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Christmas is one of the most important holidays in most English-speaking countries. In the USA, the biggest holiday is probably Christmas or Thanksgiving. But Christmas is a little bit different in one major way.
Thanksgiving is a secular holiday, which means it’s not connected to religion. People celebrate by being with family and eating delicious food. But for many people, Christmas is a holiday that’s tied to religious beliefs and traditions.
The religious holiday celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ on December 25. Christmas is also a cultural celebration with non-religious (secular) traditions, like Santa Claus, sending cards and giving gifts.
Whether they’re religious or secular, many Christmas traditions are different from region to region, or even family to family. This is because traditions are passed down from generation to generation. This means that children learn family celebrations from their parents, and when they grow up, they do the same Christmas celebrations with their own children, and so on.
Many of the common Christmas traditions can be grouped together into a few categories. We’ll start with family and friends, then move on to food. After that, we’ll look at some traditions related to faith—for the Christian Christmas. Finally, we’ll see some other fun activities that many people do around Christmas time.
Family and Friends
Christmas is usually a very social holiday. Normally, people like to spend time with friends and family to celebrate the holiday.
1. Family get-togethers
Most families try to get together (spend time with one another) to celebrate on Christmas Eve (December 24) or Christmas Day (December 25). This informal gathering is called a get-together, which is a noun.
Often, people live far away from their relatives, so it might not be possible to be with their family on Christmas. In this case, people will get together with friends (or their friends’ families) to have a special dinner or a Christmas party.
Every family has different traditions and customs depending their history, ethnicity and values. But the shared tradition is to be with family or friends on Christmas.
2. Gift giving and gift exchanges
Many people celebrate Christmas by giving presents (gifts) to their friends, family members or coworkers. This is called a gift exchange. There are a few special words related to presents, and some different types of gift exchanges.
First of all, normally people wrap the gifts they give, which means that they put decorative wrapping paper around the gift. They might also put the gift in a gift bag. Then, when people exchange the presents, they unwrap (or open) them to see what’s inside.
Some families and offices might have a special kind of gift exchange. Since it’s expensive to buy a present for all of your friends or coworkers, many groups do a gift exchange called a secret Santa. For secret Santa, every person takes the name of another person in the group (in secret), and buys a present just for that one person.
Another popular type of gift exchange is called white elephant. In a white elephant gift exchange, everyone in the group brings an inexpensive present. Someone is chosen to open the first gift while everyone watches. Then, the second person can either open a new gift or take the first person’s gift. If the second person takes the first person’s gift, then the first person chooses a new gift (or another opened gift, if it’s later in the game). It’s pretty fun, but it can also get a bit competitive and chaotic (crazy), so that’s why it’s best if the gifts are inexpensive (cheap)!
The word charity can be used to describe any actions that help people who really need the help—like homeless people or people without money for food. The “holiday season” (Thanksgiving and Christmas) is one of the most charitable times of year.
For example, some people may volunteer (donate their time) making food at a homeless shelter. Others might donate gifts to children from poor families.
In general, the holiday season is a time to help others, so you may see signs like “keep the spirit alive all year.” The idea is that we should help others all year long, and not just during a month at the end of the year.
4. Office parties
Many businesses will have a holiday party or an end of the year party in December for their employees. To keep the celebration secular, they might not use the word “Christmas.” This keeps the party inclusive (open) to all people, no matter their religious beliefs.
Often, employees can bring their spouse (husband, wife, partner, boyfriend or girlfriend) to the holiday party or dinner.
5. Family traditions
As I mentioned earlier, many families have their own unique traditions for Christmas. Usually family traditions are related to cultural backgrounds or location.
For example, in my family, we eat fondue on Christmas Eve. Then, on Christmas Day we exchange presents. We also do a type of white elephant gift exchange, except every year we need to find gifts related to a specific letter of the alphabet (this year it’s the letter “F”). My friends have different traditions with their families.
If you know any native English speakers, ask them if they have any family Christmas traditions.
6. Family meals
When families get together for Christmas, they usually have a large, special meal. Many families even have fancy (special) plates and silverware (forks, knives, spoons) that they only use for Christmas or other special occasions. Although there are common holiday foods, one family may eat specific foods every year, while the family next door may eat something completely different.
In my family, for example, we oven have prime rib (which is a kind of beef roast) for the main meal. We also eat cardamom bread (a delicious and supposedly Danish bread that includes cardamom, a spice) and a crab dip that my aunt makes. It’s these kinds of traditional foods that make the day special in different ways for different people.
It’s generally easy to tell when it’s December in the United States. Everywhere you go, you’ll see Christmas decorations and hear Christmas songs.
