The Christmas traditions we observe in the United States.

December 24, 2017 § 2 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

The end of the calendar year marks a time when most cultures in the world slow down their work routines, gather with friends and relatives, and reflect on what was accomplished during the year while setting goals to achieve what was not.  Some give the season a religious connotation, others choose not to do so. Regardless of the personal meaning and importance that each one of us give to this time of the year, there is a common denominator, certain actions, traditions, and celebrations observed and held dear by many. They vary from country to country, and are part of the national pride and identity of a nation.

The United States is a unique case because of the convergence of cultures and populations from around the world who have brought with them their language, beliefs and traditions.  With globalization many other regions in the world now live the same situation where not everybody celebrates everything, not everybody celebrates the same, and even the ones who celebrate a particular festivity or observe certain event will do it differently depending on their cultural background. I also want to point out that, due to the immense commercial and cultural influence of the United States just about everywhere in the world, some traditions below will be recognized as something that you do in your country.

Although Christmas is not the only festivity where we see this American reality, I decided to share with you our national traditions on this day because it is widely observed and understood throughout the world, and because it is a nice thing to share with all of you when many of us are slowing down and waiting for the new year.  Finally, before I share these American traditions with you, I want to clarify that although this entry deals with Christmas traditions, it does it from a cultural perspective with no religious intent to endorse or offend anyone. I know that many of my dearest friends and colleagues come from different religions, cultural backgrounds, and geographic areas; and the farthest thing from my mind is to make you feel left out, ignored or offended. This post is written with the sole intention to share cultural traditions, and invite an exchange of information about other customs observed at the end of the year by other groups and countries.  Thank you for your understanding, and please enjoy:

In the United States the Christmas season, now called the holiday season to make it more inclusive, starts on the day after Thanksgiving known as “Black Friday”. Many schools and businesses close between Christmas (December 25) and New Year’s Day (January 1). Most Americans take this time out from their professional and academic schedules to spend time with their friends and families. Because of the high mobility we experience in the United States, it is very common that families live far from each other, often in different states; so that children go home to the parents’ is more significant as it may be the only time they see each other face to face during the year.

Many Americans decorate the exterior of their homes with holiday motifs such as snowmen, Santa Claus, and even reindeer figures.  As a tradition derived from holding Christmas in winter in the northern hemisphere when daylight is scarce, Americans install temporary multi-colored lights framing their house or business.  Because of its beauty and uniqueness, this tradition has spread to southern parts of the United States where winters are mild and daylight lasts longer. The American southwest distinguishes itself from the rest of the country because of the lights they use to decorate their buildings: the luminarias, a tradition (from the Spanish days of the region) of filling brown paper bags with sand and placing a candle inside.

The interior of the house is decorated during the weeks leading to Christmas and on Christmas Eve. Christmas tree farms in Canada and the United States provide enough trees for people’s homes, although many prefer an artificial tree.  These trees are placed at a special place in the house and are decorated with lights and ornaments, and at the very top an angel or star is placed on Christmas Eve.  Unlike many other countries, in particular those where most people are Roman Catholic, Americans hold no big celebration on Christmas Eve, known as “the night before Christmas”, the time when Santa Claus visits their homes while children are sleeping and leaves presents for the kids to open on Christmas morning.  As a sign of appreciation, or perhaps as a last act of lobbying, children leave out by the tree a glass of milk and cookies for Santa to snack during his visit.

Special Christmas stockings are hung on the fireplace mantelpiece for Santa to fill with gifts called “stocking stuffers” that will be found by the kids on Christmas Day while the yule log will provide heat and holiday smells. Even those homes that have replaced the traditional fireplace with an electric one have kept the yule log tradition; and when everything else fails, cable TV and satellite TV companies offer a TV channel that broadcasts only a yule log all day.

Adults exchange presents previously wrapped in festive seasonal wrapping paper, and even the pets get Christmas presents every year.  With the presents exchanged,  people move on to their Christmas dinner that will usually feature ham, roast beef, and even turkey with stuffing, although many families skip the bird because they just had it for Thanksgiving dinner a few weeks before.  Potatoes, squash, roasted vegetables, cranberries and salads are part of the traditional meal, but in some regions of the United States, demographic cultural fusion has added other dishes to the traditional family dinner: It is common to find tamales in a Hispanic Christmas dinner, poi and pork in Hawaii, BBQ turkey or chicken in the south, and sushi and rice in an Asian household. Unlike Thanksgiving when pumpkin pie is the universal choice, many desserts are part of the meal: pies, cakes, fruit, and the famous fruitcake.  They are all washed down with the traditional and very sweet eggnog or its “adult” version with some rum, whisky, or other spirits.

The Los Angeles Lakers and the Chicago Bulls have made it a tradition to have home NBA basketball games on Christmas Day that are broadcasted on national TV.  Other traditions include Christmas carols, window shopping the season-decorated department stores, special functions such as the Radio City Music Hall Christmas show and the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree in New York City, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir in Salt Lake City, the National Christmas tree in Washington, D.C., the Very-Merry Christmas Parade held simultaneously at Disney World in Orlando and Disneyland in Anaheim, the Nutcracker ballet in theaters and school auditoriums all over the United States, and endless Christmas movies and TV shows, including the original “A Charlie Brown Christmas” and Dr. Seuss’ “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” with Boris Karloff as the voice of the Grinch.

I hope this walk through American Christmas traditions was fun, helped some of you to understand a little better the culture of the United States, and maybe part of what you just read will be handy in the booth one day. Whether you live in the U.S. or somewhere else, I now ask you to please share some of your country or family’s Christmas or other holiday-related traditions with the rest of us.  I sincerely hope you continue to honor us by visiting this blog every week in 2018. Thank you for your continuous preference, and happy holidays to all!

