Christmas Around the World: USA!

American Christmas traditions – part of a series written by a group of bloggers about Christmas around the world.

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My kids haven’t realized it, but as we are getting ready for Christmas they are learning about our family’s Christmas traditions – which, like all American Christmas traditions, have been influenced by countries around the globe! This month we will have the opportunity as a family to learn more about Christmas around the world, thanks to the Christmas in Different Lands blog hop that is being run by Multicultural Kid Blogs !

Christmas around the world

Today is my turn on the blog hop train, and I’m here are some traditions I have seen throughout the United States! I’m skipping over the ubiquitous Christmas trees, Santa Claus and elves to talk about some other elements of Christmas that I see throughout the country. Many of our most common traditions come from the United Kingdom – a heritage, no doubt, of the thirteen original colonies belonging to the British Empire.

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American Christmas Traditions – Celebrating Christmas in the United States

Nativity

Nativity sets are also very popular at this time of year, and in the United States you find them in all shapes and sizes! Besides the wood, ceramic, and play nativity sets, you can usually find a live nativity near where you live, with the nativity acted out by real people. This is an especially fun way for children to explore the Christmas story!

DIY nativity costumes for kids

It’s easy to make your own costumes for a live nativity:

How to Make A Nativity Costume

  1. Take two pieces of fabric that are the width of the wearer from elbow to elbow and as long as you need the finished costume to be (we usually go for ankle length-ish)
  2. Stitch the top sides together, leaving an opening in the middle for the head.
  3. Hem the head opening
  4. Stitch the sides, leaving a generous opening for the arms
  5. Hem the arm openings
  6. Hem the bottom
  7. Stitch a long length of material for a sash to tie around the person’s waist. Or steal your bathrobe tie.

Rectangular dish towels with ties make reasonable improvised head gear (note that all of this requires considerable willing suspension of disbelief, and is not meant to be historically representational apparel).

Music

I love to sing, so caroling parties are one of my favorite traditions, as are Messiah sing-alongs. Several of the popular Christmas songs have different words for them depending on which part of the country you are in, but The Twelve Days of Christmas has only a couple variations, in spite of being incredibly long. I do enjoy the versions of it that require groups of people to stand and sing sections of the song (one group being “five golden rings”, another “ten lords a-leaping”).

I received three CDs of music to review this year, and I thought they represented a neat cross-section of holiday music as you find it in the United States today:

  • The Piano Guys stuck with the traditional Christian and secular carols that I heard growing up – with their creatively innovative arrangements! My family has enjoyed this musical group for a while, and this new CD was no exception. This video will give you a nice introduction to the CD, if you aren’t familiar with their work.
  • Joshua Bell – one of my favorite violinists who I have written about before – compiled a holiday Musical Gifts CD that included collaborations with artists ranging Renee Fleming and Placido Domingo to Chick Corea. The CD features mainly Christian and secular Christmas songs, but also includes “Baal Shem: Simhat Torah” – a celebration of the Torah.
  • Daria is a musician with a passion for world music – I wrote earlier this year about her Andean Music CD. She sent me her Songs for Merry Multicultural Mirth CD, which featured songs – Christian, secular, and Jewish – from around the world.

Gift Giving

The Christmas season is a great chance to reconnect with friends and neighbors! Cookie swaps – where each person brings one kind of cookie and takes home an assortment – are popular, as are white elephant/yankee swaps, where everyone brings a present to give to someone else. Secret gift-giving is a fun way to get into the spirit of giving without expecting anything in return, and you find a lot of anonymous do-gooders around Christmas time. Secret Santa or Secret Snowflake gift swaps – where everyone gets a present and everyone gives one, but you aren’t meant to know who gave what to whom – are a more complex way of giving gifts.

Stockings are a popular feature of American Christmases. Mike and I have followed along with my parents’ tradition of allowing the kids to dig into their stockings as early as they wished on Christmas morning, provided they let mom and dad sleep in!

Crafting

The United States may not host many elaborate Christmas markets, but at-home crafting is very popular around Christmas time! Paper chains and popcorn decorate Christmas trees, children make salt dough ornaments, and gingerbread houses are baked – alongside large quantities of cookies! Felt is also a very popular Christmas crafting material – I find myself pulling it out without even realizing it when December rolls around!

Tree Decorating

old fashioned Christmas tree

Christmas trees are an important part of US Christmas traditions! The tree above is decorated the old fashioned way, with strings of popcorn and old fashioned ornaments. These days you’ll almost always find LED lights, with artificial trees often arriving with lights built in!

I know that this post only begins to touch on American Christmas traditions – which are your favorites?

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MaryAnne lives in Silicon Valley with her Stanford professor husband Mike and their four children. She writes about parenting through education, creativity, and play. Mama Smiles - Joyful Parenting is a space to share crafts, hands on learning activities, and family outings that enrich lives and bring families together.

23 thoughts on “Christmas Around the World: USA!”

  1. Wonderful post! My favorite traditions have to be caroling and cookie swaps! They are fun and also help us feel connected to our communities. (Okay, it may be a stretch to call cookie swaps “community building” – but they are fun!)

  2. Oh, how excellent it is that you merged your traditions post and Afterschool post together! All three CDs you profiled look lovely – I surely need to check out Cyber Monday for some Christmas music specials.

  3. Cookie exchanges and Christmas songs are my favorite traditions. We try to get an annual family photo in front of our small Christmas tree. We also started leaving a toy for Santa to bring to poor kids (J’s idea) in addition to cookies and milk.

    Are you going to the Creche exhibit? It’s so neat! I’m always nervous about bring J even though there is a kids’ room.

    1. I love that J had the idea of leaving a toy for Santa to bring to poor kids. What a wonderful tradition!

      I think I’m going to the Creche exhibit today, just with Anna. I don’t know if we’ll take the kids this year.

  4. I think I’m going to do that Christmas-stocking-but-let-us-sleep-in tradition once my kids are older lol.

    It’d be interesting to see how gift giving became part of Christmas. I heard somewhere that this is a modern tradition; that even the days of Charles Dickens and The Christmas Carol, people focused more on the get together (a la Thanksgiving style) than the gift giving that is rampart these days.

    1. Gift giving was limited to stockings only for both of my parents – usually an orange in the toe and a few small things filling up the stocking. Mike and I both come from limited gifting families, and it makes the holidays much simpler, and more relaxed.

  5. Elisa | BlissfulE

    This is a great summary of traditions! Our wooden nativity set is my favourite, and the advent candles at church. My kids love Christmas music and sing it all year long. :)

  6. I miss the Christmas music – one of my goals this year is to teach my girls some of my favorite Christmas carols and (since we have just had a week of baking and freezing Christmas cookies almost everyday) I would really love it if we were somewhere that I could participate in a cookie swap. I hope you have a wonderful first Christmas in your new home.

    1. My family always had a TON of Christmas music since we all played instruments – so I try to bring it in as much as I can. Maybe I need to get my kids started with music lessons…

  7. It’s funny, I don’t really think about our traditions, they come so naturally but things are different around the world aren’t they? know I used to like to ask my dad about how Christmas was different in Ireland.
    I know food is a big one. We used to have Christmas Eve ham dinner at my grandmothers and my mom always made turkey on Christmas Day. Midnight Mass is a nice one. I love all the lights around the neighborhood too.
    Thanks for the music picks. I love your idea of letting the kids open stockings!

  8. I LOVE cookie swaps! Cookies aren’t as common in S. Africa so the kids and I are going to make lots of different kinds of cookies so we can give an assortment as gifts.

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