The most common decoration is probably a Christmas tree, and most families that celebrate Christmas have one in their house. Some people buy their trees from large tree lots, and others go to Christmas tree farms and choose a tree to cut down.
Some families might use artificial (fake) trees, since they don’t make a mess and you don’t have to buy a new one every year.
The most common tree decorations are called ornaments. These have a small hook so you can hang them on the tree branches. In some families, ornaments have special significance. For example, if someone went on a special trip this year, they might buy an ornament of an airplane to remember the year.
The Christmas trees also usually have some Christmas lights. Many people also decorate the outside of their houses with Christmas lights. Some people decorate with lots and lots of lights and other festive Christmas decorations outside their house and in their yard.
Many people put a wreath on their front door. A wreath is a decorated circle made out of pine branches.
Finally, Christmas stockings are another common Christmas decoration. Stockings are large, long socks that people often hang them near the fireplace (if the house has one). The idea is that Santa Claus will come down the chimney and leave toys and treats in the stockings for the children—but only if they’ve been good!
8. Christmas cards
Sending Christmas cards to family and friends is a tradition that is still very popular today. These look similar to birthday cards, but many families also include a family picture. Many Christmas cards also include a letter that tells what the family did that year. During December, it’s common to receive lots of Christmas cards in the mail from friends and family.
We’ve already seen a few examples of how food can be very important for Christmas celebrations and traditions. Here are some more vocabulary words that you may hear when people talk about food during the Christmas holiday.
A feast is a very large meal for a special occasion. Feasts often have multiple courses, which means that a series of foods will be brought out and eaten over a few hours!
The main course is often some kind of meat dish, such as ham, duck or turkey. As I said before, though, my family usually has beef, so it depends on the family you’re celebrating with.
Fruitcake is a bread or cake that usually contains nuts and pieces of candied fruit. This is actually a funny word, because many people make jokes about fruitcake around Christmas time.
Since it’s really dense (thick) and heavy, many people don’t want to eat fruitcake. There are many other foods for Christmas that are sweeter or more delicious. So the joke is that if someone gives you a fruitcake as a gift one year, you can give the same fruitcake as a gift the next year!
Now that I think about it, I don’t think I’ve actually ever tried fruitcake.
11. Christmas drinks
There are quite a few drinks that are common around Christmas. Since the weather is usually cold in December, many people enjoy hot drinks at Christmas.
One really common drink around Christmas is hot chocolate, which is also sometimes called “cocoa” (pronounced “co-co”) or “hot cocoa.” It’s warm milk with cacao or chocolate powder.
Another hot drink is mulled wine, which is red wine that also has fruits and spices like cinnamon.
Eggnog is a drink that is usually served cold. It’s made from milk or cream and eggs, and usually has some spices. Many people add liqueur to eggnog, like amaretto or rum.
12. Christmas sweets
In addition to the sweet drinks, many people enjoy other Christmas treats. Chocolate is always popular, and around Christmas many chocolate companies make special chocolates just for the holiday.
Candy canes are also a traditional symbol of Christmas, and many businesses give them out to customers as small presents.
People also eat more marshmallows around Christmas, and usually put them in hot chocolate so that they can melt and add even more delicious sugar to the drink!
Finally, there are hundreds of different types of Christmas cookies. Many of them are based on recipes that have been passed down in families over generations. Some people even have parties to exchange different cookies and cookie recipes.
Since Christmas has roots in Christianity, many modern customs are connected to religious traditions and beliefs. The traditions in this section are most common with families that are religious, and specifically Christian.
Many religious families go to church sometime during the Christmas season. For Catholic families, the event is called mass, and there are often midnight masses on Christmas Eve or other days close to Christmas.
Protestant churches also have special events, but they’re not called masses, they’re usually just called church services. At mass or a church service, you usually sing hymns (which are religious Christmas songs), and the readings are related to the story of Jesus’s birth.
The birth of Jesus is also referred to as the Nativity. Many church services or masses include plays called Nativity pageants, where children act out the story of Jesus’s birth.
15. Nativity scenes
Many churches—and even homes—put up a Nativity scene on display during the holiday season. These generally include Baby Jesus, Mary, Joseph and other characters from the Nativity story.
According to the story, Jesus was born in a manger, which is a part of a farm where animals sleep. Because of that, many Nativity scenes include animals like sheep and cows.
Some churches even have live people and real animals in their Nativity scenes, which is called a living Nativity.
16. Advent wreath
As we learned in the decorations section above, a wreath has a circular shape. The word “advent” often refers to the coming of Jesus, but in this case it can also refer to a “season” in many churches. Advent generally takes place during the four weeks before Christmas.
