It's December, and that means one thing – the holiday season is upon us! While we realize that many of you celebrate plenty of the same holidays at home, you may or may not be used to the amount of excitement that permeates American life this month. Now is a time of movies, songs, altruistic activities, gift-giving, food, drink and shopping! We know that you may be aware of the historic implications of these holidays, so we're focusing on the aspects that are specifically cultural.
Here's a quick primer to get you acclimated to month's biggest celebrations, American style:
Hanukkah: Sundown December 16th to Sundown December 24th
This eight-day festival of lights commemorates the rededication of the holy Temple in Jerusalem after the reclamation from Greek conquerors.
Jewish families around the States celebrate Hanukkah by lighting the hanukkiah (usually referred to as a menorah). Each night at sundown, another candle is lit until at the end of the celebration all of the eight candles are glowing (the candle in the middle is used to light the others, so there are nine in total).
Families also exchange gifts in the evening and share traditional foods such as potato pancakes, called latkes, and jelly-filled doughnuts. People of all ages, but especially children, love playing dreidel (above) and giving out gelt (below)!
Christmas: December 25th
While a traditionally Christian holiday celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ, the celebration of Christmas has integrated itself into secular United States culture. Don't be surprised to see garland, bows, fake snow, bells, Santa, and signs wishing everyone a "Merry Christmas!" or "Happy Holidays!" around your city. There are many Americans who do not celebrate Christmas. If you're not sure if someone celebrates Christmas or not, it's good form to tell people "Happy Holidays!" rather than "Merry Christmas!"
Christmas is a time for gift-giving and sharing a meal with family. Much like Thanksgiving, this is a big time for travel. Many people do their best to make it "home for Christmas" – even if it is the only time of the year that they see their family. Children will eagerly await the arrival of Santa Claus, who – the story goes – comes down the chimney on Christmas Eve in order to stuff children's stockings and leave gifts under the Christmas tree!
New Year's Eve: December 31st
Many Americans make New Year's resolutions: lose weight, eat healthier, perform better in work/school, etc, etc. With these lofty goals in sight, New Year's Eve is people's last chance to live it up!
Even though New Year's Eve is one of the coldest nights here, many people take advantage of this holiday to "ring in the new year" and celebrate with friends and family. Traditional ways to celebrate include fireworks, banging pots and pans, watching the televised Times Square celebration, counting down to the new year, and clinking a glass of champagne as the new year arrives!