The interpreter who played a crucial role at the first Thanksgiving.

November 21, 2017 § 3 Comments

Dear colleagues:

On Thursday the people of the United States will celebrate Thanksgiving: the most American of all holidays.  Christmas is also a very big day in America, but unlike Christmas only observed by Christians, Thanksgiving is a holiday for all Americans regardless of religion, ethnicity, or ideology. There are no presents, and every year during this fourth Thursday in November, people travel extensively to be with their loved ones and eat the same meal: a turkey dinner.

Distinguish between the religious act of thanking God for the good fortune and the American holiday called Thanksgiving Day.  The former was held by many Europeans all over the new world as they gave thanks for setting foot again on dry land. Explorers and conquistadors observed these religious ceremonies in places like Virginia, Florida, Texas, and New Mexico. Documented ceremonies were held on (at the time) Spanish territory as early as the 16th. Century by Vázquez de Coronado, and we have records of the festivities in Jamestown, Virginia during 1610.

The first Thanksgiving holiday can be traced to a celebration that took place at the Plymouth Plantation in Massachusetts. The settlers had a bad winter followed by a successful harvest in 1621.  During that crude winter survival was possible thanks to the help of the local residents: The Wampanoag tribe.  Massasoit, who was the tribe leader, donated food to the English when the food they brought from England proved insufficient.  Cooperation between Native-Americans and Europeans included agriculture, hunting, and fishing lessons.  The settlers were taught how to catch eel and grow corn, and were briefed on the geography and weather conditions of the region.  This partnership took place because of the good disposition of all those who participated; however, trust had to be established and communication had to be developed.  The Europeans and Native-Americans spoke different languages and had little in common.  The English settlers were very fortunate as they had among them a Patuxent Native-American who had lived in Europe, first in England and Spain as a slave, and later in England as a free man.  During his years in Europe, this man learned English and could communicate in both languages: English and the one spoken by the Wampanoag tribe.  His name was Squanto (also known as Tisquantum), and he played an essential role in this unprecedented cooperation between both cultures.  He was very important during the adaptation and learning process. His services were valuable to settle disputes and misunderstandings between natives and settlers.  There are accounts of Squanto’s ability and skill. He was embraced by the settlers until his dead.  His work as an interpreter and cultural broker made it possible for two very different peoples to sit down and share a meal and a celebration when on that first Thanksgiving, the settlers held a harvest feast that lasted three days. Ninety Native-Americans, including King Massasoit attended the event.  They ate fish, fowl, and corn that the English settlers furnished for the celebration, and they had five deer that the Wampanoag took to the feast. Although it is not documented, maybe they also had wild turkeys as they existed in the region.  Undoubtedly Squanto must have worked hard during those three days facilitating the communication between hosts and guests.

We now celebrate this all-American holiday every year. It has been observed since President Abraham Lincoln declared it a national holiday; and it has been observed on the fourth Thursday of November since President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared that it should be observed on that Thursday instead of the last one of the month as sometimes November has five Thursdays.  Thanksgiving is also the most American of all holidays because we celebrate family, football and the start of the best retail season of the year: Christmas.  We now have Black Friday and Cyber-Monday.  We travel by plane, car, and train to go home for this turkey dinner, and we all gather around the TV set to watch football and parades.  This Thanksgiving as you are carving the turkey, pause for a moment and remember the interpreter who helped make this all possible: Squanto the Patuxent Native-American.  Happy turkey day!

What is Presidents’ Day and how do you spell it?

February 15, 2017 § 2 Comments

Dear colleagues:

As it happens with other American holidays, many colleagues who live abroad, and others who live in the United States but grew up somewhere else, have asked me the meaning of the holiday we celebrate in the United States on the third Monday in February.  We have had forty five presidents in our country, and people often ask if we honor them all on this day. The answer is no. Let me explain.

The United States is a federation of fifty states and each state has its own legislation and decision-making process.  As a result of this system Americans have two types of holidays: Those that are observed in all fifty states called federal holidays, and those that are only observed in a specific state.  The latter ones are referred to as state holidays.  By comparison with other countries the United States has very few holidays.  The one observed in February is the third one on the calendar and it is just one of two holidays that commemorate the birth of a person (the other one is in January to honor the birth of Martin Luther King, Jr.)

All government offices close on federal holidays but the rest of the American people go to work on many of them.  The February holiday is one of those that the majority of the citizens of the United States will commemorate by going to work.

The U.S. has many founding fathers, all heroes and authors of the great country that we Americans enjoy today, but there is only one “father of the country.”  There is only one George Washington.  Because George Washington was born in the American state of Virginia on February 22, and he is the father of the country, in 1879 The United States Congress determined that all government offices in Washington, D.C. should remain closed to observe his birthday. In 1885 this was expanded to all federal government offices all over the United States.  On January 1, 1971 Congress passed the “Uniform Monday Holiday Act” and among other federal holidays, it shifted this one from Washington’s actual birthday to the third Monday in February.  As an interesting footnote I should mention that this piece of legislation moved the holiday to a day between February 15 and 21, so the observance never coincides with Washington’s real birthday on the 22nd.  For many years the holiday was known as “Washington’s Birthday.”

Abraham Lincoln, another beloved American hero, and our 16th. President, was born on February 12.  It was impossible to have two separate holidays to honor these two great men during the same calendar month, so for a long time Lincoln’s birthday was ignored.  A draft of the “Uniform Monday Holiday Act” would have renamed “Washington’s Birthday” as “Presidents’ Day” to honor the birth of both beloved presidents.  This is the reason why the observed holiday falls between both birthdays but it never falls on either.  The proposed name change failed in Congress and the holiday continued as “Washington’s Birthday.”  Lincoln’s birthday did not become a federal holiday, but several states, among them Connecticut, Missouri, and Illinois adopted it as a state holiday and they observe it on February 12, his actual birthday.

