To start with some semantics, a “holiday” in America is a big celebration like Thanksgiving, Christmas etc. A vacation is where you take time off work and go away, like we would say “going on holidays” in Australia. To get even more confusing, holidays are not necessarily public holidays in the US. Thankfully, America Josh has wonderfully covered all the facts about American holidays that can be public holidays here. That leaves me to cover the best cultural experiences to enjoy!
On this page
Each fortnight (that’s every 2 weeks, for the Americans!) Micharne will share what she’s learned about some aspect of the US, from an Aussie perspective.
Winter Is Coming…
Just as the days are getting shorter and the kids go back to school, America distracts you with a multitude of holidays! No need to be seasonally depressed that Winter Is Coming when you have all of these holidays to look forward to…
Halloween – October 31
I know Halloween is much more of a thing in Australia now than it was when us now grown-ups were growing up. However Halloween in the states is an enormous production and really a lot of fun.
Haunted houses, whether they are created by a local family or community, or a huge commercial enterprise, are an experience you need to do at least once, to appreciate the scale of the holiday. If you don’t like scary things or have smaller children, many houses have days specifically set aside for kids, with only family friendly scares on that day. Twists on the haunted house include haunted car washes, and many theme parks, and even zoos, get totally Halloween-ified for the holiday.
Then there’s trick-or-treating, pumpkin patches, parades, and parties, so every age group is covered for some spooky fun! See America Josh’s Top Tips for Halloween here.
Day of the Dead (Día de los Muertos) – November 1 – 2
The Day of the Dead originated in Mexico, and is about celebrating and paying respects to loved ones who have passed away. Traditional celebrations, parades and festivals with music and costumed dancers can be found throughout the US. While the holidays might initially sound similar, especially coming from somewhere that doesn’t widely celebrate either, Halloween and the Day of the Dead have different histories, different dates and a different vibe. In very general terms, Halloween is spooky and scary, and the Day of the Dead is celebratory and festive.
Thanksgiving – Fourth Thursday in November
I’ve found Thanksgiving is a lot of my favorite Americans favorite holiday, as in focusing on gathering, eating amazing food, and being grateful, it disengages with the commercialization and gift giving that goes with almost every other holiday. America Josh has you covered for all you need to know about your first Thanksgiving in the US here.
One commercial Thanksgiving enterprise (though it’s free to attend!) that does live up to its reputation is the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in NYC. The balloons are truly enormous, and if you find a spot on the parade route further uptown on the Upper West Side, you can get a decent view without needing to get there before the sun rises!
“Happy Holidays” – Christmas / Hanukkah / Kwanzaa
Staying on the NYC theme – the Holiday Season in the city is just as bright and joyous as you might have imagined. In fact, many Americans aspire to come to NYC during the holiday season. From the holiday windows, to ice skating at Rockefeller Center or Central Park, to holiday markets and pop up bars, the city turns up the volume 100% on holiday cheer.
Americans helpfully have their biggest annual sales BEFORE the holidays. Unlike Australia where Boxing Day (the day after Christmas) is the big day of sales, Black Friday and now Cyber Monday, come right after Thanksgiving (the holiday of no gift giving!)
Valentine’s Day – February 14
In the US, Valentine’s Day is not only celebrated between couples. Students give their friends or their entire class a valentine, and there are bulk card / candy packs sold just for this purpose. Valentine’s parties are a thing for the young people, and one year I managed to live my American High School Dream by going to a Valentine’s Day themed Prom Night, in a nightclub in NYC (of course!)
While you might be tempted to dismiss the holiday for it’s unsubtle commercialization, remember this falls in the dead of a freezing Winter for much of the US. We need a holiday come mid-February, and as not everyone celebrates my Birthday which is also mid-February, Valentine’s Day is a welcome day of eating candy / lollies and loving love.
St Patrick’s Day – March 17
While the US has many immigrants from Ireland, the celebration of St Patrick’s Day extends far beyond Irish communities, to basically everyone. Green beer is on tap at Irish pubs and beyond. Many different things become St Patrick’s Day themed in March, from standards like the cereal “Lucky Charms” turning green and the Shamrock Shake at McDonalds, through to the once-in-a-lifetime example of a training day I attended for mounted archery, where we practiced by shooting arrows at (paper) leprechauns and rainbows (only in New Jersey!)
Easter – A surprise every year between March and April
Easter is more purely a religious celebration in the US, rather than a universally observed magic meets Christianity celebration like Christmas. Don’t worry, the Easter bunny still visits the US, but if you ask a colleague what they are doing for Easter, and especially if they don’t have kids, their answer is likely to be “it’s Easter this weekend?”
While Good Friday is occasionally an office wide holiday, most Americans have never even heard of Easter Monday. As far as time off work is concerned, in Australia Easter serves as a 4 day long weekend in Autumn, and you could perhaps see Thanksgiving as the equivalent parallel in the US.
But celebrating Easter in Spring means that the symbolism of eggs, chicks and new life are seasonally appropriate! Also the Easter Bonnet Parade in New York City is pretty special. Rather than a formal parade, it is more a gathering of New Yorkers in fabulous hats, and all are welcome.
Independence Day – July 4
So bear with me, but the celebration of Independence Day feels a lot like New Year’s Eve in Australia, just with a lot of American music and red-white-and-blue. There’s grilling, outdoor parties and most importantly, fireworks.
As my own personal joke, I say “Happy New Year!” at the end of July 4 fireworks if I’m around Australians. But in some ways it does feel like a new year, as you’re mid-Summer, and back to school season is just around the corner.
Embracing the Holidays!
For a laid-back Aussie, the American holiday celebrations can sound a little, perhaps, over the top? Maybe a good comparison is Las Vegas. I’ve heard people complain that Las Vegas is cheesy, gaudy and over the top, but I’m like, HAVE YOU BEEN TO VEGAS? You have to embrace its over-the-top-ness to really appreciate it.
If you find yourself alone on any holiday, do a little google of local events happening on or near the holiday. Don’t be shy about showing up alone. “I’m Australian and it’s my first [insert holiday here]” is an excellent ice breaker!