Christmas in America

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    /wiki/Christmas in Americawork
    This scene took place during an Easter special...thirty-five years ago.


    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.

    • Black Friday: While Christmas merchandise and decorations now begin to appear in stores in mid-October, if not earlier [1], actual Christmas sales formally launch the day after Thanksgiving Day, which falls on the fourth Thursday in November. Stores open in the wee hours of the morning -- 5 a.m. was common, but now every year the start seems to happen earlier in the day if not on Thanksgiving Day night itself. A Zerg Rush of determined shoppers storms in to snag must-have items -- especially toys and electronics -- at reduced prices. Merchants have been claiming since the 1980s that the name stems from the expression "in the black," which means turning a profit: these sales often secure a store's fortunes for the year. However, Wikipedia says the term has been around since the 1950s "to describe the crowds and traffic congestion accompanying the start of the Christmas shopping season." In recent years, the name has taken on a darker connotation. 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. Even before that the term often had rather a different meaning to actual employees, who regard it with all the dread of Black Sunday; even when people don't get killed, physical assault is not as uncommon as one might expect. (A notorious 2011 incident in California had a shopper unleashing pepper spray on her rivals.)
      • Last-Minute Shopping: Oh hell 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 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 busiest shopping day of the season is not Black Friday but a day much closer to Christmas, usually the last Saturday before.
      • 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 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). 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 King's Day on the 6th of January.
    • Christmas Dinner: Because Thanksgiving Day is the big "feasting" 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, 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).
    • 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 toplining a popular celebrity (often a musician) to animated shows such as How the Grinch Stole Christmas, the various Rankin/Bass Productions specials, and A Charlie Brown Christmas. The most popular have been repeated annually by the big networks for decades now. The former are one-off shows, though some performers, such as Andy Williams and Johnny Cash, were famous for doing a new special each year for a stretch 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 particularly popular stock plots.)
    • Christmas Movies: If you're a TV channel -- especially a cable channel -- wanting more than just specials to fill up airtime, themed movies are an option. Channels like Lifetime and the Hallmark Channel produce their own films for this purpose each year and have been at it long enough that they each can fill a whole month's worth of prime time with them. Most of these are based on a pretty simple concept ("The Dog Who Saved Christmas Part Two") or a pre-existing property ("The Christmas Shoes" was a song that launched a trilogy of films) and tend to be a rich well of Snark Bait. Other channels run popular theatrical Christmas movies: TBS famously runs a 24-hour marathon of A Christmas Story starting in prime time on Christmas Eve. Scrooged and other movies based off A Christmas Carol, National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation, Elf, Miracle on 34th Street, 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 runs it.
    • Christmas Music: While the UK phenomenon of the "Christmas Number One" is not repeated in the US, 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, Mariah Carey's version of "All I Want For Christmas Is You"), you might as well have a license to print money. 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, the playlists can 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: notably "My Favorite Things" and "The Marvelous Toy" have joined the lineup of Christmas Songs.
    • Live Entertainment: Ballet companies big and small usually mount a production of the much-loved, Christmas-themed ballet The Nutcracker: this serves as a Cash Cow Franchise for them. Adaptations of A Christmas Carol, whether musicals or not, serve this purpose for playhouses. Christmas is also the season that the Trans-Siberian Orchestra makes most of their money.
    • Yule Log: Traditionally, a Yule Log is a special log burned during the winter solstice. In modern America, some television stations -- especially home shopping channels -- go off the air for Christmas Eve/Day, and a 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! Also offered on some cable systems "On Demand" services.
      • PBS Kids Sprout's "Snooze-a-Thon" is esseitally a variation on this. Beginning in 2008, Sprout began airing this beginning at 6 P.M. Eastern on Christmas Eve and into the wee morning hours of Christmas. It features 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. 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, this program is offered year-round.
    • The "War on Christmas": Hoo boy. Be warned, as this is a rather controversial subject. First, some background -- in recent years, there has been pressure for stores to greet shoppers with "Happy Holidays," "Seasons' Greetings" or "Merry X-Mas" instead of "Merry Christmas," for towns to stop holding nativity displays on public property, and for people in general to refer to the time around Christmas as the "holiday season" instead of the Christmas season. To many conservative Christians, this "war on Christmas" is a case of Political Correctness Gone Mad to appease non-Christians, diluting the true meaning of Christmas in the process. Some of the more radical Christians go as far as to allege that there is an active conspiracy by "secularists" to attack and undermine Christianity. On the other side of the fence, there are those who point out that a quarter of the US population is non-Christian, and that there is a very real risk of offending these people by doing something that seemingly gives preference to the majority religion. On the other hand, even many non-Christian Americans celebrate Christmas as a secular holiday (and for Jewish families that do so, it is common only to give children presents on Christmas, and not Hanukkah, either for keeping the latter as solely religious or to save money).
      • The point is, this means that those working in retail will find themselves just as likely to be yelled at by customers for saying "Merry Christmas" or "Happy Holidays". You can't win, and things can get truly ridiculous from there, as pointed out in this exchange in the Something Awful discussion boards:

