Like every culture, Americans celebrate Christmas in their own wonderful (and wacky) ways. Here’s an overview of how to celebrate Christmas like an American.
1. Try to outdo your neighbours for Christmas decorations
In America, we have the popular saying “go big or go home”, but when it comes to Christmas in the US, it’s “go big at home”, meaning put up as many lights and decorations as possible. Yes of course, the idea is to boost the Christmas spirit, but mostly it’s to make your neighbours jealous of your Christmas decoration skills.
When I was a kid, my sister, my dad, and I would take a drive around our small town and view the houses with the most decorations. Some people were so committed that it was literally jaw-dropping. While my dad did his best for our own home, he more so took the route of leaving the Christmas lights on the house all year round, but just turned them on during the month of December. Needless to say, the decoration inspiration for us kids came mostly from our neighbours.
2. Make gingerbread houses
If you’re a crafty person (or want to keep your kids busy on your days off), then making gingerbread houses is probably the best way to go. The same as how advent calendars are all over the grocery stores in Germany, so too are the gingerbread house kits in the US. I myself made many a gingerbread house along with my sister, although we had much more fun eating the candy decorations and frosting “glue” than actually “building” the house.
3. Watch tons of Christmas movies
You’ve probably heard of classic Christmas movies like “Home Alone” and “How the Grinch Stole Christmas”. I personally have watched “Home Alone” at least 20 times. Our Christmas break from school can (fortunately) be quite long, as much as up to a month, so I spent a lot of that time watching movies. We didn’t have Netflix back then, so it was all Christmas movie reruns.
Where I grew up, it’s so cold to the point that -28,89°C (-20°F) is not that uncommon. There is also tons of snow. So the movies where they get snowed in and have to dig themselves out of the front door was pretty much my childhood. There was simply nothing else to do than watch movies that time of year.
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4. Send annual Christmas cards
Americans love sending Christmas cards. We typically take a photo with our immediate family and then send that to all of our extended family, as well as any family friends to suffice as a Christmas gift and yearly hello. Even though I live in Germany now, I still send out at least 15 Christmas cards every year, so that’s how integral those are as a Christmas tradition. For me, it’s important to do so to still maintain my American identity as an expat in Germany.
5. Open stockings on Christmas Eve
When the time comes for the actual Christmas celebration, for Americans, this starts on Christmas Eve with opening stockings. Stockings are these large sock-shaped pouches that we hang on the wall and stuff with small gifts for each other. Each person has a stocking with their own name and others work together to “stuff” the stocking as much as possible before Christmas Eve. In my family, my great grandmother knitted a new stocking with each newborn baby that the person would then use throughout their entire life.
6. Leave out milk and cookies for Santa
The second Christmas Eve tradition is to leave milk and cookies for Santa. This can’t be overlooked, because otherwise he won’t have the energy to bring you your presents during the night, so you can open them the next morning. When my sister and I were really little, my family got into this so much that we both truly believed in Santa. I’ll never forget one Christmas where my grandpa had me utterly convinced that we both heard the sound of reindeer on the roof.
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7. Get up early and open Christmas presents
On Christmas Morning, my sister and I would wake up bright and early and check if the milk and cookies were eaten. If so, that meant we had presents ready to open beneath the Christmas tree. Sure enough, every single year they were.
Before we’d even eat a bite for breakfast, my parents, and both sets of grandparents would gather around in a circle in the living room. My sister was always the one who sorted the presents and gave them to the right person. We’d then each open one gift at a time so that everyone could see what we got and we could tell the appropriate person thank you.
8. Have a family feast in the early afternoon of Christmas morning
Once opening presents was finished and ample amounts of hugs were given, we’d make a small breakfast (usually pancakes) to stave off our hunger for a couple hours. Then we’d all start preparing the huge meal we’d have together at around 3 in the afternoon. This usually consisted of at least 4 different pies, a whole turkey, prime rib, biscuits (of course the American ones), homemade raspberry jam, a salad, and much more.
Looking back on this now, I feel extremely lucky that my family did so much to celebrate Christmas together and will be eternally grateful for their efforts. That is the true gift they gave me that will always be remembered.