By the mid-1980s retailers and advertisement agencies started to refer to the holiday sales during this time-period as “Presidents’ Day” and the American people would soon follow suit.  Officially the holiday has never been named “Presidents’ Day.”  In fact, some state legislatures have chosen to honor Washington, Lincoln, and other heroes differently during the month of February. For example, the state of Massachusetts celebrates a state holiday called “Washington’s Birthday” on the same day that the federal government observes the federal “Washington’s Birthday,” and in May it celebrates a state holiday named “Presidents Day” honoring the presidents of the United States who came from Massachusetts: John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Calvin Coolidge, and John F. Kennedy.  In fact, the holiday falls on Kennedy’s birthday: May 29.  In Virginia where George Washington was born, the federal holiday is legally referred to as “George Washington’s Day.”  In Alabama the federal holiday commemorates Washington and Thomas Jefferson despite the fact that the latter president was born in April, and in New Mexico state government is open on the official federal “Presidents’ Day” because they observe it as a state-paid holiday on the Friday after Thanksgiving also known as “Black Friday.”

Now that we know that the third Monday in February is known as “Presidents’ Day” and it also serves the unofficial role of honoring Abraham Lincoln, and now that we understand that although a federal holiday, almost nobody but government employees have the day off on “Washington’s Birthday”, we need to talk about the correct spelling of this official federal holiday known to all Americans by its unofficial name: “Presidents’ Day.”

Today people refer to the holiday as “Presidents’ Day” and “Presidents Day.”  Both versions are considered correct by American dictionaries such as “Webster’s Third International Dictionary” and “The Chicago Manual of Style.”  As the use of attributive nouns has become common in the United States, “Presidents Day” has become the most popular term.  Of course, the spelling “President’s Day” is only acceptable when specifically referring to the birthday of Washington, and Washington alone.  So now you know what to do the next time they ask you to explain what Americans celebrate on the third Monday in February, whether or not you are willing to work on “Presidents Day,” and how to spell the name of this exceptionally unique holiday.  Please feel free to share your comments about the holiday or the way it should be spelled.

The Christmas traditions of the United States. The Professional Interpreter blog

December 22, 2016 § 2 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

The end of the calendar year marks a time when most cultures in the world slow down their work routines, gather with friends and relatives, and reflect on what was accomplished during the year while setting goals to achieve what was not.  Some give the season a religious connotation, others choose not to do so. Regardless of the personal meaning and importance that each one of us give to this time of the year, there is a common denominator, certain actions, traditions, and celebrations that are observed and held dear by many. They vary from country to country, and are part of the national pride and identity of a nation.

The United States is a unique case because of the convergence of cultures and populations from around the world who have brought with them their language, beliefs and traditions.  With globalization many other regions in the world now start to live the same situation where not everybody celebrates everything, not everybody celebrates the same, and even the ones who celebrate a particular festivity or observe certain event will do it differently depending on their cultural background. I also want to point out that, due to the immense commercial and cultural influence of the United States just about everywhere in the world, some of the traditions below will be recognized as something that you do in your country as well.

Although Christmas is not the only festivity where we see this American reality, I decided to share with you our national traditions on this day because it is widely observed and understood throughout the world, and because it is a nice thing to share with all of you during this time when many of us are slowing down and waiting for the new year.  Finally, before I share these American traditions with you, I want to make it very clear that although this entry deals with Christmas traditions, it does it from a cultural perspective with no religious intent to endorse or offend anyone. I am very aware of the fact that many of my dearest friends and colleagues come from different religions, cultural backgrounds, and geographic areas; and the farthest thing from my mind is to make you feel left out, ignored or offended. Please understand that this post is written with the sole intention to share cultural traditions, and invite an exchange of information about other customs observed at the end of the year by other groups and countries.  Thank you for your understanding, and please enjoy:

In the United States the Christmas season, now referred to as the holiday season in an effort to make it more inclusive, starts on the day after Thanksgiving known as “Black Friday”. Many schools and businesses close between Christmas (December 25) and New Year’s Day (January 1). Most Americans take this time out from their professional and academic schedules to spend time with their friends and families. Because of the high mobility we experience in the United States, it is very common that families live very far from each other, often in different states; so the fact that children go home to the parents’ is more significant as it may be the only time they see each other face to face during the year.

Many Americans decorate the exterior of their homes with holiday motifs such as snowmen, Santa Claus, and even reindeer figures.  As a tradition derived from holding Christmas in the middle of winter in the northern hemisphere when daylight is scarce, and before electricity it was practically non-existent, Americans install temporary multi-colored lights framing their house or business.  Because of its beauty and uniqueness, this tradition has spread to southern parts of the United States where winters are mild and daylight lasts longer. The American southwest distinguishes itself from the rest of the country because of the lights they use to decorate their buildings: the luminarias, a tradition (from the Spanish days of the region) of filling brown paper bags with sand and placing a candle inside.

The interior of the house is decorated during the weeks leading to Christmas and at the latest on Christmas Eve. Christmas tree farms in Canada and the United States provide enough trees for people’s homes, although many prefer an artificial tree.  These trees are placed at a special place in the house and are decorated with lights and ornaments, and at the very top an angel or star is placed on Christmas Eve.  Unlike many other countries, in particular those where a majority of people are Roman Catholic, Americans do not hold a big celebration on Christmas Eve, known as “the night before Christmas”, the time when Santa Claus visits their homes while children are sleeping and leaves presents for the kids to open on Christmas morning.  As a sign of appreciation, or perhaps as a last act of lobbying, children leave out by the tree a glass of milk and cookies for Santa to snack during his visit.

