If you’re new to the United States, you might be surprised by some American holiday traditions, and we’re not talking about vacations. In the United States, the term ‘holiday’ refers to what many other countries recognize as ‘bank’ or ‘public holiday.’ Here, the abbreviated term ‘holiday’ is used to describe these days of celebration.
While many holidays celebrated in the United States are celebrated globally, the US has several popular holidays specific to the history of the US and past cultural immigrations that shaped America. Check out our guide to the most celebrated American holidays and the traditions that accompany them.
Labor Day (First Monday of September)
Labor Day is celebrated on the first Monday of September every year. For many Americans, this holiday acknowledges the end of the summer and the beginning of a new school year. Really, though, Labor Day celebrates the American labor movement, recognizing the social and economic achievements of American workers and the contributions of laborers to the development of the United States. The day is celebrated in towns and cities across the country with parades, picnics, barbecues, fireworks displays, and other public gatherings. You may see some celebratory similarities between this holiday and Independence Day.
Halloween (October 31st)
Halloween falls on October 31st every year. Halloween began with pagan roots that were Christianized, but today it’s commonly celebrated secularly with a focus on events for children. On the evening of Halloween, children dress up in costumes and go door-to-door in their neighborhoods to Trick-or-Treat, receiving candy. There’s plenty of fun for adults as well, including costume parties and pumpkin picking. Carving pumpkins for Halloween is a tradition for people of all ages, which includes placing a light or a candle inside the pumpkin on Halloween night and setting it outside (or in a window, for many apartment-dwellers) for all to admire. Americans often decorate homes and workplaces for Halloween with orange and black streamers, pumpkins, and spooky items like skeletons, bats, and fake spiderwebs.
Thanksgiving (Late November)
Thanksgiving falls on the last Thursday in November every year. In modern times, Thanksgiving is celebrated as an opportunity to gather with family and friends over a large meal and be thankful for the blessings of the last year. It is believed to be modeled after the legend of a feast that took place between the English Colonists and the Wampanoag people in 1621. Thanksgiving decorations often include fall leaves and harvest-related items like squash and turkeys. Traditional Thanksgiving food varies regionally, but most Thanksgiving spreads center on roasted turkey. Stuffing (a bread-based side dish), mashed potatoes, and cranberry sauce are also strongly associated with Thanksgiving.
Hanukkah (Late November or December)
The date of Hanukkah is different every year, as it falls on the 25th day of Kislev in the Hebrew Calendar. Hanukkah is observed exclusively in Judaism and takes place for eight nights and eight days each year. The most common symbol of Hanukkah is a Menorah, an eight-branched stand for candles to be held and lit on each night of Hanukkah. This tradition is based on the history of the Jewish communities’ struggles in ancient Israel. It is believed that, after a successful revolt against a tyrannical ruler, there was only enough pure oil to light the Menorah for one day. Miraculously, the oil lasted for eight whole days, creating the tradition of Menorah lighting. Today, Hanukkah symbolizes the victory of the few over the many and the reclamation of a Jewish temple. Gift-giving is also part of modern Hanukkah celebrations, with children typically being given one gift for each night of Hanukkah. Decorations for Hanukkah include blue and white lights, dreidels (a spinning top used to play a traditional game), the Menorah, and the Jewish star.
Christmas Eve & Christmas Day (December 24th & 25th)
Every year, Christmas Eve is celebrated on December 24th, and Christmas Day on the 25th. Traditionally, Christmas is a holiday to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, observed by those who practice Christianity. As Christmas is widely celebrated in the US, many people with diverse beliefs partake in traditions associated with Christmas, such as gift giving or decorating with colorful lights. Some cities and even small towns put on Christmas parades and Christmas tree lighting ceremonies.
Christmas Eve is often celebrated with a gathering for a large meal. Much like Thanksgiving, traditional foods eaten at Christmas can vary regionally and culturally. Many Italian Americans, for example, prepare a special dinner called the Feast of the Seven Fishes, whereas a Christmas ham is the common centerpiece for Americans descended from Northern Europeans. For children, most of the celebration is saved for the following morning once Santa has come down the chimney and left presents. On the morning of December 25th, you may find gifts around the Christmas tree. Christmas Day is spent exchanging and opening presents, spending time with loved ones by the fire or the Christmas tree, and even more food.
