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Global Education

A Cultural Exchange Teacher’s Guide to U.S. Holiday Traditions

‘Tis the season to be jolly, and as cultural exchange teachers living in the United States, what better way to immerse yourself in American culture than by participating in the festive traditions that define this time of year? The holiday season in the U.S. is a magical blend of diverse customs and celebrations, with Christmas, Hanukkah, and Kwanzaa taking center stage during late November and the month of December. 

In this blog post, we’ll embark on a delightful journey through a few traditions that make holidays in the U.S. truly special. As Ambassador Teachers, you have the unique opportunity to not only witness, but actively partake in these festivities, forging connections with your host community and creating lasting memories. 

Whether you’re experiencing the season for the first time or looking to deepen your understanding, this post outlines just some of the traditions, customs, and celebrations that define the American holiday spirit. So, don your festive attire, grab a cup of hot cocoa, and let’s explore the enchanting world of U.S. holiday traditions together!

Holiday lights

One of the most visually spectacular traditions during the U.S. holiday season is the decoration of homes and neighborhoods with Christmas lights. As the days grow shorter and darkness falls earlier, millions of twinkling lights emerge, transforming streets into dazzling spectacles of color. 

The practice dates back to the early 20th century, when electric lights first became widely available. Today, it has evolved into a creative and festive tradition, with families, communities, and even entire towns creating light displays. 

As a cultural exchange teacher, immersing yourself in this luminous tradition offers a firsthand experience of the warmth and communal joy that defines the U.S. holiday spirit. Take part by decorating your own home with lights, or you can visit outdoor light displays—often for free—in your community or nearby areas.

Sending holiday cards

Sending holiday cards is a cherished tradition that brings a touch of warmth and connection to the festive season. Americans mail more than 16 billion cards, packages, and letters during the holidays.

As cultural exchange teachers, you’ll find this custom goes beyond a mere exchange of greetings; it symbolizes a heartfelt desire to reach out and share the joy of the season with loved ones near and far. Typically adorned with festive motifs, family photos, or whimsical illustrations, these cards serve as tangible expressions of well-wishes and gratitude. 

The tradition gained popularity in the mid-19th century and has since evolved into a practice that extends to friends, family, colleagues, and neighbors. Send some of your own holiday cards to foster a sense of connection and community, offering a personal touch in a digital age. 

The tradition of cookie decorating and gatherings known as cookie swaps add a flavorful touch to the holiday season in the U.S. Families and friends come together to transform simple sugar cookies into edible works of art, using an array of colorful icing, sprinkles, and festive shapes. 

Cookie swap events involve participants bringing batches of their favorite cookies to exchange with others, creating an assortment of treats that reflect the diverse tastes and culinary traditions of the season. 

Engaging in cookie decorating and swaps not only indulges the taste buds but also serves as a delightful way to share homemade goodness and forge connections. As you join in the festivities, you’ll find this tradition encapsulates the spirit of sharing, creativity, and, of course, the joy that comes with a plate full of beautifully decorated holiday cookies.

Attending holiday performances, plays, and musicals

During the holiday season, there are many opportunities to attend special musical performances, plays, and perhaps the most well-known holiday performance, The Nutcracker ballet. 

Set to Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s iconic score, the ballet premiered in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1892. It wasn’t until the mid-20th century that The Nutcracker found its place as a holiday staple in the U.S.

Over the years, numerous ballet companies across the country have adapted The Nutcracker, making it a festive and cherished tradition that brings communities together during the holiday season. Today, attending a performance has become synonymous with celebrating the magic and wonder of Christmas, making it a treasured part of holiday festivities for many.

Whether it’s a classic ballet, a heartwarming theatrical production, or a joyous musical celebration, attending a holiday performance becomes a shared experience that cultivates a sense of togetherness and holiday cheer.

Whatever holiday traditions you participate in this season, gaining new cultural experiences will be special memories you make as an Ambassador Teacher. For more ways to make the most of your cultural exchange, see Maximizing the Ambassador Teacher Experience.

We also have lots of ideas on our blog about celebrating the winter holidays with your students! Check them out here:

Ambassador Teachers, did you know that your community is made up of more than 1,800 teachers from over 30 countries around the world? Embrace the spirit of global connection with our Holidays Around the World video series. Discover how to participate and share your holiday celebrations with our worldwide community—check out the Ambassador Teachers community of practice for more information and to join in!

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