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!

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!

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