An advent wreath is a small wreath that usually has five candles. Four candles are on the circle and one is in the center of the wreath. Advent wreaths rest flat on a table, not vertically on a door. Every Sunday during the advent season, a family (or church congregation) lights one candle on the wreath and reads a Bible lesson or Christmas story. The next Sunday, the previous candle or candles are lit, as well as a new one for each week. Finally, on Christmas Day, the center candle is also lit.
17. Christmas songs
Songs in church are also called “hymns,” and there are many special hymns for Christmas.
Some of the most popular religious Christmas songs include “Joy to the World,” “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” “Silent Night” and “O Holy Night.” You might already know many of these songs!
A lot of the other Christmas traditions are fun too, but these activities are all about having a good time!
18. Santa Claus
Santa Claus (also called Saint Nicholas, Saint Nick, or a number of other similar names) is a mythical man who brings presents to good boys and girls on Christmas Eve. There are many variations on the tradition, but most people generally say he flies on a sleigh pulled by reindeer.
As he travels around the world, he stops at every house and goes down the chimney, leaving presents in the children’s stockings. Many families also leave out cookies for Santa, since he supposedly gets hungry flying around the world. And even NORAD, part of the American military, has an online “Santa Tracker” so children will know where Santa is during December.
Many families with children celebrate this tradition in some way.
Also, many shopping malls in the United States have a mall Santa. Many children go to the mall with their parents to have their pictures taken with Santa. If you want a good laugh, check out some of the Santa pictures on Awkward Family Photos.
19. Cookie exchanges
As I mentioned in #13, many people have cookie exchanges during the holidays. These are parties where people bring different cookies to share and trade. They often also bring the recipes so that other people can make the cookies that they enjoyed the most. It’s basically a cookie party—sounds delicious, right?
20. Christmas caroling
There are lots of Christmas songs that are not religious, or only partially religious. Those are often called Christmas carols, and the action of going around singing Christmas songs (religious or not) is called going caroling.
Often, groups of people walk from house to house and knock on doors. When someone opens the door, the group outside sings a song or two. This can just be for fun, but it can also be for charity (when the owner of the house may make a donation for a specific charity).
Other times, people may go on a hayride. This is where a group of people sit on bales of hay (straw) on a trailer, while the trailer is pulled by a truck or some other vehicle. As the group drives around, they sing Christmas songs.
Some popular non-religious Christmas songs include “White Christmas,” “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” and “Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer.”
21. Christmas parties
These can be office Christmas parties or family get-togethers, or they can also just be parties among friends to celebrate Christmas. There are usually snacks, drinks and music, and there are often different types of games.
One type of holiday party that’s becoming more popular is an ugly sweater party. There’s a stereotype that many Christmas sweaters are really big, flashy and ugly, so many (especially younger people) have parties where you have to wear an ugly Christmas sweater. Some people buy ugly Christmas sweaters just to go to these parties!
22. Outdoor fun
Even if it’s really cold outside, there’s something about the Christmas season that makes people want to get outside to enjoy the fresh air and snow. If there is snow on the ground, one option is to go on a sleigh ride (the word “sleigh” rhymes with “play”).
If you feel like getting some exercise instead of sitting in a sleigh, you can go ice skating or snowshoeing. Both of those require special equipment (ice skates and snowshoes), which you can usually rent somewhere. You may need to practice before you can do them well, especially ice skating, but they’re both a lot of fun!
If you live near some hills or mountains, some other fun outdoor activities include sledding, skiing, and snowboarding. Personally, I prefer sledding because it’s a lot cheaper than going to a ski resort. It’s also really simple—all you need is a sled, or something to slide on!
23. TV specials
When the weather outside gets too cold or dark, it’s always fun to come inside, drink a warm cup of hot chocolate and watch a Christmas special on TV.
Many of these specials are movies that were originally made for children, so they are often animated. Some especially popular films include “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” “Frosty the Snowman” and “Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer.”
Also, there is a tradition that many TV series make a Christmas episode. Some of my favorite episodes were the ones from the British version of “The Office,” and there are also some good “The Simpsons” Christmas specials—over 13 currently! But be careful, since some Christmas specials—like the “Star Wars Holiday Special”—just aren’t that good. So choose something good to watch, since Christmas only comes once a year!
Finally, there are many movies about Christmas, and they are often shown on TV on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. There’s even one movie, 1983’s “A Christmas Story,” that is played over and over for 24 hours on the channel TBS! They call it the “Christmas Story Marathon,” and now some families have it playing in the background during part of their Christmas celebrations.