Tag Archives: Holidays

May Roadtrip: The Eastern Shore

At this point in the road trip we had planned to do something like my birthday roadtrip in reverse. Travelling from the historic triangle area we drive down to Newport News and took the amazing bridges to gain the Eastern shore. This peninsula, east of the Chesapeake, is split between Virginia, Maryland and Delaware, which meant we drove through three states in just a few hours. The Eastern Shore is the main holiday destination for people living in DC and the surrounding area, and lots of people have holiday homes there; apparently in high season there are queues hours long on the bridge from Annapolis. Though we had visited Ocean City before, we had visited in the winter, and we were now keen to experience this area in the summer.

Unfortunately, May in 2016 was not very warm, and the bad weather we had experienced in Shenandoah continued as we drove up to Chincoteague island… We stopped here briefly for a snack of oysters, but then drove straight through to our destination – Bethany Beach – as it really wasn’t the weather for sightseeing.

Happily the next morning dawned bright and sunny, and a sighting of dolphins made for an exciting first day at the beach. Though none too warm, it was certainly a day for windy walks on the beach and playing in the waves. We relaxed in Bethany that day, enjoying our beach-side hotel, the short but sweet boardwalk and the holiday-feel of the place. We drove up to Rehoboth, just to see what we might be missing, but on balance decided we preferred Bethany – and we definitely preferred both to the rather soulless strip that is Ocean City.

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As with all my nature photos – you really have to zoom in!

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Our full day of relaxing by the sea, the sea-air and an excellent meal of seafood combined to make sure we woke the next morning refreshed and rested, ready for the (relatively) short drive home.

Related post: Birthday Road Trip: Dogfish Head and Ocean City

East Coast Adventures

I’ve always thought of traveling in the US as a gigantic undertaking. I imagined road trips over interminable deserts, on empty, sunbaked interstates that shimmer into the endless distance, across inhospitable mountain ranges, through dusty suspicious towns, and on and on across the continent to the ocean. Romantic, but time consuming. And as Bill Bryson has pointed out, most of the romantic roads have now been replaced with anonymous interstates, where you battle with delivery trucks driving too fast and try not to crash in the chaos of lane switching and under/over taking.

The Great American Road Trip – Death Valley http://www.cgpgrey.com [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
However, there are other kinds of traveling in the US, especially on the east coast where towns and attractions are relatively densely packed together. You only have to drive an hour from DC to be somewhere you might want to stop and sightsee; or the train can take you to Baltimore in under an hour, Philadelphia in about two hours, and New York in three – even Boston is less than seven hours away by train. Direct flights within the area aren’t too expensive either – you can get to Portland Maine in under two hours for about $250 (£161). So far we’ve flown to Maine for a week’s vacation driving around the MidCoast region and to Boston for a weekend. We took the train for a weekend in NYC and a daytrip to Baltimore. And I’ve traveled to Binghampton in upstate NY via a flight to Syracuse and a Greyhound bus(!) We’ve also driven from DC to Shenandoah National Park (1.5 hours), to Virginia vineyards (1 hour), and to the Historic Triangle on the Virginia peninsula (about 3 hours). We’re currently thinking about taking a long weekend to drive through West Virginia and Kentucky to Nashville (TN), and back through Georgia and the Carolinas – I don’t think this is too ambitious.

So what I’m really saying is that DC can be the perfect starting point to an East Coast American adventure. Certainly two of our family members found this to be true when they embarked from DC, in a white convertible mustang, on an autumn road-trip through upstate New York, New England and Maine. I was incredibly jealous of their itinerary, which took in the Finger Lakes, the Ben and Jerry’s ice cream factory, and fall foliage in Maine’s Acadia National Park before ending in Boston, where they got their flight back to the UK.

We do still think about the epic, cross-continental road trip, and might get the chance to do this when a couple of our friends get married later this year in California (and if we have enough holiday…). But in the meantime, there’s still plenty of America on our doorstep to explore.

US Holidays

So in my last post I mentioned that the Americans have 10 or 11 national holidays, and mentioned Martin Luther King Day, Columbus Day, Labor Day and Veterans Day. I’m sure some people have been trying to work out what the others might be, so here’s a list of holidays and my understanding of what they mean. I’ve also included a couple of other days that are significant, but not important enough to merit a day off work.

