Christmas is celebrated every year on December 25th by Christians around the world to celebrate the birth of Jesus, and the 12 days after in which “Three Wise Men” followed a bright shining star to the site of Jesus’ birth, Bethlehem… but is also celebrated by many non-religious people in many places in the United States. Many families will put up a Christmas tree (a fir tree decorated with lights and ornaments); will decorate their houses with lights, fir boughs, and wreaths.

Christmas comes out of a lot of pre-Christian European traditions, specifically Yule, and the main marker of modern Christmas celebrations in the USA is the exchange of gifts. Adults and children alike will receive gifts, and many adults have lists of hundreds of people that they’ll send Christmas greeting cards to.

Daley Plaza's Christmas Tree
Daley Plaza’s Christmas Tree

The secular figure Santa Claus is the most recognizable symbol of the holiday. He is said to live at the North Pole, and rides a magical sleigh pulled by eight (or nine, if you include Rudolf) flying reindeer. At Santa’s workshop, his team of elves work year-round to make toys for all the good children of the world. Santa travels all over the world on Christmas Eve (December 24th), and delivers presents to all the good children of the world, and occasionally lumps of coal to the bad ones. He lands on the roof, magically enters the house down the chimney (even though he’s a chubby fellow), and leaves presents under the Christmas tree. Children will leave out cookies and milk for Santa to eat, and sometimes a carrot or stick of celery for his reindeer. In the hectic month-long American Holiday Season between Thanksgiving and New Years Day, it’s great for parents to have the threat of Santa Claus to calm down overly-excited children (“If you don’t’ start behaving, I’m calling Santa!”).

American Christmas foods include ham, turkey, goose, stuffing, gingerbread, fruitcake, mashed potatoes, gravy, pies, and assorted chocolates. Gifts include every imaginable toy for children, and clothing, fancy foods, candies, music, and electronics are given to adults. Shopping during the Christmas season in the US can be intense; it’s the highest-volume shopping season of the year (some have compared it to a consumer feeding frenzy), and any day after Thanksgiving the stores are packed with customers.

Glogg! (Swedish Mulled Wine)
Glogg! (Swedish Mulled Wine)

As one of my favorite interculturalists on Twitter, Christian Hoeferle reminded me the other day, a lot of Christmas music is German in origin. But it’s not just Christmas music, a lot of our American Christmas traditions are European in origin, with Chicago’s festivities being no exception. The Christ Kindl Market in Daley Plaza is modeled after a similar market in Nuremberg, Germany, which was first held in 1545. There’s also a smaller Christ Kindl Market in Lincoln Square, a traditionally German neighborhood in Chicago, and home to the German-American cultural Center (Dank Haus).

At the markets, Glühwein, a hot, spiced wine-based punch is offered at small wooden stands, along with roasted nuts and other German food treats, lots of handmade arts, crafts, and Christmas ornaments. There are lots of live Christmas plays every year, in particular Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”, and Music Box Theater shows “White Christmas”, which my fiancé has dragged me to a few times.

Christian and I got into a “discussion” about the aesthetics of German Christmas music a few days ago… I’m of the opinion that except for “Oh Tannenbaum” (“Oh Christmas Tree”), and “Stille Nacht” (“Silent Night”), it just sounds better in English. But I’m biased of course!

Christ Kindle Market, Daley Plaza
Christ Kindle Market, Daley Plaza

This post is part of the Lonely Planet blogsherpa’s carnival on Christmas traditions, hosted by Inside the Travel Lab. Check back on Friday 17th December for the other posts in the carnival.

Read more:
Christkind or Weihnachtsmann? Christmas in Germany
Sunny Christmas – Christmas in New Zealand
Warming winter foods from The Netherlands

About the author

My name is Sean Oliver, and I'm a project manager for Language & Culture Worldwide, a cross-cultural training and consulting firm. We also offer a full suite of language services. I have a BA in Anthropology, with a focus in Archaeology, as well as a self-designed minor in Sex and Gender Studies. I grew up in Ohio and have traveled extensively, moving to Chicago during the Summer of 2002. I have no intentions of living anywhere else; Chicago is one of my favorite places on the planet. I feel most at home in America's MidWest, though it's good to get out and see the world every now and again. I write mostly about American culture, drawing attention to the vast differences between Americans across ethnicity, class, gender, generations, etc.