When one normally thinks of American holiday culture, we tend to think of things that have been passed down from generation to generation. It seems like nearly everything for the holidays from how we decorate and how we celebrate to how we eat has come from another country and another time. But despite our German Christmas trees, English holiday meals, and cookies from all around the world, America does have its own holiday traditions. And they’re weird.
No one does holiday shopping quite like the U.S. — literally. On the day after Thanksgiving, millions of people flood stores across the country trying to get the best bargains for Christmas gifts on Black Friday. Other countries criticize this American tradition because it over-commercializes a religious holiday, but they may just be jealous they didn’t get a big screen TV for half off.
Hollywood is the center for moviemaking, so it logically follows that many Christmas movies have a particular American twist to them. We see films like It’s a Wonderful Life, Home Alone, and Elf as holiday classics, but these films don’t have a massive audience outside the U.S. And when people overseas do watch these movies, they get the idea that American Christmases are always snowy and filled with bizarre characters and drunken fights between family members. OK, maybe that last one is true.
Decorating your Christmas tree with ornaments may have started in Europe, but no one does it quite like Americans. In addition to religious ornaments, bulbs, and ornaments with memories, Americans like to deck their evergreens with pop culture figures, like Mickey Mouse, Princess Leia, and Justin Bieber. What we’re saying is, you probably won’t find a Minions ornament on a German Christmas tree.
Pumpkin is an all-American crop, and it fills the holiday table in a way that few other countries truly understand. No Thanksgiving table is complete without pumpkin pie, grocery store shelves are stocked to the brim with pumpkin spice products, and we even serve this particular squash in savory ways. To say Americans are nuts about pumpkin is a bit of an understatement.
But, wait, you think. Isn’t eggnog in various forms consumed across the world? And the answer is, kind of, but it’s inherently an all-American drink. And let’s think about it, what other country around the world would be excited to drink raw eggs, cream, sugar, and alcohol over and over again all throughout December?
Remember that over-commercialization of Christmas we talked about for Black Friday? It’s found its way into Hanukkah celebrations. In reality, Hanukkah is a pretty minor Jewish holiday, but its proximity to Christmas has led to American Jews giving eight days of presents to each other in addition to lighting the menorah and frying latkes.
The holiday season is all about overindulgence in the United States. So how do we try to balance that out? By running (or walking) 5Ks! On Thanksgiving morning, families will put on their leggings and run turkey trots (and then keep those sweatpants on to make up for expanding bellies full of turkey). Throughout the month of December, there are cocoa 5Ks, cookie 5Ks, and “dashing through the snow”-themed 5Ks to try to beat that holiday weight gain.
In theory, fruitcake is a delicious food. It has candied fruits, nuts, and holiday spices, and sometimes it even has booze! But fruitcake is a punchline in the U.S. It’s often thought of as stale, a thoughtless gift, and an item that is passed around the family from generation to generation. But in Britain and other European countries, Christmas pudding (which is more or less fruitcake) is a much beloved dessert.
Of course you open a Christmas gift in front of the loved one who gave it to you! How else would they know whether or not you liked it? But actually, opening a gift right away or opening it in front of the giver is seen as greedy in many other places.
If you aren’t leaving an office Christmas party with a bulging belly and bit of a fuzzy head, you’re doing it wrong in the United States. And while food and drink play a huge role in Christmas celebrations across the world, no one knows how to overindulge quite like Americans.
Isn’t the pickle ornament an old German tradition where parents hide this particular bauble and the child that finds it opens the first gift? Nope! The pickle ornament is actually unheard of to actual Germans. Instead, the story of this Old World tradition was started by salesmen in the 1800s to help move a particularly large stock of pickle ornaments.
White House Photographic Office/Wikimedia Commons
Thanksgiving is already an all-American holiday that confounds foreigners, but the most bizarre Thanksgiving tradition is the Presidential turkey pardon. The president “saves” one lucky bird from a place at the Thanksgiving table and sends him to a farm instead. The Kennedy administration unofficially started this tradition, but it’s been a regular occurrence since 1989.
Saint Nicholas, Father Christmas, Kris Kringle… Santa goes by many names around the world. The American version of Santa Claus is also quite distinctive. His ever-jolly disposition, flying reindeer, and ability to endorse any number of commercial products is all-American. His love of milk and cookies is also an American twist on this iconic character. Other countries around the world leave out different things for Santa.
We already talked about how much Americans like to indulge during the holidays, and nothing says Christmas indulgence quite like Santacon. This pub crawl started in San Francisco in 1994 as performance art and has quickly developed into a drunken pub crawl in New York City, Portland, Atlanta, and more. And it’s exactly what it sounds like: Drunken folks dressed up like Old Saint Nick.
The yule log, a special log that burns in the fireplace, is a European tradition derived from German paganism. So how do you make that an American tradition? Throw it on TV! New York City’s WPIX first started airing a burning yule log on TV in the 1960s, and it’s exactly what it sounds like: A roaring fireplace, which a human occasionally has to tend to, with some holiday music playing in the background. There was also traditionally a radio broadcast of the burning yule log until 1988. Now, the burning yule log (or fireplace for your home) is readily available on streaming services like Netflix so you can watch any time of year. But if you think this holiday tradition is strange, it’s nothing compared to these 10 weird and wonderful Christmas traditions from around the world.