The history of the American holiday season

You may be familiar with the Christian holiday of Christmas—you may have even celebrated it in your native country. But you’re in for a surprise when you celebrate it in the United States.

About nine in ten Americans (92%) and nearly all Christians (96%) say they celebrate Christmas, according to a 2013 Pew Research Center survey. And in the US, Christmas isn’t celebrated only on December 25th. We make it a whole season, starting from the day after Thanksgiving to Christmas Day. Some may even extend this festive period from November 1st all the way to January 2nd.

In this article, we’ll give you a general overview of the American holiday season. We’ll share with you a little background into Christmas, prepare you for the American holiday of Thanksgiving, and share with you the history of the “official” start of the Christmas shopping season, known as Black Friday.

We hope that by the end of this blog, you’ll have a better understanding of the American holiday season, as well as some ideas about how to start your own holiday traditions in your new country.

Christmas in the United States

The Pew Research Center estimates that two billion people celebrate Christmas in over 160 countries worldwide. That’s a massive amount of Christmas cheer going on each year, and each country has its own unique way of celebrating Christmas that has evolved over time.

This season holds a lot of cultural significance for many people in the United States. Many non-Christian holidays are celebrated at the same time of year as Christmas, such as the African-American holiday of Kwanzaa and the Jewish Hanukkah, which combine into a broader holiday season.

The huge range of Christmas traditions in the US can be attributed to our multicultural nature—many customs are similar to the Christmas traditions observed in the UK, Germany, France, Italy, The Netherlands, Poland, and Mexico, among others. Americans also blend religious customs with their own family traditions while celebrating Christmas.

These traditions incorporate food, decorations, events and even some rituals that are passed down from generation to generation. For many Americans, the Christmas season is also an occasion to give to others through charities and volunteer work.

Seasonal entertainment is another big part of holiday traditions for many American families. From school plays to carols, to ballets, Christmas movie marathons, and the abundance of Christmas music, there is always an event going on somewhere that is centered on the festive holiday.

Many families enjoy sending Christmas cards to friends and family, while others enjoy the decorations and the cookie baking. The season generally brings a feeling of good spirit and a reason for creating new memories with friends and family. It’s so easy to get caught up in the celebration, and the Christmas spirit is hard to avoid, especially in Oklahoma.

For more interesting facts about the American Christmas experience, read this article by Pew Research: Five Facts about Christmas in America.

While Christmas is a Christian religious holiday, it is celebrated widely in the United States—some may consider Christmas more of a cultural celebration than a religious one. This is reflected in the American version of Santa Claus.

Maybe you’ve heard of our Santa Claus? You know, the big, jolly guy with a fluffy white beard, a suit of red and white, who rides a sleigh and has a workshop manned by elves?

A Brief History of the American Santa Claus

The first image of the jolly version St. Nicholas can be traced back to December 6, 1810, when John Pintard commissioned artist Alexander Anderson to create the first American image of St. Nicholas for the occasion.

St. Nicholas was shown as a gift-giver, bringing treats down the chimney in stockings and hanging them at the fireplace.

A book from 1821 made the first mention of Santa Claus’s enchanted flying sleigh pulled by a magic reindeer. This book was also the first time that Santa Claus was shown appearing on December 24th. A famous poem from 1823, “The Night before Christmas,” promoted the jolly and cozy image of Santa Claus.

In 1931, Coca-Cola incorporated the image of Santa Claus into their advertisements for their popular soda. This popularized Santa Claus and established him as a commercialized icon. Coca-Cola’s picture of Santa was so popular, and continues to be so popular today, that it has begun to threaten the religious image of St. Nicholas in European countries.

But What about Thanksgiving?

Let’s back up to the event that starts the Christmas season. Late in November, the American holiday of Thanksgiving takes place. Celebrated on the fourth Thursday in November, Thanksgiving centers on sharing a meal with your family to celebrate what you are thankful for this year.

A turkey is often served as the primary dish at a traditional American Thanksgiving. The side dishes might vary, but they’re usually a combination of mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, green beans, and an assortment of desserts and pie. Each family creates their own menu that is customized to their liking.

Thanksgiving pays homage to the first large group of settlers to America, the Pilgrims. In 1621, they hosted a large feast to celebrate a successful harvest after a tough year.

The Pilgrims invited the local Native American tribe to their feast to thank them for their contributions to the Pilgrims’ survival—the Native Americans had taught the Pilgrims how to plant, hunt, and fish on the new land.

In 1939, Thanksgiving became an official American holiday when President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared it a national holiday.

In the United States, Thanksgiving is one of the biggest holidays to be celebrated by the vast majority of Americans, regardless of religion. Thanksgiving has its own traditions, like food, decorations, American football, and good company.

And of course no Thanksgiving would be complete without the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade is the world’s largest parade, and is presented by the US-based department store chain Macy’s. The annual event started in 1924 and continues to be held in New York City on Thanksgiving Day. It has been televised nationally on NBC since 1952. The three-hour event features floats, costumes, and huge helium balloons in the shape of cartoon characters, including Mickey Mouse and Felix the Cat. Santa and his sleigh make up the rear of the parade.  

Black Friday Madness

Since Christmas is a gift-giving holiday in the US, the Christmas season wouldn’t be the same without Black Friday—the first day of the shopping season, and a day that most shops offer reduced prices.

The origin of the name “Black Friday” has a few different stories. According to’s article, What’s the Real History of Black Friday, “the most commonly repeated story behind the post-Thanksgiving shopping-related Black Friday tradition links it to retailers.

“As the story goes, after an entire year of operating at a loss (‘in the red’) stores would supposedly earn a profit (‘went into the black’) on the day after Thanksgiving, because holiday shoppers blew so much money on discounted merchandise.

“Though it’s true that retail companies used to record losses in red and profits in black when doing their accounting, this version of Black Friday’s origin is the officially sanctioned—but inaccurate—story behind the tradition.”

Another version of the story is that the term “Black Friday” started in the 1960s in Philadelphia when the Philadelphia police force coined the term to refer to the increased traffic in the city on the Friday after Thanksgiving. They called it “Black Friday” because of the tourists, shoppers, football-game goers, and shoplifters who caused much agitation to the officers.

Whatever the story is behind the name “Black Friday,” what you should know is that it’s one of the most significant shopping days of the year because of the sales and other discounts offered on that day.

The tradition of Black Friday shopping will often have shoppers camping out overnight at the local Walmart, Best Buy, or other retailers, hoping to be the first in line for the hottest new gadget or toy to give to someone for Christmas or to claim for themselves.

To further capitalize on the profits from this day, some retailers have started keeping their stores open on Thanksgiving instead of opening extra early, sometimes at 3 or 4 a.m. on Friday morning. Some families make an annual tradition of Black Friday shopping by starting way before the sun comes up and not finishing until they have purchased gifts for everyone on their Christmas shopping list. That can make for one long day of shopping!

If you feel brave and want to venture out for your own Black Friday shopping, wear comfortable shoes and be prepared to wait in long lines. ☺


Now that you know a little bit more about the history and the celebrations of the American holiday season, we welcome you to start your own traditions in Oklahoma. Consider hosting a dinner with your family and your new American friends. Share with them your favorites recipes from your home country. Need help finding ingredients? Check out our blog on the best ethnic grocery stores in the metro.

The holiday season puts special focus on the gathering of friends and family, so however you decide to celebrate, we hope that you are surrounded with feelings of comfort and joy.


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