American Christmas Food Traditions

Roast turkey

How do they celebrate Christmas in the US? And what are their favourite foods for Christmas dinner? Here are the most popular American Christmas food traditions.

In lots of ways, Christmas dinner in the US is very similar to Thanksgiving food – roast turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, gravy, and honey-glazed baked ham, with lots of different side dishes such as stuffing, creamed spinach, cranberry sauce, and roasted root vegetables. It is very similar to a British Christmas dinner where the turkey takes centre stage.

But different regions in the US have their own food traditions, depending on where their ancestors came from. In Virginia, for example, things like ham pie, oysters, and fluffy biscuits are served as a nod to their 17th-century founders.

The upper midwest might have Scandinavian dishes such as lutefisk and mashed turnips, while in the south rice is served instead of potatoes.

The Gulf Coast has shellfish and other seafood dishes as appetisers before the main meal, while in some rural areas game meat such as Elk and Quail is served, using old recipes passed down over many years.

But on the whole, turkey remains the most popular meat to serve on Christmas day. Americans consume a staggering 22 billion turkeys each year and 318 million pounds of potatoes. And that’s just at Christmas!

But apart from the food, some favourite Christmas traditions are observed every year on this important holiday. Here are the top ten traditions.

Decorating the tree: Americans love to decorate their Christmas trees, whether they’re real or artificial, and really go to town on the decorations. Families gather round and hang delicate baubles, tinsel, and ornaments on the tree, twining lights through the branches and setting a glittery star on top. Wrapped gifts are placed under the tree, ready for Christmas morning. Once the tree is up, it starts to feel more like Christmas, especially for the children.

Xmas tree

Baking Christmas cookies: A favourite tradition is to bake cookies, using cutters shaped like stars, Christmas trees and wreaths, then decorating the finished cookies with red and green icing, and possibly some edible glitter for that festive touch. Favourite cookies are peanut butter, molasses and sugar, and snickerdoodles, but gingerbread is sometimes used as well.

Xmas cookies

Look at the festive lights: People love to decorate their Christmas trees indoors, but they also like to decorate trees outdoors. Trees are hung with strings of coloured lights, and houses are festooned with more lights, nativity scenes and Santa figurines. People will often walk or drive around their neighbourhood just to admire the displays. Ordinary streets are turned into a winter wonderland – even more so when snow is falling.

Trees with lights

Building a gingerbread house: These can either be made from scratch or you can buy a kit and construct it at home. Once the gingerbread house has been assembled, you can decorate it however you want. White icing to symbolise snow, glitter and tiny sweets all feature in this popular tradition. Children can get involved in the building and decorating of the houses and it can get quite competitive.

Gingerbread houses

Writing a letter to Santa: Children write letters to ask for a special gift – maybe one that they don’t want to ask their parents for – and these are left out on Christmas eve, along with milk and cookies for Santa and carrots for his team of reindeer. Led by Rudolph of course!

The giving and receiving of gifts: Thoughtfully chosen gifts are carefully wrapped in pretty paper and adorned with bows and rosettes. Gifts are often exchanged around the Christmas tree, and children wake up their parents before the crack of dawn to see what Santa has left for them. This is the most exciting part of the day of you’re a child. And for some adults too.

Xmas gifts

Watching Christmas movies: There are so many movies to choose from at Christmas, both the golden oldies and newer productions. From the timeless classic It’s a Wonderful Life, to Home Alone and Elf, there’s something for the whole family. So settle down on the sofa with a mug of hot chocolate and lose yourself in your favourite movies and characters. This may be all you have the energy for after a big meal so relax and enjoy it.

Singing Christmas carols: This is an old tradition but still a popular one. With so many songs to choose from you will never be stuck for ideas. So get a few friends together and go and sing some carols for your neighbours. Or if you’re feeling brave, take your group and give a mini concert out on the street. Just make sure you wrap up warmly.

Wearing a Christmas jumper: There are some very cute Christmas jumpers out there but the best ones have corny slogans and over-the-top embroidery. If you really can’t face wearing one of these creations, feel free to dress in glitter, sequins and anything else you consider festive.

People wearing Christmas sweaters

Christmas is for families: Last but not least, Christmas is a time to get together with the people you love most in the world, whether family, friends or both. Being in the company of those you love makes the holiday extra special. And Christmas is a good time to reflect on the year and feel grateful for what you have.

Christmas Dinner

The highlight of Christmas day for most people is the main meal. In the UK we tend to serve roast potatoes with our turkey; in the US it’s more likely to be mashed potatoes. Yukon Gold are the best variety for mashing. They have a thin skin and yellow flesh and are both waxy and floury, making them a very versatile potato – not just for mashing but for baking, roasting and making chips.

