ivy, and pine.
  • Advent Calendars- Counting down to Christmas is made merrier with Advent calendars. Children excitedly open a new door each day in December to reveal a small picture or treat inside.
  • Nativity Scenes– Many families display a nativity scene or model that depicts the birth of Jesus Christ. It traditionally includes figurines representing Mary, Joseph, the baby Jesus lying in a manger, angels, shepherds, and various animals like sheep and oxen or donkeys. 
  • Christmas Stockings- Hanging up stockings or socks on Christmas Eve for Santa to fill with small gifts and treats is an iconic tradition.
  • Mistletoe- It is custom to hang mistletoe in a doorway. If someone is caught standing under it, they can be kissed.
  • Poinsettias- These red and green potted plants are hugely popular Christmas decorations in American homes.
One of many Christmas traditions in America 4 stockings hanging on mantle.

Music and Entertainment

  • Christmas Movies- Cozying up to watch beloved Christmas films is a treasured tradition. Classics like It’s a Wonderful Life, Elf, Home Alone, and many more bring holiday cheer to families year after year.
  • Christmas Music- The sounds of the season fill the air as Christmas carols and pop tunes take over radio stations. Many look forward to yearly traditions like attending choir concerts or caroling door-to-door..
  • Holiday Specials on TV- Holiday specials have become a tradition in America as they evoke nostalgia, bring families together, and spread holiday cheer. The annual airing of these familiar shows has turned into a ritual.
  • Christmas Pageants- Many schools and churches host Christmas pageants or Nativity plays. Children and sometimes adults reenact the story of Jesus’ birth.

Faith-Based Christmas Traditions In America

  • Christmas Eve Services- For Christian families, attending a church service on Christmas Eve is a way to honor the reason for the season. Many churches hold candlelight services with biblical readings and Christmas carols.
  • Nativity Scenes- Recreating the humble manger setting of Jesus’s birth is a hallmark of the Christmas celebration.
  • Advent Observances- The tradition of observing Advent involves several practices. It counts down the four weeks before Christmas using Advent calendars. Candles on an Advent wreath are lit each week and some observers also have daily Advent devotionals or activities.
  • Reading the Christmas Story- Reading the story of Christ’s birth is a tradition for many families. It is a way to reflect on the true meaning of the season.

Gift Giving

  • Exchanging Presents- The custom where people exchange presents as a symbol of love, appreciation, and goodwill is a cherished part of the season.
  • White Elephant- Many families and workplaces participate in White Elephant gift exchanges. Participants bring wrapped, anonymous gifts to be exchanged and often steal from one another in a playful manner.
  • Secret Santa-  This tradition is popular among friends, families, and workplaces during the festive season. Participants anonymously exchange gifts within their group,
  • Creating Wish Lists – Compiling wish lists at Christmas involves making a list of desired gifts, typically shared with family and friends. The lists provide guidance on what presents would be appreciated.

Santa Claus

The idea of Santa Claus bringing presents for children on Christmas Eve/Day is a hugely popular American tradition. Many families partake in activities like:

  • Writing letters to Santa
  • Leaving out milk and cookies 
  • Tracking Santa with NORAD’s Santa Tracker
  • Visiting Santa at the mall for pictures
A glass of milk, cookies and candles.

Festive Attire

  • Ugly Christmas Sweaters- Wearing intentionally gaudy or tacky Christmas-themed sweaters has become a fun modern tradition.
  • Christmas Pajamas- Families matching in new Christmas pajama sets on Christmas Eve or Christmas morning is a popular custom. 

More Christmas Traditions in America

Family Activities 

  • Elf on the Shelf- Parents place an elf figurine in different spots around the house each day in December. The elf often gets into mischief to encourage good behavior in children leading up to Christmas.
  • Holiday Shopping– The hustle and bustle of holiday shopping is a significant tradition. Many people enjoy the process of finding the perfect gifts for loved ones.
  • Christmas Cards – Sending and receiving holiday cards is a long standing way to celebrate the season.
  • Holiday Cards with Family Updates- Alongside Christmas cards, some families include letters or updates summarizing their year’s events and milestones.
  • Cookie Exchanges- Cookie exchanges are gatherings where participants bake and bring batches of cookies to swap with others. This allows everyone to enjoy a variety of homemade treats during the holiday season.
  • Caroling- The tradition of going door-to-door singing Christmas songs and carols dates back centuries.
  • Volunteer Opportunities- Many individuals and families make volunteering a part of their holiday tradition. Serving meals at a homeless shelter, participating in a toy drive, or donating to charitable organizations are a few examples.
  • New Year’s Resolutions- While technically after Christmas, making New Year’s resolutions is a common tradition for many Americans. They reflect on the past year and set goals for self-improvement in the year ahead.
One of the Christmas traditions in America of caroling. Four carolers holding books.

The Spirit of Giving

One of the most cherished aspects of Christmas in the USA is the spirit of giving. Americans wholeheartedly embrace the opportunity to spread kindness and generosity during this festive season.

  • Christmas Caroling for Charity- Many church and student groups go Christmas caroling as a way to raise money for charity.
  • Toy Drives- Participating in toy drives by donating new, unwrapped toys for underprivileged children is a popular charitable Christmas tradition.
  • Donating to Charities-  Many Americans donate money, food, or gifts to charities and organizations that support those in need during the holiday season.
  • Volunteering at Soup Kitchens or Shelters- Individuals and families often volunteer their time at soup kitchens, homeless shelters, or other community organizations to help serve meals or distribute gifts to those less fortunate.

Christmas traditions in America are abundant and cherished. No matter which traditions your family observes, the spirit of Christmas shines bright across the United States. From the twinkling lights to the delicious treats, it’s a time of hope, joy, and cherished memories made with loved ones.

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