Home > Art & Culture > Traditions > Christmas in the United States

In America, past and present joys are combined to set the Christmas scene and to prepare the way for a well-wished-for holiday season. People combine “good-old-days” elements like horse-drawn sleighs with jingle bells passing through snowy 19th century New England villages; old-world virtues from the story “A Christmas Carol”, by English author Charles Dickens; and childlike wonder from the story “Twas the night before Christmas”, by American author Clement Moore. The last introduced Americans to a mysterious little elf named Santa Claus based on old European tales of beneficent saints. Nativity scenes appear throughout the Christmas landscape, both public and private, to present the story of the birth of Christ Jesus, the most amazing story of all. Nearly all American Christmas traditions come from within these well-known sources, which we retell every year.

Our family celebrated Christmas in typical fashion.

To prepare for the season, I (Mom) started by making lists : the Christmas card list; the gift list; various shopping lists for making or buying gifts and decorations, or for preparing for a friendly party and the big family feast; a list of places to go, such as the children’s play at school or the cantata performance at church; and a running to-do list.

First on that list? Put on the Christmas music. Ancient, classic, jazzy, popular and sacred Christmas music was infused into every waking moment of the season.

Next? Get those Christmas cards in the mail. Then, put up the decoration. Dad was responsible for bringing the decorations down from the attic, taking the family to buy the “perfect” Christmas tree, and putting the lights on the tree. Then, everyone hung the ornaments and tinsel. Mom finished the decorating by setting out the nativity on the mantel, and placing multicolored bows and ribbons, fruit, pine cones, candles, and flowers throughout the house. Additional lighting was installed by Dad and Joshua : a candle in every window (which Joshua plugged up every day at nightfall), a spotlight on the frontdoor, and lights in selected trees and shrubs in the front yard. We not only enjoyed our decorations, but we always took a special ride to look at the decorations of others.

I was the overseer for the at-home Christmas factory. Nearly every year, we all made gifts to give, like candles, paper snippings, embroidered linens, crocheted afghans and sweaters, and wood-burned and painted sketches. A favorite gift given by Kirsten was a tin of her decorated sugar cookies. Lots and lots of cookies, candies, fruitcakes, and other special treats were prepared in our kitchen during Christmas. One favorite treat that became a tradition in our home was oyster stew and onion-cheese bread eaten on Christmas Eve after church and just before Kirsten and Joshua going to bed. Kirsten and Joshua always left cookies and a thank-you note for Santa by the fireplace.

The next day, Christmas Day, always started very early because they wanted to see what, if anything, Santa had brought them. After visits to paternal grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins, where we feasted on turkey, dressing, cranberry sauce, turnips, sweet potatoes, green beans, squash, cakes, pies, and ambrosia, we came home and played for a few days. Often, we simply ignored the clock and stayed in our pajamas day after day. One day was always reserved for our annual holiday visit to the Spaghetti Factory for dinner. A day or so before New Year’s Day, we went to visit maternal grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins to celebrate Christmas with a repeat feast and gift exchange. Around 11:00 PM, on New Year’s Eve, everyone gathered outside to light fireworks. Afterwards, we came inside to listen to music, dance and open a bottle of champagne to welcome the New Year. With the last “Happy New Year” kiss, children were whisked off to bed. The adults stayed up and talked about life, and laughed and cried together.

New Year’s Day always signaled the end of the Christmas season and the time to get back to work and school. In the next few days, the Christmas decorations were taken down and packed away, but not our imaginations, our good will and our hopes. All these things, born of tradition, would last until the next Christmas season.

Today, my children are grown and my husband and I live in France, very far from the children. We will be together at Christmas, but many things are different now.