In the U.S., there are two widely recognized holidays in December: Advent/Christmas and New Year’s Eve. Christmas Day is a national holiday on which banks and governmental offices (most notably post offices) are closed. New Year’s is observed in personal lives to varying degrees. Most businesses are closed on both days.
Advent: This Christian “holiday” is actually a four-week period leading up to Christmas. This season celebrates the anticipation of the birth of Jesus, announced in the Jewish Bible (called the Old Testament by Christians). The decorating color is purple, and each Sunday of Advent is celebrated by lighting a special candle and lessons based on four themes: hope, peace, love, and joy.
Christmas Eve: Christian families often go to church on Christmas Eve. Early-evening services may include a Christmas “pageant” (or play) where children wear Middle Eastern clothing of 2000 years ago and act out the Christmas story of Jesus’ parents arriving in Bethlehem, finding only accommodation in a barn, and having their son born there. The main characters in the play are Mary and Joseph (the parents), area shepherds, three visiting kings (called Wise Men), and angels. Sometimes a live baby is used, but more often (and more safely) a wrapped-up doll is used.
A late-evening service is sometimes held at church where the Christmas story is told, Christmas carols (hymns) are sung, and candles are lit and held by each participant. Back at home, some families exchange gifts with each other on Christmas Eve. This is the evening when Santa Claus visits houses with small children and leaves them gifts. A favorite holiday tradition is reading aloud of a classic poem, “The Night Before Christmas” by Clement Moore. When my daughters were growing up, we used to read aloud from the 1971 story, “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever.”
Christmas Day: Some American families wait until Christmas morning to exchange gifts. Small children, usually eager with anticipation, wake up early and pester their parents into checking under the Christmas tree in the family room for evidence of Santa’s visit. Many families travel across town or across the country to visit relatives on Christmas Day. Huge feasts are cooked and enjoyed. Interestingly, this is also a day when many Americans go out to movie theaters. Many businesses are closed for the entire week between Christmas and New Year’s Day. School and universities often have a 2- or 3-week holiday at this time.
New Year’s Eve: People in the U.S. often gather with friends to celebrate the coming of the new year. Parties may include food, drinking alcohol, and music. Public parties may have live bands and dancing. In New York City, hundreds of thousands gather in Times Square to watch a large, illuminated globe lowered from on high. Attendees count down from ten to one. Millions more watch the countdown on their televisions at home. After the countdown, people shout “Happy New Year,” hug, kiss, and express optimism over the incoming year.
New Year’s Day is when Americans visit friends and family. College sports fans can feast their eyes from morning to late night, watching parades and football games on TV.
Other events this month: the end of the fall semester at most universities; office parties; decorating homes and businesses for Christmas; shopping for Christmas presents; writing and mailing Christmas cards
Do you have questions about Christmas holiday customs and etiquette? Write us so we can help you understand what your co-workers and neighbors are doing.