New Year’s Eve & New Year’s Day (December 31st & January 1st)
New Year’s Eve is a secular holiday often celebrated with large parties that extend past midnight to “ring in the new year.” Unlike many other holidays, plenty of bars and restaurants are open for New Year’s Eve, and even host ticketed events. Getting dressed up for a night out, toasting with sparkling wine, making loud noises at midnight (or kissing a loved one) are all ways people celebrate New Year’s Eve in the US. A widespread tradition is the countdown to midnight, where people will count down from ten out loud and yell “Happy New Year” at the stroke of midnight. January 1st is observed as New Year’s Day, with many businesses closed for the day. New Year’s Day traditions vary, often along ethnocultural lines, but many traditions include eating foods said to promote good luck for the new year.
Valentine’s Day (February 14th)
Valentine’s Day falls on February 14th every year. This day encompasses all-things love and is decorated with hearts, pink and red, and depictions of Cupid, the Roman god of love. Valentine’s Day celebrations are largely divorced from its patron saint, and many of the traditions we associate with it today contain vestiges of both ancient Christian and Roman traditions. Romantic couples celebrate by showering their partner with gifts, romantic dates, and chocolate. Schoolchildren will often exchange Valentine’s cards and candies with their classmates on this day.
St. Patrick’s Day (March 17th)
St. Patrick’s Day falls on March 17th every year. While St. Patrick’s Day has its roots in an Irish holiday to observe the death of the patron saint of Ireland (St. Patrick), in the United States, it’s more commonly celebrated as a day to take pride in Irish heritage. Early Irish immigrants to the United States were treated very poorly, including being barred from public spaces and workplaces. The widespread celebration of St. Patrick’s Day as a celebration of Irish-American heritage is a testament to the US’s identity as a nation of immigrants. American traditions for St. Patrick’s Day center on food and drink but also include parades featuring Irish step dancers and bagpipers. Americans decorate for St. Patrick’s Day with lots of green, depictions of leprechauns, and shamrocks. This holiday is known for being a day of revelry and is celebrated by many Americans regardless of their heritage.
Easter (First Sunday after the full Moon of the Spring Equinox)
Easter falls on a different date each year, the first Sunday following the full Moon that occurs on or after the spring equinox (the date each year is marked on the calendar). This holiday falls in the spring months, typically in early April. Easter has its roots in both the Christian celebration of the resurrection of Jesus Christ and Ostera, a Pagan celebration of the spring equinox. Secular Easter traditions include hiding candy or treats in plastic eggs for children to hunt for, dyeing hard-boiled eggs bright colors, and constructing Easter baskets filled with treats, including bunny-shaped chocolates. Easter celebrations traditionally include a large meal with special dishes that vary by region and culture. For many Christian families, lamb or ham is considered traditional. Americans decorate for Easter with pastel colors, depictions of bunnies and spring flowers, and colorful eggs.
Memorial Day (Last Monday of May)
Memorial Day is observed on the last Monday of May each year, honoring the men and women who have died while serving in the US military. On this day, it is common to see individuals placing flowers or American flags on the graves of loved ones whose lives were lost while serving, holding family gatherings, or participating in local parades.
Juneteenth (June 19th)
Juneteenth falls on June 19th every year, and is a newly recognized national holiday. Juneteenth (short for June Nineteenth) commemorates the effective end of slavery in the United States when federal troops arrived in Texas in 1865 to take control of the state and ensure the freedom of the remaining enslaved African Americans (two months after the end of the American Civil War). Juneteenth celebrations began as early as 1866 among African Americans but has only recently been recognized as an important piece of American history. On this day, you might see the colors red, black, and green to honor the Pan-African flag. You might also see the Juneteenth flag, which is made up of a five-point star, a bursting star, and an arc.
American Independence Day (July 4th)
Independence Day falls on July 4th every year, commemorating the day the Declaration of Independence was approved by the Continental Congress in 1776, declaring the American colonies free from Great Britain’s rule. However, the war for America’s independence from Britain (known in the US as the Revolutionary War) would continue through 1783. July 4th celebrations often include large gatherings of family and friends, preparing grilled American staples like hotdogs and hamburgers, and enjoying fireworks displays. Americans decorate with red, white, and blue, American flags, and stars and stripes.
Acclimating to Living in the United States
As part of our Partnership Program, Global Nurse Partners supports nurses and their families throughout their transition to life in the US and offers guidance every step of the way, including a cultural acclimation program. Learn more about our Partnership Program here and how to take your nursing career to the US, and someday you can celebrate these holidays too!