Christmas Traditions in North America

Christmas Traditions in North America

Many people consider Christmas their favorite time of year. This is due to the festive atmosphere, the delicious treats, and, of course, the presents! Tradition rules many families at Christmastime; annual traditions are handed down through families, merging and diverging as children grow and marry and have their own children.

Traditions vary by country, state or province, region, and even by family, but some are more common than others, while some are distinctly unique. This is probably at least partly due to the “melting pot” background of North America; people moved from many other countries into these locations since the 1500s.


Newfoundland and Nova Scotia have an odd tradition called “mummering.” While this can sometimes be found in other parts of North America (some parts of Pennsylvania, USA, also observe this), it began in this area of Canada back in the early 1800s. Every year during the twelve days of Christmas (December 26-January 6), people would dress up and cover their faces, visit neighbors’ homes and entertain with song or dance if allowed in. They would then be offered treats and drinks. However, this form of the tradition mostly ended in 1861 when some people dressed as mummers committed homicide. Mummers were no longer allowed without a license. A return of the costumes, at least, began in the 1980s, and festivals and parades of mummers are the new tradition in these areas.

Christmas trees found on a tree farm, which provides an axe, are a standard decoration in homes. The scent of a real tree is a delightful part of the season, though some do use artificial trees. Real trees are sold in many locations if a tree farm is too far away.

United States

Black Friday is generally viewed as the first or main Christmas shopping day of the season. It is the day after Thanksgiving (although it has begun to start on Thanksgiving Day in recent years) when stores have big sales to draw in people.

Boston, Massachusetts gets their Christmas tree from Halifax, Nova Scotia every year. This is because the people of Boston offered aid when an explosion resulting from the collision of two ships (one carrying explosives)destroyed a good bit of the city. Boston sent a rescue train to assist, and in gratitude, Halifax began sending a tree to Boston every year.

Candy canes are an annual favorite. Usually peppermint (but now found in many different flavors), a traditional candy cane is white with red stripes, in a can shape. These have been around since the 1600s but became much more popular in the 1800s.

Christmas cards are sent through the mail to family and friends. This tradition began in 1822 and has continued even though many people have stopped sending mail, preferring the faster email or text messaging. Even people who do most of their communication online will often mail out Christmas cards.

Christmas movies are greatly enjoyed, and some families have a tradition of watching a certain movie every Christmas. Sometimes it is a holiday-themed movie, but some families choose a movie they love that has nothing to do with Christmas; it is a way to connect as a family. Some favorite movies watched during this season include A Charlie Brown Christmas, The Christmas Story, Die Hard, Elf, Frosty the Snowman, The Grinch Who Stole Christmas, Home Alone, It’s a Wonderful Life, A Miracle on 34th Street, Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer, and pretty much anything on the Hallmark channel during the season.

Christmas trees are put up in most homes and decorated with ornaments and lights. The ornaments may be color-coded, sentimental keepsakes, eclectic, themed, or whatever is desired. There is often tinsel or shiny garland, to represent snow or icicles. Lights may be big or small, always lit or blinking. The tree may be artificial, or it may be a cut tree, which could be purchased at a store precut and prewrapped, or it could be found at a tree farm and cut personally. Finding the perfect tree is a tradition for a lot of families.

Decorations are everywhere during the Christmas season, but may look different in different areas of the country. For example, in the southwest, many people use luminaries – candles or other lights inside paper bags or plastic “bags” – to decorate for Christmas. Colorful lights line bushes and houses in many areas, and light shows are often a part of neighborhood decorations and may be found in botanical gardens and parks throughout the country.

Music is another big part of Christmas celebration. Christmas songs and carols are sung or played both door-to-door and in concerts at churches and in other concert locations. Schools usually have Christmas shows for their parents and instrumental recitals during the holiday season are usually holiday themed.


Las Posadas (“the inn”) is a celebration that begins on December 16th and goes through the 24th. During this time, children go from house to house, singing to the people and asking if there is room in the “inn” – a reminder of the story of Mary and Joseph on the day Jesus was born. In recent years, many homes have a party at the end of the night.

Nativity scenes are found in most places throughout Mexico, but the baby Jesus is not usually placed in the manger until late Christmas Eve, to be found there on Christmas morning.

Piñatas are a popular party fixture in Mexico, and Christmas parties are no exception! Unlike non-Christmas parties, these piñatas look more Christmassy and some include seven spikes in reference to the “seven deadly sins.”

Three Kings Day, or Epiphany, sees many children with extra treats or small gifts as a reminder of the gifts given by the Magi to the child Jesus. This is often accompanied by Rosca de Reyes which is an oval loaf of bread with fruit on it and a toy baby hidden somewhere inside. Tradition says that the person whose piece contains the figurine is expected to throw a party featuring tamales on the second of February, which is considered the end of the Christmas season, and is called Candlemas.


Much of North America shares traditions, so some that are listed primarily in the United States may be observed in Canada and Mexico as well – and that is true for each country. Things like mistletoe (under which couples kiss) and holly, Santa Claus and gift-giving are fairly universal. In all countries, the main focus is on friends, family, and the birth of Jesus Christ.