Special Christmas stockings are hung on the fireplace mantelpiece for Santa to fill with gifts called “stocking stuffers” that will be found by the kids on Christmas Day while the yule log will provide some heat and holiday smells. Even those homes that have replaced the traditional fireplace with an electric one have kept the yule log tradition; and when everything else fails, cable TV and satellite TV companies offer a TV channel that broadcasts nothing but a yule log all day.

Adults exchange presents that were previously wrapped in festive seasonal wrapping paper, and even the pets get Christmas presents every year.  With the presents exchanged,  people move on to their Christmas dinner that will usually feature ham, roast beef, and even turkey with stuffing, although many families skip the bird because they just had it for Thanksgiving dinner a few weeks before.  Potatoes, squash, roasted vegetables, cranberries and salads are part of the traditional meal, but in some regions of the United States, demographic cultural fusion has added other dishes to the traditional family dinner: It is common to find tamales in a Hispanic Christmas dinner, poi and pork in Hawaii, BBQ turkey or chicken in the south, and sushi and rice in an Asian household. Unlike Thanksgiving when pumpkin pie is the universal choice, a variety of desserts are part of the meal: pies, cakes, fruit, and the famous fruitcake.  They are all washed down with the traditional and very sweet eggnog or its “adult” version with some rum, whisky, or other spirits.

The Los Angeles Lakers and the Chicago Bulls have made it a tradition to have home NBA basketball games on Christmas Day that are broadcasted on national TV.  Other traditions include Christmas carols, window shopping the season-decorated department stores, special functions such as the Radio City Music Hall Christmas show and the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree in New York City, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir in Salt Lake City, the National Christmas tree in Washington, D.C., the Very-Merry Christmas Parade held simultaneously at Disney World in Orlando and Disneyland in Anaheim, the Nutcracker ballet in theaters and school auditoriums all over the United States, and endless Christmas movies and TV shows, including the original “A Charlie Brown Christmas” and Dr. Seuss’ “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” with Boris Karloff as the voice of the Grinch.

I hope this walk through American Christmas traditions was fun, helped some of you to understand a little better the culture of the United States, and maybe part of what you just read will be handy in the booth one of these days. Whether you live in the U.S. or somewhere else, I now ask you to please share some of your country or family’s Christmas or other holiday-related traditions with the rest of us.  I sincerely hope that you continue to honor us by visiting this blog every week in 2017. Thank you for your continuous preference, and happy holidays to all!

How did “Black Friday” get its name?

November 22, 2016 § 1 Comment

Dear Colleagues:

This week Americans celebrate Thanksgiving Day, the most important holiday in the United States because of its universal appeal. Regardless of religion, ethnicity, national origin, or political persuasion, the people of the United States will gather to eat turkey and watch football on Thursday. Every year, I devote this space to a Thanksgiving themed post (If you are interested on learning more about the holiday’s meaning, history, or the crucial role interpreting played at the first Thanksgiving, please see these earlier posts: “Where do Thanksgiving traditions come from?” https://rpstranslations.wordpress.com/2015/11/25/where-do-thanksgiving-traditions-come-from/ and “Interpreter played a crucial role at the first Thanksgiving” https://rpstranslations.wordpress.com/2014/11/27/interpreter-played-a-crucial-role-at-the-first-thanksgiving-2/); however, this time I will not talk about the meaning or history of the holiday. I will center on the day after Thanksgiving: The so-called “Black Friday”.

Most of you know of this American tradition of taking the stores by storm on the day after Thanksgiving to take advantage of reduced prices, and get started on the Christmas shopping.  In fact, many other countries have followed suit, and now it I common practice, whether you call it “Black Friday”, “El Buen Fin”, or any other name.   Because we work with words, I thought it would be interesting to see how the day when more than 135 million Americans go to the stores got his name.

There are several myths and stories, but not all of them are true. Some explain that the origin of “Black Friday” comes from the financial crisis of 1869 when the United States gold market crashed on Friday, September 24 when two Wall Street financiers, Jay Gould and Jim Fisk, worked together to buy up as much as they could of the nation’s gold, hoping to drive the price sky-high and sell it for enormous profit. On that Friday in September, the conspiracy finally unraveled, sending the stock market into free-fall and bankrupting everyone in Wall Street. The press referred to the day as “Black Friday”. This is a good story, but it is not the true origin of the name.

There is another horrible, and totally baseless, legend that attributes the origin of the name “Black Friday” to the 1800s Southern plantation owners who could buy slaves at a discount on the day after Thanksgiving. This version of “Black Friday’s” roots has understandably led some to call for a boycott of the retail holiday, but it is a fabrication with no basis in fact.

The most popular explanation for the “Black Friday” name has to do with holiday shopping. 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 spent so much money on discounted merchandise. It is true that retail companies used to record losses in red and profits in black when doing their accounting.  Even though this is the “official” version of the term “Black Friday”, it is also inaccurate.

In the 1950s the Philadelphia Police Department used the term to describe the chaos on the day after Thanksgiving, when hordes of suburban shoppers and tourists flooded into the city in advance of the big Army-Navy football game held on that Saturday every year. Not only would Philly cops not be able to take the day off, but they would have to work extra-long shifts dealing with the additional crowds and traffic. Shoplifters would also take advantage of the confusion in the stores to steal merchandise, adding to the law enforcement headache. By 1961, “Black Friday” had caught on in Philadelphia, to the extent that the city’s merchants tried unsuccessfully to change it to “Big Friday” in order to remove the negative connotations.

