Late-Year Holiday Traditions You Might Not Know About


6 minute read

Ah, the holidays. No matter how bad your year has been - and 2020 has been less than ideal for most of us - one can always hope that the end-of-year holidays cheer them up and bring them closer to loved ones.

You may generally be familiar with traditional, late-year American holidays such as Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Hanukkah. But these holidays have many nuances that are strange, interesting, or not widely known. Read on to discover these, and a few lesser-known holidays as well!

Fall

As we end summer and slide into fall, many parts of the USA go through distinct weather changes. With the exception of the American South and Southwest, fall is a season of cooling weather, color-changing trees, and pumpkin spice. Not just pumpkins - which are in season in fall - but pumpkin spice (a mix of cinnamon, nutmeg, and clove that traditionally flavors pumpkin pie). In 2003, American coffee brand Starbucks popularized an autumnal coffee flavor called “pumpkin spice,” which is now available in donuts, peanut butter, and more.

As October draws to a close, you may find young people imbibing a pumpkin spice latte to keep their energy up for a little-known “holiday” called “Mischief Night.” Known by a variety of other names - such as “Devil’s Night” or “Cabbage Night,” you may find young people out on the streets on October 30th engaged in small pranks or outright vandalism.

Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving has more wholesome traditions. Longtime friend of InterExchange Arpan, for example, comments that he was impressed by potlucks: gatherings of friends and family centered around each attendee bringing their own (often home-cooked) dish. “We have large gatherings, of course,” says Arpan of his native India. “But the concept of everyone bringing their own food is unique.”

On the day of Thanksgiving, you may be aware of a family tradition of watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade on TV.

Elf on the Shelf float at the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade
This character is Elf on the Shelf - more on him later!
Image courtesy of Charley Lhasa

However, you might not know that families in many parts of the USA gather around the TV to watch American football after the big Thanksgiving meal as well! The “turkey trot,” or competition footrace, is another physical activity that commonly takes place on Thanksgiving day (although usually before the meal - how could you run with that much food in your belly?).

Winter

In many regions of the U.S., Thanksgiving falls on the cusp of autumn and winter. As such, Thanksgiving’s end marks the unofficial beginning of winter to many Americans. Furthermore, many Americans associate winter with several family-oriented holidays, each with its own unique traditions and food. (Indeed, potlucks aren’t just associated with Thanksgiving!) Three holidays are particularly significant in the USA: Hanukkah, Christmas, and Kwanzaa.

Interestingly, a gift called an “advent calendar” may be given to both children and adults during all three of these holidays (although it started as a Christmas tradition). Think of a three dimensional calendar, with each date being a box that one opens on that date. Inside is a small gift, such as a piece of candy. Au pair Karla loved advent calendars. “We don’t have a tradition like that in Brazil,” she says. “It’s definitely something I’ll pass forward when I have my own kids.”

A white advent calendar
Although advent calendars are commonly made of cardboard, this one is wood.
Image courtesy of Pexels

Hanukkah

Hanukkah is celebrated by Jewish people all over the world but - given that only around two percent of the U.S. population is Jewish - even many American are unaware of Hanukkah’s traditions. Interesting Hanukkah traditions include gelt and dreidels. Gelt are chocolate coins wagered by players (often children) who spin the dreidel as seen below.

Hand spinning dreidel on table

Image courtesy of Pexels

When the dreidel stops spinning, the symbols on its four sides dictate who wins and loses coins. Learn more about the rules of the game here!

Christmas

Christmas has many time-honored traditions. What better way to start the holiday season than with a cup of hot chocolate topped with marshmallows, paired with a peppermint candy cane? In the USA in December, you’ll also find Christmas music inescapable. Listen to our playlist here!)

In contrast to these staid signifiers, you may also encounter newer, sillier Christmas traditions. Elf on the Shelf is a stuffed toy purported to keep a watchful eye on children and report back to Santa. As such, parents enjoy hiding him throughout the house to compel their children to be good, or risk a report to the man in red.

And although Elf on the Shelf is a recent phenomenon, based on a 2005 book, its popularity is booming. In addition to being featured in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, the little elf is everywhere. When we asked InterExchange participants about the strangest holiday traditions they noticed in the USA, most pointed to Elf on the Shelf. Why? Because he’s always watching you.

An Elf on the Shelf in a closet.
Always… watching 👀
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons user Errant Knight

Another relatively recent tradition is “ugly sweater parties” which, as the name implies, are gatherings where people intentionally wear sweaters, usually with holiday themes, that are garish and colorful. This tradition began as an intentionally-ironic parody of Christmas sweaters worn unironically in twentieth century America. Now it’s spread to gatherings of friends, family, and even coworkers.

Men pose in christmas-themed sweaters
These sweaters could be uglier 🤔
Image courtesy of Matthew G.

Less silly, but also less well-known, is St. Nicholas Day on December 6th. As InterExchange’s Stephanie notes, “we used to put out our shoes on the night of the 5th and get treats (candy, fruit, or something small that fits in a shoe).”

Sticking with the sweets theme, the Christmas tradition that au pair Jenni has most enjoyed is decorating cookies with her host family on Christmas Eve. She commented that, although she’s certainly made cookies in the past, there’s something special about doing so the night before Christmas with kids who have been anticipating that day all year!

Kwanzaa

Kwanzaa is a weeklong celebration held in the United States that honors African heritage in African-American culture. Kwanzaa is observed from December 26th to January 1st, and culminates in gift giving and a big feast.

Dr. Maulana Karenga, professor and chairman of Africana Studies at California State University, created Kwanzaa in 1966 in response to the previous year’s Watts Riots in Los Angeles as a way to bring African-Americans together as a community.

Dr. Karenga researched African harvest celebrations and combined aspects of several different celebrations, such as those of the Ashanti and those of the Zulu, to form the foundation of Kwanzaa. Several of these aspects are visible in the picture below, including a “kinara” (candleholder), seven ceremonial candles to symbolically re-create the sun’s power, and the colors green, red, and black, inspired by the flag of Ethiopia and used to represent Pan-Africanist ideology.

A woman in green African attire lights candles on a kinara

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

You can read much more about Kwanzaa here!

New Year’s Eve

And, finally, we’ve arrived at the end of the year. New Year’s Eve is marked by many traditions in the USA, many of which involve partying. In New York City, thousands of people (many of them tourists) gather in Times Square to watch an ornamented sphere descend a pole on the roof of a tall building; it reaches the bottom as the new year arrives. Meanwhile, across the country, people dress in black and white outfits and pop bottles of champagne at midnight.

As 2020 wraps up, people will be especially hopeful for a 2021 with more joy than the previous year. While one can expect plenty of popping bottles, we hope the gatherings will be socially-distanced. Here’s to 2021! 🥂

Matt Wallace

Matt Wallace is the Community & Digital Content Manager for the InterExchange Marketing team. He received a Master of Science in Global Affairs from New York University, and worked with the State Department and two New York organizations with missions to introduce young people to multiculturalism and international relations. He is excited to leverage this experience with InterExchange!

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