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Celebrating Christmas in America Is as Diverse as Americans
By Charlie Keenan

Each year, New York City erects and decorates the largest tree in the nation. Rockefeller Center hosts the tree each year. This year’s tree is an 81-foot, 8-ton Norway spruce lighted with 30,000 bulbs.
Photo: AP/Wide World
Sure, Christmas in America means decorating trees, leaving cookies for Santa, and watching Rudolph on TV for the umpteenth time. But thanks to the country’s diverse heritage and regions, people celebrate the season in ways as varied as Pokémon characters.

Want a little French flair? Go to south Louisiana, where bonfires light up the banks of the Mississippi River. That’s to help Papa Noel—French for Santa Claus—find his way to the local Cajun children. And in New Orleans, there’s an old tradition called reveillon, (ray va yon) where folks eat giant meals to celebrate the holidays. The term comes from the French word “reveiller,” or to wake up. In the old days, Creole families went to midnight mass on Christmas, then went home for a big meal that sometimes lasted until dawn! Nowadays, you don’t have to go to church or wait until Christmas to pig out. You can eat a reveillon meal any night in December in New Orleans restaurants.

Speaking of eating, try Miami. You can bet that Santa stops there for a quick bite. Each Christmas Eve, the air is filled with the barbecue smoke of lechon asado, a Cuban tradition. Lechon asado is pork that has been soaked in a garlic marinade, wrapped in banana leaves, and roasted on a pit. Mmmmm!

A 5-year-old in Nampa, Idaho, waits her turn to perform at the Las Posadas Celebration at Snake River Elementary. She performed with the Intermediate Group of the Hispanic Cultural Center of Idaho Dancers.
Photo: AP/Wide World.
For a little Mexican flavor for the holiday, take a trip to San Antonio, where mariachi bands play at mass. Countrywide, Mexican-Americans also hold festivals called posadas. These celebrations re-create Mary and Joseph’s search for a place to stay so Mary could give birth to Jesus.

Places with Swedish roots celebrate the legend of Santa Lucia in December. Cities as diverse as Boston, Albany, New York, and Los Angeles hold festivals to reenact the story a young girl who was killed in the 4th century for her Christian beliefs. Young girls wear lights in their hair as part of the ceremony.

You are probably pretty used to seeing Christmas lights on houses. But in New Mexico, candles burning in thin paper bags line walls, roofs, and buildings of adobe churches. These decorations are called luminarias, and are common in old Spanish-settlement towns such as Sante Fe, Taos, and Las Cruces. In San Antonio, luminarias line the downtown River Walk along the San Antonio River.

The different ways people celebrate, eat, and decorate is a result of America’s melting pot of cultural backgrounds, says William C. Levin, a professor of sociology, anthropology, and criminal justice at Bridgewater State College in Massachusetts. “People interpret Christmas to reflect their understanding of how the world works,” he says. “Their histories are different. Christmas means different things to different groups. It reflects what they think matters.”

In the U.S., it’s clear that food, fellowship, lights, and tradition are the important ingredients to any holiday festivity.