The term didn’t spread to the rest of the country until much later, sometime in the late 1980s. Retailers found a way to reinvent “Black Friday” and turn it into something that reflected positively, rather than negatively, on them and their customers. The result was the “red to black” concept of the holiday mentioned earlier, and the notion that the day after Thanksgiving marked the occasion when America’s stores finally turned a profit, despite the fact that traditionally most stores see bigger sales on the Saturday before Christmas.  The “Black Friday” story stuck, and pretty soon the term’s darker roots in Philadelphia were largely forgotten.

Fast forward to the present and now you see stores that open earlier and earlier every year, and shoppers that head out right after their Thanksgiving meal. I hope this brief history of the term “Black Friday” makes us reflect on the importance that words have in everything we do. I know most Americans will be thinking of the bargains on Friday, but I sure hope that some of you, dear friends and colleagues, will see the commercial event from your perspective as interpreters and translators. Happy Thanksgiving to you all!

Christmas traditions in the United States.

December 22, 2015 § 1 Comment

Dear Colleagues:

The end of the calendar year marks a time when most cultures in the world slow down their work routines, gather with friends and relatives, and reflect on what was accomplished during the year while setting goals to achieve what was not.  Some give the season a religious connotation, others choose not to do so. Regardless of the personal meaning and importance that each one of us give to this time of the year, there is a common denominator, certain actions, traditions, and celebrations that are observed and held dear by many. They vary from country to country, and are part of the national pride and identity of a nation.

The United States is a unique case because of the convergence of cultures and populations from around the world who have brought with them their language, beliefs and traditions.  With globalization many other regions in the world now start to live the same situation where not everybody celebrates everything, not everybody celebrates the same, and even the ones who celebrate a particular festivity or observe certain event will do it differently depending on their cultural background. I also want to point out that, due to the immense commercial and cultural influence of the United States just about everywhere in the world, some of the traditions below will be recognized as something that you do in your country as well.

Although Christmas is not the only festivity where we see this American reality, I decided to share with you our national traditions on this day because it is widely observed and understood throughout the world, and because it is a nice thing to share with all of you during this time when many of us are slowing down and waiting for the new year.  Finally, before I share these American traditions with you, I want to make it very clear that although this entry deals with Christmas traditions, it does it from a cultural perspective with no religious intent to endorse or offend anyone. I am very aware of the fact that many of my dearest friends and colleagues come from different religions, cultural backgrounds, and geographic areas; and the farthest thing from my mind is to make you feel left out, ignored or offended. Please understand that this post is written with the sole intention to share cultural traditions, and invite an exchange of information about other customs observed at the end of the year by other groups and countries.  Thank you for your understanding, and please enjoy:

In the United States the Christmas season, now referred to as the holiday season in an effort to make it more inclusive, starts on the day after Thanksgiving known as “Black Friday”. Many schools and businesses close between Christmas (December 25) and New Year’s Day (January 1). Most Americans take this time out from their professional and academic schedules to spend time with their friends and families. Because of the high mobility we experience in the United States, it is very common that families live very far from each other, often in different states; so the fact that children go home to the parents’ is more significant as it may be the only time they see each other face to face during the year.

Many Americans decorate the exterior of their homes with holiday motifs such as snowmen, Santa Claus, and even reindeer figures.  As a tradition derived from holding Christmas in the middle of winter in the northern hemisphere when daylight is scarce, and before electricity it was practically non-existent, Americans install temporary multi-colored lights framing their house or business.  Because of its beauty and uniqueness, this tradition has spread to southern parts of the United States where winters are mild and daylight lasts longer. The American southwest distinguishes itself from the rest of the country because of the lights they use to decorate their buildings: the luminarias, a tradition (from the Spanish days of the region) of filling brown paper bags with sand and placing a candle inside.

The interior of the house is decorated during the weeks leading to Christmas and at the latest on Christmas Eve. Christmas tree farms in Canada and the United States provide enough trees for people’s homes, although many prefer an artificial tree.  These trees are placed at a special place in the house and are decorated with lights and ornaments, and at the very top an angel or star is placed on Christmas Eve.  Unlike many other countries, in particular those where a majority of people are Roman Catholic, Americans do not hold a big celebration on Christmas Eve, known as “the night before Christmas”, the time when Santa Claus visits their homes while children are sleeping and leaves presents for the kids to open on Christmas morning.  As a sign of appreciation, or perhaps as a last act of lobbying, children leave out by the tree a glass of milk and cookies for Santa to snack during his visit.

Special Christmas stockings are hung on the fireplace mantelpiece for Santa to fill with gifts called “stocking stuffers” that will be found by the kids on Christmas Day while the yule log will provide some heat and holiday smells. Even those homes that have replaced the traditional fireplace with an electric one have kept the yule log tradition; and when everything else fails, cable TV and satellite TV companies offer a TV channel that broadcasts nothing but a yule log all day.

Adults exchange presents that were previously wrapped in festive seasonal wrapping paper, and even the pets get Christmas presents every year.  With the presents exchanged,  people move on to their Christmas dinner that will usually feature ham, roast beef, and even turkey with stuffing, although many families skip the bird because they just had it for Thanksgiving dinner a few weeks before.  Potatoes, squash, roasted vegetables, cranberries and salads are part of the traditional meal, but in some regions of the United States, demographic cultural fusion has added other dishes to the traditional family dinner: It is common to find tamales in a Hispanic Christmas dinner, poi and pork in Hawaii, BBQ turkey or chicken in the south, and sushi and rice in an Asian household. Unlike Thanksgiving when pumpkin pie is the universal choice, a variety of desserts are part of the meal: pies, cakes, fruit, and the famous fruitcake.  They are all washed down with the traditional and very sweet egg nog or its “adult” version with some rum, whisky, or other spirits.

