Holiday Celebrations Throughout the US

Posted on Dec 10 2012 - 10:00am by Emily Emmer


How are winter holidays celebrated throughout the US?  I’ve lived in many different regions of the US and have been intrigued by the way each area celebrates these holidays uniquely.

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I grew up in Salt Lake City and for me the holiday season has always been a month long celebration from Thanksgiving through New Years, marked by numerous holidays and birthdays including my own!  Fresh snowfall, Christmas lit neighborhoods, delicious home-baked goods like cranberry bread and vanilla caramels, a plethora of music, singing and concerts, and the famous lights on Temple Square are key elements of my Salt Lake City Christmases.

I’ve now lived in and visited many other states during December and have added new associations for these holidays.  I studied marketing at ASU and learned that in Phoenix homemade salsas and tortilla chips are often a more popular gift and family tradition than baked goods.  Instead of the traditional pine tree with snowflakes, in Arizona I saw evergreens dramatically adorned with bright magenta bougainvillea, creating a unique holiday image.  I also found that holiday lights are as likely to be strung atop palm trees and cacti as they are to be strung across a roofline!

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I also spent several years in New York City and wasn’t surprised that the Big Apple celebrates Thanksgiving, Hannukah, Christmas and New Years in a big way.   There’s really nothing like celebrating Christmas with New York style.  Two of my favorite things during this season are seeing the Rockettes and going to the Nutcracker.  The Rockette’s Christmas Spectacular at Radio City Music Hall definitely delivers a spectacular show with synchronized dancing, stunning kicklines, elegant dancers and a live nativity (including camels).  No rendition of the Nutcracker will prepare you for watching the New York City Ballet perform Ballenchine’s Nutcracker.  The experience is truly Christmas magic!  Each time I see it I feel like a child transfixed by a master storyteller sharing a beautiful fairytale, complete with bright colors and freshly falling snow, exquisite music and graceful dancing.  If you ever have a chance to watch the Nutcracker in Lincoln Center – take it!

Rockefeller Center, with its dramatic Christmas tree and skating rink is another highlight of the season in NYC.   However, one thing that surprised me about the holidays in New York is just how local the celebrations and décor are to each area.  Each neighborhood has unique celebrations, their own holiday lights, and even their own foods and holiday smells. In the downtown area you can buy chestnuts, which are literally roasting open-air creating an unforgettable aroma.  In other areas of the city you can find foods from African, Hispanic and various European communities.  There are also many Hannukah celebrations celebrated in New York including the lighting of the world’s largest menorah at the Grand Army Plaza on December 8th.  New Year’s Eve in NYC is a grand spectacle but as my native New Yorker roommate informed me (and her NYC cousins regularly reminded her): no girl in her right mind would spend New Year’s Eve in Times Square.  So, I have nothing to report about December 31st at Times Square.

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My sister lived in Tennessee for a few years, so I learned that there are many Tennessee Christmas songs for a good reason: holiday spirit in Tennessee has a unique flavor with country spirit and down-home warmth.  We liked that the weather is mild but there’s still a chance of light snowfall and our visit to the Smoky Mountains was memorable.  The Gaitlinburg and Pigeon Forge (home of Dollywood) areas are worthy of a visit any time of year but make for a fun place to celebrate the holidays with southern hospitality and entertainment.  The Smoky Mountain Winterfest runs from November to January and includes a Fantasy of Lights Parade (December 7th), the Smoky Mountain Christmas Festival at Dollywood, and a Smoky Mountains Storytelling Festival.  If you make it be sure to get some fudge and candy at Ole Smoky Candy Kitchen in Gaitlinburg!

One place I’d like to visit during the holiday season is Florida, to see their famous boat parades.  These parades have been going on for nearly fifty years and there are hundreds of holiday boat parades throughout the state from Thanksgiving to New Years.  The most famous are the Boynton Beach Boat Parade, Boca Raton’s boat parade, and Fort Lauderdaule’s Winterfest Celebration.  The city of  St. Augustine has a Regatta of Lights which is a month long “nights of lights” celebration.

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I have enjoyed many of California’s holiday traditions which range from big Hollywood style celebrations to old Mexican traditions.  In San Francisco I enjoyed the annual lighting of the Macy’s Tree at Union Square (and of course the great shopping there) and the famous “Christmas In San Francisco” song heard there throughout the month provides a list of all the must-see holiday sights.

Los Angeles has Disney Christmas celebrations, Grinchmas at Universal Studios, Knotts Merry Farm – A Charlie Brown Christmas, and the famous Rose Bowl Parade in Pasadena.  Los Angeles also has many Hanukkah celebrations including festivals, daily menorah lightings from Dec 8th – 16th on the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica, and a music festival in West Hollywood on December 16th.

Old Town San Diego celebrates many of the old Mexican traditions providing a unique twist on holiday celebrations.  At Old Town they celebrate Las Posadas, decorate the streets with candles instead of lights and with piñatas, and you can hear guitar and Mexican songs while you shop or find a good restaurant for dinner.  Visitors to Old Town can even participate in Las Posadas celebrations.  La Posada is something akin to caroling, where guests follow Joseph and Mary going door to door looking for a place to stay.

This year I will be celebrating the holidays with my family in Salt Lake City.  My father is Danish, so following tradition my family will bake traditional Danish cookies and will definitely eat Rice Pudding or “Risalamonde” on Christmas Eve.  If we’re lucky we’ll have fresh snow and can do some skiing between Christmas and New Years to burn off all the delicious holiday food!

How will you be celebrating the holidays this year?  What are unique traditions in your community or city?

Emily Emmer