New Year’s Day. Celebrated on January 1. As in the UK it’s mainly a chance to recover after the celebrations of New Year’s Eve.

Birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. Commonly known as Martin Luther King (MLK) Day. Observed on the third Monday of January as this is around MLK’s birthday (January 15). I didn’t experience much cultural activity around this in my area, but there was a wreath laying event at the Martin Luther King memorial, a peace walk and parade in Southeast DC and musical tributes at the National Cathedral and the Kennedy Center.

George Washington’s Birthday. Sometimes known as Presidents’ Day as the holiday is usually observed on a day which falls between the birthdays of Washington and Lincoln, but DC obviously prefers the official title. Observed on the third Monday of February, which is around Washington’s birthday (February 22). I’ve not experienced this holiday yet, but I’m informed that his hometown in nearby Alexandria, Virginia, marks the occasion with parades and other cultural events. Washington is one of America’s heroes – the general that won the Revolution and then went home to his farm, returning power to the civil government until they asked him back to become President.

[This might be a good place to point out that quite a few of these holidays are observed on a Monday, resulting in some nice long-weekends. This was not always the case – up until the 1968 Uniform Monday Holiday Act took effect these holidays were just observed on whichever day of the week they happened to fall, as is still the case for Veterans Day and the next holiday on our list, which is:]

Emancipation Day. This day is actually not a federal holiday I have now found, but is celebrated at different times of the year in different states, depending on when the slaves of those states learnt that they were free. In DC it is celebrated on April 16, which was the date that Lincoln signed the DC Compensated Emancipation Act (so named because in DC, exceptionally, the federal government compensated the former owners of slaves). This is a fun holiday with parades, music and probably fireworks.

Memorial Day. Not to be confused with Veterans Day. Observed on the last Monday in May and traditionally marks the beginning of the summer season. Parades celebrate those who died in all America’s wars and people dress up in period costume. Last year in DC the parade also featured Buzz Aldrin, which was quite exciting.

Independence Day. Observed, famously, on July 4, but which Americans unusually refer to as ‘4th of July’ – they never use this date formation, and we’re quite confused about it. This year ‘the 4th’ falls on a Saturday, so the federal holiday is being observed on the Friday. This is a good time of year in DC, so there’s rooftop partying, grilling (barbecuing), and a firework display on the mall.

Labor Day. Traditionally marks the end of the summer season (which is why there’s no wearing white after Labor Day). Observed first Monday of September, so to those of us from the UK it sometimes feels like the British August bank holiday. Officially this day celebrates workers, like the international workers’ day of May 1. There are parades, but mainly this holiday is about shopping at the sales.

Columbus Day. Observed on the second Monday in October. Most people are a bit confused by this day. In my experience this anniversary of Columbus’s arrival in America leads to awkward conversations about who gave syphilis to whom (apparently the Native Americans to the sailors) and whether the day should in fact be a day of national mourning for America’s crimes against the indigenous population.

Veterans Day. Observed on November 11. While in the UK this is a sober Day of Remembrance, dedicated to those who have fallen in war (like the US’s Memorial Day), this is a more exuberant celebration of America’s troops – all who have served whether they lived or died. In DC this year there was a big concert and party on the mall. America’s respect for its Veterans can sometimes tip over into jingoism though, and this is one holiday where I feel very much like a foreigner.

Thanksgiving Day. Observed November 26. See my previous post about the Christmas season – it’s the holiday dedicated to turkey, family and giving thanks.

Christmas Day. Observed December 25. Again, see previous post. This is the only federal holiday associated with a religious festival.

Not Holidays:

Groundhog Day. Observed February 2. This is not, as I thought, when the day replays again and again, as in the film. It is the day when people gather to watch a groundhog come out of its burrow and predict whether there will be six more weeks of winter based on whether it sees its shadow or not. The ‘official’ predicting groundhog is called Punxsutawny Phil (from Punxsutawny Pennsylvania) and this year he saw his shadow, so we’re in for more cold weather.

Super Bowl Day. Not just a sporting event, but a cultural tradition with specific associated foods. There is a debate raging between the wings and nachos party and the pizza party. But everyone agrees that there has to be buckets of guacamole. Apparently Mexico and California have to time their harvest of avocados so as to fulfil the insane demand created by this day – the guys at Harris Teeter told me they had sold out of 1000 crates of avocados that week. People host parties, bars deliver snacks to your home, the streets outside are deserted – much like workplaces the next day.