The Los Angeles Lakers and the Chicago Bulls have made it a tradition to have home NBA basketball games on Christmas Day that are broadcasted on national TV.  Other traditions include Christmas carols, window shopping the season-decorated department stores, special functions such as the Radio City Music Hall Christmas show and the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree in New York City, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir in Salt Lake City, the National Christmas tree in Washington, D.C., the Very-Merry Christmas Parade held simultaneously at Disney World in Orlando and Disneyland in Anaheim, the Nutcracker ballet in theaters and school auditoriums all over the United States, and endless Christmas movies and TV shows, including the original “A Charlie Brown Christmas” and Dr. Seuss’ “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” with Boris Karloff as the voice of the Grinch.

I hope this walk through American Christmas traditions was fun, helped some of you to understand a little better the culture of the United States, and maybe part of what you just read will be handy in the booth one of these days. Whether you live in the U.S. or somewhere else, I now ask you to please share some of your country or family’s Christmas or other holiday-related traditions with the rest of us.  Happy holidays to all!

Where do Thanksgiving traditions come from?

November 25, 2015 § 4 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

Thanksgiving is the biggest holiday in the United States, it is universally celebrated by all cultures and ethnic groups, and yet, when I travel outside of the United States I see that this very American holiday remains a mystery to many.  In the past, I have dedicated this annual entry to the history and meaning of Thanksgiving; today, I will talk about the traditions that bind all Americans on this last Thursday of November.

Why do millions of Americans throughout the continent eat turkey on this day? Why do they gather around the television set to watch a football game even if their team is not even playing? For what reason did pumpkin pie become the preferred dessert over the all-American apple pie? Do all Americans really go shopping on the day after Thanksgiving? I believe that the answers to these questions will make it easier to understand the big deal that Thanksgiving is for all Americans.

More Americans celebrate Thanksgiving than any other date on the Holiday Season.  This may seem difficult to understand in those countries where Christmas is the number one holiday celebration, but when you think about the people of the United States and its diversity, you soon realize that Thanksgiving perfectly matches the American cultural landscape.  Without getting into the controversy of the first Thanksgiving, and regardless of the version Americans decided to believe, the fact is that the original Thanksgiving involved very different people, from cultures and backgrounds as foreign to the others as you can possibly imagine; yet, they got together for a shared celebration and feasting. In all cultures eating together is a sign of unity. Christmas on the other hand is a religious celebration for part of the population who has certain beliefs that are not universal in American society.  The truth is that, although Thanksgiving is not a religious holiday, it can be treated as a religious celebration by all who opt to do so, regardless of their religion, because Thanksgiving is about certain principles treasured by all faiths: gratitude, peace, sharing, giving thanks.

The universal appeal of Thanksgiving has to do with other very important elements of this celebration: family and lack of expectations. Because of its secular nature and the universally embraced values Thanksgiving is based on, it is the family oriented event of the year.  Americans travel on this weekend more than at any other time during the year, and they do not travel to go to college or to close a business deal. They travel to be with their loved ones. This is the day when a mobile society like ours comes together around the family table and share stories and laughter with their relatives.  Americans gather on Thanksgiving to be together, there are no other expectations. Unlike Christmas, there is no added pressure to spend beyond your means as there are no presents. People gift their company to each other. That is all.  The American culture is very informal and Thanksgiving is an informal event. People eat, come and go as they please, some watch football on TV, others catch up on their personal lives, and they all eat as much as they want. No apologies, no dinner schedule; just grab a plate and eat as much and as many times as you want, and when you eat, you are uniting with the rest of your fellow countrymen and women, because on this day, an American society that cherishes individuality and praises self-identity, a country where children do not wear school uniforms because it cuts on their individual identities, all Americans eat the same meal. This is how special Thanksgiving is for our country.  These are the reasons why tradition is paramount on this day of celebration.

Why do millions of Americans throughout the continent eat turkey on this day?

The side dishes vary from house to house depending on the family’s cultural heritage, the region of the country where they live, and their own family traditions. Some will have mashed potatoes, others will eat sweet potatoes, and in some parts of the country people will eat rice, pasta, beans, seafood, poi, dinner rolls or tortillas. This is the part of the meal where Americans assert their individuality and cultural identity, this is perhaps, the part of the meal that makes it possible for the American people to give up a little individuality, and for one day every year eat the same: turkey.

The history of the Thanksgiving turkey is shrouded in mystery. Letters from the early settlers, known as pilgrims, indicate that the first Thanksgiving menu that they shared with the Wampanoag people included lobster, oysters, beef and fowl. The only mention of a turkey comes from a writing by Edward Winslow who mentions a wild turkey hunting trip before the meal.  There is also a legend which states that England’s Queen Elizabeth I received this news during dinner, and she was so happy that she ordered another goose to be served. When the pilgrims heard of the Queen’s reaction, it inspired them to roast a turkey instead of a goose and that became the traditional meal. You see, wild turkeys are native to the United States so they were plenty available, In fact, this bird became such an important part of colonial identity, that after the birth of the United States, Benjamin Franklin argued that the turkey would be a more suitable national bird instead of the bald eagle.  Although Franklin did not succeed, every year since 1947 all U.S. presidents, from Truman to Obama, have issue a presidential pardon to a turkey who then retires to live the rest of its natural life in a farm.

Why do Americans gather around the television set to watch a football game on Thanksgiving?

