Soon after I arrived in the US from my native England, I happened to be at a bar on March 17. I innocently ordered a beer and was astonished when it was delivered: green beer.
Saint Patrick’s Day is not exactly a big day of celebration in England, so I had no idea what was going on. Once it was explained to me, the green beer made sense, but since then I’ve discovered that people in the US just really like holidays: they often have no idea what the holiday is actually about, but that doesn’t matter. They just like to use the idea of a holiday to have fun, and usually drink too much.
Most of these holidays would not exist without the arrival of immigrants, bringing their culture with them.
1. Chinese New Year
Brought to you by the Chinese.
San Francisco is the place to see this amazing celebration. This year the Chinese New Year Parade was held on February 23, the culmination of a two week Spring festival celebrated for over 5,000 years in China. The San Francisco Chinese New Year celebration originated in the 1860′s and is now the largest Asian event in North America.
The San Francisco parade is the largest celebration of its kind outside of Asia. 2013 is the year of the snake, so many of the gorgeous floats with their elaborate costumes and exploding firecrackers featured a snake. Some of the parade highlights included school marching bands, martial arts group, stilt walkers, lion dancers, Chinese acrobatics, the newly crowned Miss Chinatown USA and the Golden Dragon, over 201 feet long. Beautiful!
2. Mardi Gras
Brought to you by the French.
A Christian holiday and popular cultural phenomenon, Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday) dates back thousands of years to pagan spring and fertility rites. Also known as Carnival, it is celebrated on the day before the Christian religious season of Lent begins. Mardi Gras can be anywhere between February 3rd and March 9th. The date depends on when Easter falls.
French people who came to the US brought the custom of Mardi Gras with them, and it is New Orleans that plays host to some of the holiday’s most famous public festivities, drawing thousands of tourists and revelers every year. The big event is a parade, with everyone dressed up in costumes and trinkets, especially beads and doubloons, being tossed to the crowds from the parade floats.
Brought to you by the Jewish community.
The Feast of the Passover, also called the Feast of Unleavened Bread, commemorates the escape of the Jews from Egypt. As the Jews fled, they ate unleavened bread, and from that time they have allowed no leavening in their houses during Passover, bread being replaced by matzoh.
In the US, Passover 2013 begins on the evening of March 25, and ends on the evening of April 2. The highlight of Passover is the Passover Seder. On the first night of Passover, family and friends gather to celebrate and re-experience the exodus from Egypt and the birth of the Jewish nation. The Seder table is set very elegantly, and during the Seder guests enjoy four glasses of wine, and a gourmet holiday feast.
4. Cinco de Mayo
Brought to you by the Mexicans.
Cinco de Mayo (May 5) marks the 1862 battle in Puebla, Mexico, when a small, outnumbered Mexican army defeated the French. That was May 5 – almost immediately after that, the French returned and defeated the Mexicans all over again. The actual defeat and expulsion of the French forces by the Mexicans occurred in 1867.
It is probable that the origins of Cinco de Mayo celebrations lie in the responses of Mexicans living in California in the 1860s to French rule in Mexico at that time. Ironically, this is a holiday that is celebrated much more widely in the US, especially by Mexican-Americans, than it is by people in Mexico.
5. Columbus Day
Brought to you by the Italians.
Columbus Day, celebrated on the second Monday of October, remembers Christopher Columbus’ arrival to the Americas on October 12, 1492. If you live on the east coast of the US, and especially if you live in New York, chances are you are used to a huge Columbus Day parade on this date.
However, the holiday is controversial because the European settlement in the Americas led to the demise of the history and culture of the indigenous peoples. Thus, Native Americans’ Day is celebrated on this day in South Dakota, while Indigenous People’s Day is celebrated in Berkeley, California. Given the way that Columbus, and subsequent invaders from Europe, treated the indigenous people, this makes sense.
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