    A Fancy 400 Lbs: "I've been wishing various people Merry Christmas today, and I've had multiple people bitch me out because it's Christmas EVE and not Christmas DAY -- and therefore not Christmas."
    Dr. Kyle Farnsworth: "If (they are) the conservative type, they've spent the past couple years getting their panties in a wad about THE WAR ON CHRISTMAS where people (LIBRULS!!!) are saying Happy Holidays because they hate Jesus/America/Apple Pie and actually don't want to celebrate Christmas at all. But if they must they'll make it an evil secular holiday and then there'll be no religion ever. The Christmas I spent in Alabama I went trolling by wishing everyone Happy Holidays and at least 50% went red-faced and spluttering."

        • As well as here.
        • And, from a different angle, here.
      • This whole thing takes on a degree of Irony if you know the history of the holiday in the US. Prior to the 19th century, few people in a Protestant-dominated America celebrated Christmas... mainly due to pressure from religious groups such as the Puritans, which often urged Christians not to celebrate Christmas, because a) they regarded the holiday (entirely correctly) as being a basically pagan festival with a thin religious varnish slapped on (much like how similar groups view Halloween today), and b) because it had become associated with drunken debauchery by that point. In some parts of the country, it was even illegal to celebrate Christmas due to this. It took Charles Dickens to give the holiday the reputation and recognition that it now has in the public consciousness, leading to both the "war on Christmas" fights and its commercialization. Which leads us into...
      • The Advent Conspiracy: A number of Christians feel that Christmas is under attack from a different direction -- namely, they feel that the commercialization of the holiday has caused people to forget about the Christian traditions behind it. To them, fighting to defend the use of "Merry Christmas" in Wal-Mart doesn't change the fact that you're still rushing Wal-Mart to get those sweet deals rather than thinking about the birth of Jesus. As a result, a number of churches have started telling their members to buy less during the Christmas season, and have started participating in Buy Nothing Day.
      • It should be noted at this point that most other Americans a) don't mind saying "Happy Holidays", because there's more than one religion in the world and the people who think there is a War on Christmas need to get over it, but who also b) find things like the "Holiday Tree", "Winter Workshop", and so forth in FarmVille a little excessive.
      • Not to mention that, political correctness aside, just going by American federal holidays alone, there are three major holidays within five weeks (Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years). So you could say "Happy Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New years", or you could just say "Happy Holidays" because you've got shit to do.
    • 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 notable 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... or, in a pinch, rum. 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 (whole parties can be 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 dons the red suit and beard to go tromping around on the roof or outside his children's window to enchant them, 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, followed by the lighting of the giant Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center, 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 Chicago is its own beast. It usually starts off with the Magnificent Mile Lights Festival, where Mickey Mouse himself comes to town and the lights along North Michigan Avenue 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. An annual tradition is the Marshall Field's store on State Street (don't call it Macy's, Chicagoans are not happy with that name change) window displays. These are usually classic Christmas stories that are told in sequence through the windows. You're more likely to get a classic "White Christmas" in Chicago than New York or LA.
    • 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 "Christmas and Easter" 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 rigeur. There is often a Nativity play sometime during the season, usually featuring children.
    • 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 pretaped 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.

    Notes

    1. and many department stores like JC Penney ship their holiday catalog as early as late August...