This is another tradition that makes Thanksgiving the most American of all holidays. President Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863, and the Thanksgiving football tradition started only a few years later when Yale and Princeton first played on Thanksgiving in 1876. Soon after, the holiday became the traditional date for the Intercollegiate Football Association championship game. The Universities of Chicago and Michigan also developed a holiday rivalry, and by the late 1890s thousands of football games were taking place on Thanksgiving. Some of the original matchups still continue to this day. When professional football began in the twentieth century, it was just natural that a game be played on Thanksgiving, and in the 1920s there were many games on Turkey Day.  Today, the National Football League (NFL) holds two games on Thanksgiving: An early one that always features the Detroit Lions, played since 1934 when the Lions lost that first encounter to the Chicago Bears. Since 1966 there is another game later on the day that always includes the Dallas Cowboys. Football is a sport played in very few countries around the world (most countries refer to it as “American Football”) but it is the most popular sport in America, so it was a perfect fit to the Thanksgiving celebration. Nowadays people congregate around the home’s TV set to watch the games even if they do not root for any of the teams playing in Detroit or in Dallas. On this holiday, football is also used as a time reference: many Americans will announce their estimated time of arrival to a Thanksgiving dinner by saying that they “will get there by the first game’s halftime”. Many households keep the TV set on, showing the game, even if nobody is watching. Football “noise” is part of the traditional sounds of Thanksgiving.

How did pumpkin pie become the preferred Thanksgiving dessert over the all-American apple pie?

Pumpkin pie was not part of the menu at the first Thanksgiving dinner. The pilgrims most likely lacked the butter and flour needed to make the pie crust. We do not even know if they had an oven at their settlement. This however, does not mean that pumpkins were not present on that occasion. They probably ate baked and stewed pumpkin as it was a common part of their diet. With pumpkin as part of the Thanksgiving meal from the beginning, it was natural that the baked and stewed pumpkins gave their place at the table to the pumpkin pie when it first became popular later in the 17th century. Since it substituted the already established pumpkins as part of the traditional meal, instead of entering the menu as an addition, it never competed against the apple pie for a spot on the menu, and it became the delicious, tasty dessert we now eat, accompanied of some whipped cream, as part of the holiday tradition,

Do all Americans go shopping on the day after Thanksgiving?     

Since the beginning of the 21st century, the Friday after Thanksgiving has been regarded as the beginning of the Christmas shopping season in the U.S. and for that reason, most retailers open their doors very early, even during overnight hours to lure shoppers to come and take advantage of special sales. This day is now known as Black Friday, a name it first got in Philadelphia, and it is not an official national holiday in the United States, but some states like California and New Mexico among others observe the “Day after Thanksgiving” as a state-government holiday. Many schools do not open on Black Friday either.  For years, this was systematically the busiest shopping day of the year, but that has changed recently.  Now many more people do their shopping online and this has created what Ellen Davis coined as “Cyber Monday”. Since 2005 the Monday after Thanksgiving is when most people in America do their Christmas shopping online to allow for plenty of time for the presents to arrive to their recipients’ destination.  The truth is that not all Americans go shopping on Black Friday. Many Americans do not even observe Christmas, so giving presents is not even on their radar screen. It is a fact that many people will do their holiday shopping after Thanksgiving; a lot of them will visit the shopping malls on Black Friday, many will place their orders online on Cyber Monday, and many others will continue to shop right until Christmas. The important thing to keep in mind is that for many Americans, of many cultures and religions, Thanksgiving marks the beginning of a holiday season when they will share their fortunes and happiness with family, friends, coworkers, neighbors and the needy, and that is after all the true meaning and the best tradition of Thanksgiving.

I now invite you to share with the rest of us some of your Thanksgiving traditions, and if you are outside the United States, please tell us your opinion about this very American holiday and share some of your family or country holiday traditions. I now want to thank all of you, my friends and colleagues, for following the blog. Happy Thanksgiving to all!

Interpreter played a crucial role at the first Thanksgiving.

November 27, 2014 § 3 Comments

Dear colleagues:

On this Thursday the people of the United States celebrate Thanksgiving: the most American of all holidays. Christmas is also a very big day in America, but unlike Christmas that is only observed by Christians, Thanksgiving is a holiday for all Americans regardless of religion, ethnicity, or ideology. There are no presents, and every year during this fourth Thursday in November, people travel extensively to be with their loved ones and eat the same meal: a turkey dinner.

It is important to distinguish between the religious act of thanking God for the good fortune and the American holiday called Thanksgiving Day. The former was held by many Europeans all over the new world as they gave thanks for setting foot again on dry land. Explorers and conquistadors observed these religious ceremonies in places like Virginia, Florida, Texas, and New Mexico. There are documented ceremonies held on (at the time) Spanish territory as early as the 16th. Century by Vázquez de Coronado, and we have records of the festivities that took place in Jamestown, Virginia during 1610.

The first Thanksgiving holiday that we presently observe can be traced to a celebration that took place at the Plymouth Plantation in Massachusetts. The settlers had a bad winter followed by a successful harvest in 1621. During that crude winter survival was possible thanks to the help of the local residents: The Wampanoag tribe. Massasoit, who was the tribe leader, donated food to the English when the food they brought from England proved to be insufficient. Cooperation between Native-Americans and Europeans included agriculture, hunting, and fishing lessons. The settlers were taught how to catch eel and grow corn, and were briefed on the geography and weather conditions of the region. This partnership took place because of the good disposition of all those who participated; however, trust had to be established and communication had to be developed. The Europeans and Native-Americans spoke different languages and had very little in common. The English settlers were very fortunate as they had among them a Patuxent Native-American who had lived in Europe, first in England and Spain as a slave, and later in England as a free man. During his years in Europe, this man learned English and had the ability to communicate in both languages: English and the one spoken by the Wampanoag tribe. His name was Squanto (also known as Tisquantum), and he played an essential role in this unprecedented cooperation between both cultures. He was very important during the adaptation and learning process. His services were extremely valuable to settle disputes and misunderstandings between natives and settlers. There are accounts of Squanto’s ability and skill. He was embraced by the settlers until his dead. In fact, his work as an interpreter and cultural broker made it possible for two very different peoples to sit down and share a meal and a celebration when on that first Thanksgiving, the settlers held a harvest feast that lasted three days. As many as ninety Native-Americans, including King Massasoit attended the event. They ate fish, fowl, and corn that the English settlers furnished for the celebration, and they had five deer that the Wampanoag took to the feast. Although it is not documented, it is possible that they also had some wild turkeys as they existed in the region. Undoubtedly Squanto must have worked hard during those three days facilitating the communication between hosts and guests.

