BY Editorial Team Bank of the West

Jan 14th 2020

International Perspectives

New to the US? A Guide to American Holidays

Get the background on America's more festive—and unexpected—holiday traditions.

Jan 14th 2020

If you’re new to the US , some American holiday traditions might seem strange: idolizing a turkey, dressing children up as zombies, throwing “white elephant” parties where colleagues compete to give the worst gift. To help you navigate the quirks and charms of our holiday calendar, here’s a handy guide to your bonus days off each year.

New Year’s Day (January 1)

Sure, the party is the night before, but you’ll need this day to recover from all the champagne toasts and the big countdown to midnight, marked by the slow drop of a lighted ball in New York’s Times Square. Just about everyone from coast to coast watches the same celebration (even though it’s on tape delay for three of the country’s four time zones).

Martin Luther King, Jr. Day (Third Monday in January)

One of America’s most reverential holidays, this day commemorates the life of the civil rights leader who championed the rights of African Americans in the 1950s and 60s until his assassination in 1968. Watch his famous I Have a Dream speech to familiarize yourself with this true American hero.

Presidents Day (Third Monday in February)

By coincidence or divine intervention, George Washington (Father of the Nation) and Abraham Lincoln (The Great Emancipator) have birthdays just 10 days apart. So we celebrate their legacy halfway in between with a holiday, along with big sales on mattresses and trucks.

Memorial Day (Last Monday in May)

As the first federal holiday in three months, Memorial Day is beloved by everyone. Not only does this date honor the men and women who died while serving in the US military, but it also serves as the unofficial start of summer and kickoff of barbecue season. Bring a six-pack of beer and something for the grill.

Independence Day (4th of July)

Demonstrating America’s optimistic spirit, this day commemorates the day we declared our independence from England (even though it took another seven years to gain it). We celebrate with fireworks and parades featuring our national mascot: Uncle Sam, a human embodiment of the American flag, often seen walking on stilts.

Labor Day (First Monday in September)

A bittersweet holiday, this one marks the unofficial end of summer, though school often starts a little before it. If you ask 100 Americans what Labor Day commemorates, get ready for dozens of conflicting answers and a lot of cheerful shrugs. Who cares? We have the day off! Maybe it should be called Labor-Free Day. Don’t be surprised if there’s another barbecue.

Indigenous Peoples Day (Second Monday in October)

This one used to be called Columbus Day, in honor of the man who “discovered” America while looking for something else entirely. Now it is more commonly observed as a day of respect for the people who were here long before Columbus was born.

Halloween (October 31)

A uniquely American celebration, this is the day when everyone young and old raids the costume shop. Superheroes, monsters, walking dead, and walking memes—you’ll see all sorts at the office and especially at night, when children roam the streets shouting “Trick or treat!” to receive fistfuls of candy. Stock up on miniature Snickers and leave your porch light on to bring the festival to your doorstep. Don’t forget costumes for your kids—there will be a parade at school!

Thanksgiving Day (Fourth Thursday in November)

Affectionately known as Turkey Day, this time-honored tradition dates back to a celebration of peace between pilgrims and Native Americans. (Family Thanksgivings aren’t always as harmonious.) The day has recently expanded to Friendsgiving, where groups of all kinds gather to share thanks and stories over a big roasted bird (or favorite vegetarian alternative) and pumpkin pie. Bring a side dish and a healthy appetite. You’ll need your stamina for the following day, Black Friday, which is the biggest shopping day of the season and a bonus holiday. Pro tip: If you want to fly domestically this weekend, book way in advance—Wednesday and Sunday are the busiest travel days of the year.

Christmas Day (December 25)

By now, you’ve seen Santa Claus commercials for months, and the whole world seems draped in red and green, but everyone keeps saying “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.” How come? For one thing, it’s a convenient catch-all for so many holidays in a short time. For another, it’s a way of showing respect for people who celebrate other holidays around the same time: Hannukah and Kwanza, for example. You can never go wrong saying “Happy Holidays.” And if you really want to get in the spirit of the season, check out the Charlie Brown specials. They’re perfect for the whole family, and your familiarity with them is sure to impress your new American friends. Better yet, introduce them to some of your own traditions. After all, America is still the great melting pot, and we’re always open to new ways to celebrate!

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