Mashed potato made for Christmas dinner is more luxurious than everyday mashed potatoes; lots of butter is added, along with cream to produce the smoothest, tastiest mash imaginable. Second helpings are hard to resist!

But although turkey is the most popular choice, what if you hosted Thanksgiving this year and can’t face any more turkey? Well fortunately there are several delicious alternatives.

Roast Beef

Roast beef

Rib roast, tenderloin or sirloin, a joint of beef is a nice change from turkey. Try making a crust from breadcrumbs, mustard and herbs. This will add flavour to the meat as well as being tasty in its own right. And if your roast is a good size, there will be lots of leftovers. Think roast beef and horseradish sandwiches, cold cuts with pickles and new potatoes or a Chinese stir-fry.

Baked Glazed Ham

Baked ham

Ham, usually baked and glazed with honey and spices, is another popular alternative to turkey. And it’s equally delicious served with mashed potatoes and seasonal vegetables. Leftovers make great sandwiches or can be served with poached or fried eggs for breakfast.

Rack of Lamb

Rack of lamb

This is a pricier option, but one that will impress your guests. Cooked so that it’s pink in the centre but dark and crusty on the outside, this won’t usually provide any leftovers but will be enjoyed on the day. Try making a crust to spread on top, using breadcrumbs, fresh mint and honey. Lamb also goes well with a traditional cranberry sauce.

Other Christmas food options are the ever-popular side dishes, such as creamed spinach, heavy with cream and Parmesan cheese, or green bean casserole, made with canned mushroom soup and milk. People seem to either love it or hate it. Stuffing is a must-have.

Other side dishes are Brussels sprouts, often served with bacon and chestnuts, roasted root vegetables such as parsnips, carrots, turnips and sweet potatoes, mashed sweet potaoes, stuffing, and gravy made from the juices of the roast.

Festive Sweet Treats

If anyone has room, there are some delicious desserts to round off the meal. Pumpkin pie or apple pie, Christmas pudding, raisin pudding and cheesecake. Cheesecake is the first choice of dessert in 9 states. There are also cookies like snickerdoodles, peanut butter, molasses and sugar cookies as well as fruit cake. Christmas is a time for indulgence; count calories another time!

Christmas Drinks

Hot drink

So what do you have to drink with your dinner? Wine is the obvious choice, but there are pre-dinner and after dinner drinks too.

Eggnog is a favourite tipple. Rich and creamy and spiked with rum and cognac, this really hits the spot. It can be made with whole eggs or just egg yolks but either way, it’s a delicious treat. Other drinks to enjoy are hot buttered rum, a warming concoction of rum, spices and butter mixed with hot water and served with a cinnamon stick and wassail punch.

This originated in England and dates back to Anglo-Saxon times. Traditionally served in a bowl for guests to help themselves, it contains beer or cider, spices and crab apples. A non-alcoholic version is also available.

A similar hot alcoholic beverage is mulled wine, made from red wine with the addition of spices such as cloves, cinnamon and nutmeg, sugar and oranges. It’s heated so that the spices can infuse with the wine and sugar. A cup of mulled wine is just the thing after a walk in the cold air. Mulled cider is a good alternative if you don’t like red wine.

Mulled wine

I hope that you’ve enjoyed this article. If you have any comments or questions, please leave them below. For more information on Christmas traditions, visit the top ten Christmas traditions for the UK

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4 thoughts on “American Christmas Food Traditions”

  1. This a very well-written post…even though it’s only November 1st, I can almost taste the meals you describe. Like you, I am also based in the UK and your background sounds very similar to my own. My Mum always insisted on home cooking, and the Christmas Day meal was always something to behold. I have been fortunate to have been married to my wife for 43 years, and I am so pleased that she also has the same values as both her Mum and mine did. We of course have passed our enthusiasm to our daughters, who are both continuing the tradition. Long may it last for many generations to come.

    • Christmas does seem to come early doesn’t it? The Christmas Day feast is something to look forward to, a ray of light in the cold and dark days of winter. 

      I’m so glad you and your wife have kept up the tradition of a home cooked meal on the day and how wonderful that your daughters are carrying on the tradition. Home cooked food is comforting and it brings people together, especially at this time of year. Food is love after all! 

  2. The visuals of food in this article is mouth- watering, the description of traditions were very informative for people who were not living or visited in the US. Most traditions and were the same in my country, the Christmas tree, hams, wearing Santa costumes with the exception of Turkey, ours is roasted whole pork. During Christmas most well off family has roasted whole pig on the long table with the red apple in its mouth. Thank you for walking us through the US top Christmas traditions.

    • Hi and thanks for the kind comments. I’m so glad you enjoyed the article. Thanks also for sharing your country’s traditions. A whole pig! Wow! I think we have learned something from each other


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