During winter holidays, Americans rejoice, reflect and reach out to those in need

A red Christmas tree ornament glows against the snow-covered branches of a fir tree. (Shutterstock)

The U.S. winter holiday season, running from late November through early January, is when Americans take extra time to gather with family and friends — and express gratitude for life’s abundance.

A season of giving thanks and gifts

Thanksgiving, observed on the fourth Thursday in November, marks the official start of the season. It’s a day for catching up with far-flung family members, sharing traditional American foods and taking a break from hectic work schedules. Each year, millions of Americans travel thousands of kilometers to sit down with family and friends for a meal that usually includes roast turkey, with stuffing, cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes and gravy, sweet potatoes and pumpkin pie.

And in households across the country, sports fans gather after dinner to watch televised, U.S.-style football games played on Thanksgiving Day.

Members of the Atlanta Hawks basketball team get ready to serve Thanksgiving dinner at a homeless shelter in Atlanta. (© 2010 NBAE; Photo by Scott Cunningham/NBAE via Getty Images)

But Thanksgiving is also a day when thousands of Americans volunteer to help the needy.

From the tall to the small, from professional athletes to schoolchildren, Americans from all walks of life help those in need on Thanksgiving Day.

Jasmyn Lauchu, age 5, helps serve Thanksgiving dinner at a community event in California’s San Fernando Valley. (© Getty Images)

Mindful of their own good fortune, Americans from coast to coast — including President Obama and his family — prepare and serve traditional Thanksgiving meals at community centers and churches. Others donate to charities that feed the hungry, or compete in fundraising marathons that benefit local food banks.

As with Thanksgiving, the approach of Christmas, celebrated on December 25, spurs many Americans — even those who are not religious — to give to others. Each year, Americans contribute millions of dollars and millions of volunteer hours to help the disadvantaged during the winter holidays.

A grandmother helps her grandson light candles during a Christmas service at Holy Resurrection Russian Orthodox Church in Kodiak, Alaska. (© Design Pics Inc./Alamy Stock Photo)

For Christians, the holiday marks the anniversary of Jesus’ birth some 2,000 years ago, and in the United States — as in other countries — the faithful attend church services. Most Americans, including non-Christians, exchange gifts, such as homemade cookies and other baked treats. In many U.S. cities, Christmas carolers stroll residential neighborhoods or gather in public squares, singing traditional carols and spreading cheer.

And every December, the president lights the National Christmas Tree in Washington in a ceremony open to the public. During December, the White House is bedecked with evergreen wreaths and several Christmas trees — each trimmed with ornaments handmade by artisans from every region of the United States.

The National Christmas Tree (with the White House partly visible in the background) is a festive sight in Washington during the month of December. (© Getty Images)

The White House also opens its doors to Americans from all walks of life to tour the specially decorated public rooms. Those who cannot travel to Washington can view the holiday decorations via webcam.

Americans: People of many faiths and traditions

Americans are adherents of many faiths, and the U.S. winter holiday season embraces that diversity.

The Jewish holiday of Hanukkah, which falls in late November to late December (varying from year to year), commemorates the rededication of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem more than 2,000 years ago. Hanukkah is celebrated over a period of eight nights and days, and observed by kindling the lights on a nine-branched candelabrum called a menorah.

A colorful menorah and other items, including a bright blue dreidel, signal the arrival of Hanukkah. (© Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Hanukkah festivities include playing dreidel (a game of chance using a four-sided spinning top inscribed with Hebrew letters), eating foods such as doughnuts and latkes, and — as with Christmas — exchanging gifts.

Hanukkah and Christmas celebrations typically feature gift exchanges. Here, a gay couple and their child unwrap holiday gifts. (© Dash/Alamy Stock Photo)

A Hanukkah menorah is lit at the White House each year, a custom inaugurated by President Clinton in 1993. In 2001, President George W. Bush began holding annual White House Hanukkah parties, which have continued.

Medasi Mobley, age 4, warms up for a drumming performance at a Kwanzaa celebration in Santa Ana, California. (© Allen J. Schaben/Getty Images)

Each year since 1966, millions of African Americans have connected with their African cultural and historical roots by celebrating Kwanzaa from December 26 to January 1.

Honoring family, community and culture are at the heart of Kwanzaa, which families observe by decorating their homes with African-inspired art, African kente cloth and fruits that symbolize African idealism. Ceremonies may include drumming, musical performances and a candle-lighting ritual, culminating in a feast known as karamu.

Today, many African-American families celebrate Kwanzaa along with Christmas.

The U.S. winter holiday season concludes with New Year’s celebrations, and although New Year’s Day is celebrated on January 1, the festivities begin the night before — on New Year’s Eve.

Americans — like millions around the world — herald the new year as a time for fresh beginnings, with hope for a better future and resolutions to improve one’s behavior.

On New Year’s Eve, Americans host parties and attend concerts, fireworks displays and other special gatherings. Festivities differ from place to place, with regional variations on well-known customs.

In a tradition that dates from 1907, New Yorkers famously count down to the midnight hour in Times Square, where thousands congregate to watch a crystal ball drop from the sky at the appointed hour. Millions of Americans nationwide watch the televised countdown.

Young adults New York's Times Square cheering the arrival of 2015 (EPA/Jason Szenes)
Young revelers in New York’s Times Square cheer the arrival of 2015. (EPA/Jason Szenes)

But residents of Easton, Maryland, drop a crab instead of a crystal ball, a nod to the Maryland coastline and its abundant seafood. In Mount Olive, North Carolina, residents gather to watch a giant, glowing pickle drop, and in Tempe, Arizona, the locals celebrate by dropping a giant tortilla chip. In Plymouth, Wisconsin, an oversized mound of cheese descends, in tribute to the city’s dairy-based economy.

New Year’s Day is marked by parades and U.S.-style football games in some U.S. cities, and in most communities, the first baby to be born on New Year’s Day is honored with gifts and media coverage.

In addition, New Year’s Day abounds with rituals and superstitions brought to the United States by many immigrant groups. For example, it’s considered good luck to eat black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day in Southern states, a tradition traced to Asia and Africa. Cabbage and sauerkraut, to represent prosperity and long life, are Eastern European contributions to New Year’s dinner.

Immigrants of various nationalities believed that loud noises drive away the bad spirits of the past year and ensure a new year free of evil. So making noise to welcome the New Year remains ingrained in American New Year’s celebrations, in the form of fireworks, whistles and party noisemakers.