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!