Living the American Christmas

As December trots on, our TV screens quickly become more dominated by US films, seemingly depicting the whole country as being coated in decorations and overridden with excitement. Forget the movies. Thanks to the Visa Waiver Programme, you can go and see it for yourself with an ESTA.

We’ve all got a preconception of what Christmas in the USA is like. In fact, the way we treat the occasion is arguably heavily influenced by our American cousins, particularly in the commercial sense. Here we’ll be taking a look at some of the most iconic, curious and unmissable Christmas activities in the USA this year.


An integral part of the over-all “Christmas experience”, it would be impossible to mention Christmas in the USA without mentioning shopping. The day after Thanksgiving, ‘Black Friday’ saw the start of the official Christmas shopping period, with crowds coming out in their masses to get huge savings on major purchases. The tradition has since spread across the world, but there is nowhere quite like the USA when it comes to Christmas shopping. In fact, many Brits go to the USA in December solely to benefit from these shopping opportunities, particularly on account of the favourable exchange rate and tax benefits. So where are the best pre-Chrimbo shopping spots?
Of course, the answer is New York. Iconic stores such as Macy’s are renowned for their Christmas discounts, where there is even an 11% discount for non-American visitors! Other hot spots include Century 21, Ralph Lauren and Bloomingdale’s. Visitors can spend days just exploring the shopping opportunities in New York, where the experience itself is enough to appreciate the grandeur and scale of Christmas in the USA.
Leaving New York, tax benefits make Philadelphia a particularly welcoming destination, with no taxation whatsoever on clothing, and a plethora of brands and stores downtown that certainly won’t leave you short of gifts. The same applies in Massachusetts, where there is also a certain spending limit.


Aside from the nationwide shopping frenzy, Christmas Markets have gripped the USA in the same way they have Europe. A German theme often presides, but of course these markets are filled with quirks and an atmosphere that we don’t always match in some of our smaller markets.
Our favourites include the Old World Christmas Market at Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin, is a fine example of a market that takes you to another time and place. Located inside a heated tent, this annual market is filled with aromas (think roasting almonds and bratwurst), fine cloths and fabrics from around the world, ornaments, jewellery and an atmosphere that is second to none.
The Christkindlmarket of Chicago, Illinois, is another notable market, which really gets you in the festive spirit thanks to the likely snowfall and traditional music. Filled with a selection mulled wine, apple ciders and German sausages, this annual event takes place daily right up until Christmas eve. It also offers a fantastic educational experience for students and school pupils, not only due to the inevitable immersion to German language, but also from a cultural perspective, with educational activities taking place on a daily basis, along with holiday songs, scavenger hunts and interviews with vendors.
Christmas markets take place right across the breadth of the USA, and it will be impossible to encounter a town or city that hasn’t embraced the celebrations in one way or another. This brings us onto some other traditions or peculiarities that you may just stumble across on your Christmas trip to the USA.

Things to do

The first point in this section has to be dedicated to the village of McAdenville in North Carolina, a short drive away from Charlotte. This town has embraced the holiday to such an extent, that it is also officially known as Christmas Town USA. People visiting Christmas Town can expect spectacular light displays, decorations and free hot chocolates (if they arrive early). The village is tiny, which makes even more impressive when the 450,000 Christmas lights turn on…
Sticking with the theme of incredible lighting, Kozier’s Christmas Village, in Pennsylvania, is a whole experience in itself. Surrounded by calm, unlit countryside, arriving at Kozier’s Christmas Village is a magical moment. Hundred and thousands of lights cover the village, and children get the opportunity to meet Father Christmas (a.k.a Santa Claus), as well as partake in a wide range of activities designed to provide an unforgettable experience to children and families.
Returning to Minnesota briefly, there’s something rather iconic about the concept of ice skating at Christmas. Most probably this is due to film and television, where we associated ice skating with the famous Rockefeller Center ice rink in New York, which seems to encapsulate a key component of the Christmas season. However, leaving the rink aside, there’s something even more pure about going to a completely frozen lake in Minnesota, joining local families and trying your hand at ice skating.
Over in southern California - a land that truly escapes that typical winter vibe, and where you certainly won’t see a single snowman – the Queen Mary ship, at Long Beach, holds the ‘Chill’ event each year. Along with a 6000 square feet ice rink, the ‘Ice Kingdom’ features a range of highly impressive ice sculptures, ice slides, an ice castle and an ice bar. Be sure to dress warmly for this one!

The day itself

Christmas day itself is generally celebrated in a similar way to how we do things here in the UK. It is a family celebration, with people sharing gifts by the Christmas tree on December 25th. People tend to decorate their houses, perhaps to a greater extent than we do here, and eat and drink a whole lot. Of course, there are variations and traditions that differ from this, but you can expect to see nativities, people going to Midnight Mass on Christmas eve, and the typical festivities that we see in the great many Christmas films coming from the USA.
There is also a great tendency to watch sports on Christmas day; something that we haven’t quite caught onto (yet, at least). NBA games, and sometimes NFL games, take place on the day itself, and are a major part of the celebrations.

Taking part

Getting to the USA and immersing yourself into a true US Christmas could not be easier. Thanks to the Visa Waiver Programme, British citizens can travel to the United States without the need for a visa. Taking a Christmas holiday to the USA counts as a tourist trip, which means you can apply for ESTA online. ESTA is the Electronic System for Travel Authorization, and it remains valid for 2 years.
With ESTA, you can spend up to 90 days at a time in the USA, and the application procedure removes all of the hassle of applying for a visa, which is the traditional way of entering the USA. In fact, applying for ESTA online means that you do not need to arrange for any interviews with embassies, fill out any long, complicated forms, send your passport to a consulate, or go through any of the typical red-tape expected with obtaining travel authorisation.
The online ESTA application takes roughly 10 minutes to fill in. You’ll simply need to have your passport with you so that provide your details, and answer a small list of questions. Having filled in the form, you will receive an email informing you of the status of your ESTA within 24 hours. The vast majority of ESTA applications are approved, and you were then immediately entitled to travel to the USA. You will be assigned a personal number associated with your ESTA, which is handy to print out and take with you. Nevertheless, given that the system is electronic, your authorisation to enter the USA is automatically attached to your passport.
Flights are still available this month to go to the USA, and airlines are offering returns trips for as little as £400 between London and New York. Still not got round to the Christmas shopping? Apply for your ESTA online, get a flight booked, and go to what is arguably the home to the greatest Christmas shopping on the planet. Combine your trip with a visit to an iconic German Christmas market, and bask in the truly fantastic way in which Americans celebrate this time of year.

Travelling to the United States? Do you have your pre-planning checklist in order? Visit our ESTA Guide for more information about obtaining your travel permit. We'd love to hear from you. Send us your comments or questions for travel assistance.

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