We now celebrate this all-American holiday every year. It has been observed since President Abraham Lincoln declared it a national holiday; and it has been observed on the fourth Thursday of November since President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared that it should be observed on that Thursday instead of the last one of the month as sometimes November has five Thursdays. Thanksgiving is also the most American of all holidays because we celebrate family, football and the start of the best retail season of the year: Christmas. We now have Black Friday and Cyber-Monday. We travel by plane, car, and train to go home for this turkey dinner, and we all gather around the TV set to watch football and parades. This Thanksgiving as you are carving the turkey, pause for a moment and remember the interpreter who helped make this all possible: Squanto the Patuxent Native-American. Happy turkey day!

What do Americans celebrate on Presidents’ Day and how do you spell it?

February 17, 2014 § Leave a comment

Dear colleagues:

As it happens with other American holidays, many colleagues who live abroad, and others who live in the United States but grew up somewhere else, have asked me the meaning of the holiday we celebrate in the United States on the third Monday in February.  As you know, the United States is a federation of fifty states and each state has its own legislation and decision-making process.  As a result of this system Americans have two types of holidays: Those that are observed in all fifty states called federal holidays, and those that are only observed in a specific state.  The latter ones are referred to as state holidays.  By comparison with other countries the United States has very few holidays.  The one observed in February is the third one on the calendar and it is just one of two holidays that commemorate the birth of a person (the other one is in January to honor the birth of Martin Luther King, Jr.)

All government offices close on federal holidays but the rest of the American people go to work on many of them.  The February holiday is one of those that the majority of the citizens of the United States will commemorate by going to work.

The U.S. has many founding fathers, all heroes and authors of the great country that we Americans enjoy today, but there is only one “father of the country.”  There is only one George Washington.  Because George Washington was born in the American state of Virginia on February 22, and he is the father of the country, in 1879 The United States Congress determined that all government offices in Washington, D.C. should remain closed to observe his birthday. In 1885 this was expanded to all federal government offices all over the United States.  On January 1, 1971 Congress passed the “Uniform Monday Holiday Act” and among other federal holidays, it shifted this one from Washington’s actual birthday to the third Monday in February.  As an interesting footnote I should mention that this piece of legislation moved the holiday to a day between February 15 and 21, so the observance never coincides with Washington’s real birthday on the 22nd.  For many years the holiday was known as “Washington’s Birthday.”

Abraham Lincoln, another beloved American hero, and our 16th. President, was born on February 12.  It was impossible to have two separate holidays to honor these two great men during the same calendar month, so for a long time Lincoln’s birthday was ignored.  A draft of the “Uniform Monday Holiday Act” would have renamed “Washington’s Birthday” as “Presidents’ Day” to honor the birth of both beloved presidents.  This is the reason why the observed holiday falls between both birthdays but it never falls on either.  The proposed name change failed in Congress and the holiday continued as “Washington’s Birthday.”  Lincoln’s birthday did not become a federal holiday, but several states, among them Connecticut, Missouri, and Illinois adopted it as a state holiday and observe it on February 12, his actual birthday.

By the mid-1980s retailers and advertisement agencies started to refer to the holiday sales during this time-period as “Presidents’ Day” and the American people would soon follow suit.  Officially the holiday has never been named “Presidents’ Day.”  In fact, some state legislatures have chosen to honor Washington, Lincoln, and other heroes differently during the month of February. For example, the state of Massachusetts celebrates a state holiday called “Washington’s Birthday” on the same day that the federal government observes the federal “Washington’s Birthday,” and in May it celebrates a state holiday named “Presidents Day” honoring the presidents of the United States who came from Massachusetts: John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Calvin Coolidge, and John F. Kennedy.  In fact, the holiday falls on Kennedy’s birthday: May 29.  In Virginia where George Washington was born, the federal holiday is legally referred to as “George Washington’s Day.”  In Alabama the federal holiday commemorates Washington and Thomas Jefferson despite the fact that the latter president was born in April, and in New Mexico state government is open on the official federal “Presidents’ Day” because they observe it as a state-paid holiday on the Friday after Thanksgiving also known as “Black Friday.”

Now that we know that the third Monday in February is known as “Presidents’ Day” and it also serves the unofficial role of honoring Abraham Lincoln, and now that we understand that although a federal holiday, almost nobody but government employees have the day off on “Washington’s Birthday” we need to talk about the correct spelling of this official federal holiday known to all Americans by its unofficial name: “Presidents’ Day.”

Today people refer to the holiday as “Presidents’ Day” and “Presidents Day.”  Both versions are considered correct by American dictionaries such as “Webster’s Third International Dictionary” and “The Chicago Manual of Style.”  As the use of attributive nouns has become common in the United States, “Presidents Day” has become the most popular term.  Of course, the spelling “President’s Day” is only acceptable when specifically referring to the birthday of Washington, and Washington alone.  So now you know what to do the next time they ask you to explain what Americans celebrate on the third Monday in February, whether or not you are willing to work on “Presidents Day,” and how to spell the name of this exceptionally unique and diverse holiday.  Please feel free to share your comments about the holiday or the way it should be spelled.

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