Overall, I still don’t think that federal holidays make up for an insufficient amount of discretionary leave, but at least some of them are enjoyable.

Happy Holidays

I didn’t realize how different the festive period would be in America. I knew I’d miss my family, obviously, but I didn’t realize I’d miss so much else. In fact, there were times when I felt completely cut off from Christmas. Advent calendars, Christmas cards and the rest of it took a while to appear in shops, largely because Halloween and Thanksgiving hog the season and steal Christmas’s thunder.   Normally in the UK I enjoy a good build up to Christmas – from late September I carry out tireless research to discover the best supermarket mince pies, watch Muppet Christmas Carol at least three times, go to (or host) at least one mulled wine party and join the nation in crying over the latest John Lewis Christmas advert. And when it gets to December itself, there are parties, carol concerts and services, non-stop Christmas music in the shops and on Classic fm, the Christmas edition of the Radio Times, and a general feeling of festivity.

We’re not a very religious nation, and very little of this celebration is spiritual, but perhaps it is the official Christianity of the UK that allows a lot of these cultural traditions to feel so universally shared and enjoyed at this time of year. Certainly Christmas doesn’t seem much more important in America than other holidays – which is of course quite right in such a diverse society – and certainly doesn’t seem to be as emotionally important to people, which is strange, considering how Hollywood has manufactured the holiday emotion in films over the years.

One thing that struck me was that Halloween actually seemed to be a bigger deal than Christmas. Halloween was huge. Target certainly dedicated as much if not more space to Halloween costumes, decorations and candy as to Christmas treats and tinsel; and as many, if not more, DC residents decorated their gardens with spiders webs and pumpkins as have put out Christmas lights. And then there was Thanksgiving, which is perhaps where Americans experience the emotion we put into Christmas. While it seemed largely about the food and the Black Friday sales to me – rather lacking in the excitement or magic that Christmas inspires – it was a nice occasion. We got invited to a family celebration, which was lovely: family warmth, thankfulness, and green bean casserole (a common potluck dish that I’d been wanting to try). Then there was pecan pie (maybe my favourite thing about America) and the football.

Following Halloween and Thanksgiving there was a surge in more Christmassy activities and decoration. But it’s almost as if people celebrate seasons here rather than particular festivals. Halloween incorporated harvest and the fall season, the chance for pumpkin pie and pumpkin spice lattes. Now it’s the season of trees and wreaths, snowmen and Santa, and gingerbread and peppermint lattes. It was difficult to get my usual Christmas staples. Americans don’t understand mince pies and think fruit cake is a cruel and unusual punishment.

I did get the chance to go to a holiday concert and a holiday office party though. The holiday concert was put on by the international choir I’m a part of, so we got to sing some carols – a couple in Swedish and German. (So much of Christmas over here seems to be identified with Germany or Scandinavia.) Both the party and the concert had potlucks, which seem to be the American holiday thing. Rather than wine and mince pies, people bring actual entrees (main course dishes), which rather cuts down on the drunken dancing…

Finally, though, Christmas seemed to arrive. My go-to international food shop was packed with goodies, so I could get my mince pies. We managed to host a mulled wine party, with British Christmas crackers, as requested by American colleagues. But perhaps the magic really began when we went to see the National Christmas tree. We had spent the day shopping, and when it got dark (still not until around 5pm here), we were on our way home, and had the thought to go via the Christmas Tree, round the back of the White House. And it was lovely. The tree is huge, preternaturally green and conical thanks to LEDs and some kind of mesh, and they switch it off at 10pm, which seems mean – but as you go round, it becomes more enchanting. There are toy trains and model villages around the tree’s base; there’s a nativity scene opposite a Santa’s grotto, across the way from a huge Hannukah Menora; there’s a series of informational panels outlining the history of the National Christmas tree; there are mini Christmas spruces set around the main tree – one for each state or territory – that have been decorated with LEDs programmed solely by girls as part of some scheme; and there’s a separate display of Christmas baubles from each state or territory designed by school children. Andy Williams classics play in the background, and people who have come from all around take smiling holiday photos in front of the tree. It’s not Christmas as I know it, but it couldn’t be more American or inclusive if it tried. And, I have to admit, it finally got me into the festive spirit.

So all that’s left to say… is Merry Christmas! Happy Holidays!

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