United States

Traditions and customs of the United States

What traditions and customs are there in the United States?

Independent since 1776, the customs and traditions of the United States of America.


Food in daily life

Americans eat large amounts of fast, convenient, processed foods. The average diet is high in salt, fat, and refined carbohydrates. It is estimated that 60 percent of Americans are obese. The preference for packaged and processed foods has cultural roots.

Americans in general enjoy the taste of hamburgers, hot dogs, and junk food. Processed foods are generally perceived as cleaner or safer than unprocessed foods.

Industrial food producers use advertising to associate processed foods with the desirable modern industrial qualities of speed, cleanliness, and efficiency. Speed ​​of preparation is essential in a nation of nuclear family households where wives and mothers have no relatives to help them and are often solely responsible for food preparation.

However, gourmet, regional and alternative styles of eating are highly influential. Gourmet foods, including high-quality fresh local produce, imported cheeses, fine coffees and European breads, are available in every city and many towns.

Regional cuisines, from cheesesteaks in Philadelphia to green chili stews in New Mexico and grits in the South, are culinary reminders that the country is home to many different traditions.

An alternative tradition is the health food movement, which includes a preference for unprocessed foods and fruits and vegetables that have not been chemically treated or genetically altered. Some health food advocates are primarily concerned with avoiding the highly processed foods that make up the bulk of the traditional diet.

Others also see the consumption of organic products, which are typically produced by small, labor-intensive farms, as a way to combat the ecological damage caused by agricultural chemicals and challenge the corporate nature of food production.

Food customs on ceremonial occasions

Americans have few occasions when they denominate ceremonial. In the case of weddings, funerals, and other rites, few fixed dietary rules apply. Most weddings, whether religious or secular, include a large cake. After the wedding, the newlyweds feed each other a piece of the cake.

At Jewish funerals, fish, usually smoked or pickled, and eggs may be served as symbols of the continuation of life. Some Americans, particularly in the South, eat hoppy john, a dish made from black-eyed peas, to bring good luck in the New Year.

Americans have many set meal rituals to accompany events and occasions that are not generally considered ceremonial. Waking up is accompanied by coffee. Social occasions often include alcohol. Hot dogs and beer are ubiquitous at sporting events, and popcorn and candy are consumed at movie theaters.


Personal behavior often seems rude, loud, and effusive to people from other cultures, but Americans value emotional and bodily restraint. The permanent smile and relentless enthusiasm of the stereotypical American can mask strong emotions that are not acceptable expression.

Bodily restraint is expressed through the relatively large physical distance that people maintain from each other, especially men. Breastfeeding, yawning, and passing gas in public are considered rude. Americans consider it impolite to talk about money and age.


Religious beliefs

The overwhelming majority of people are Christians. Catholicism is the largest denomination, but Protestants of all denominations (Baptists, Methodists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, and others) outnumber Catholics.

Judaism is the largest non-Christian faith, followed by Islam, which has a significant number of African-American followers. Baptism, the largest Protestant sect, originated in Europe, but grew exponentially in the United States, especially in the South, among whites and blacks.

Apart from the many Christian movements in England and Europe that re-established themselves early in the nation’s history, a few religious sects arose independently in the United States, including the Mormons and the Shakers.

Although religion and the state are formally separate, religious expression is an important aspect of public and political life. Almost all presidents have professed some variety of Christian faith.

One of the most significant religious trends in recent years has been the rise of evangelical and fundamentalist sects of Christianity. As an organized religious-political force, Christian fundamentalists significantly influence political agendas.

Another trend is the growth of New Age religions, which mix elements of Eastern religions and practices, such as Buddhism, with meditation, yoga, astrology, and indigenous spirituality.

Religious professionals

In addition to practitioners of world religions such as priests, ministers, and rabbis, the United States has a tradition of non-ordained and non-traditional religious practitioners.

These people include evangelical lay preachers, religious leaders associated with New Age religions, and leaders of religious movements designated as cults. Women are increasingly entering traditionally male religious positions. There are now women ministers in many Protestant denominations and rabbis.

Rituals and sacred places

The country has no religious rituals or designated holy places that are meaningful to the population as a whole. However, Salt Lake City is a holy city to Mormons, and the Black Hills of South Dakota and other places are holy sites to Native Americans.

There are many shared secular rituals and places that have almost religious importance. Secular rituals include baseball and football games. The championship games in these sports, the World Series and the Super Bowl, respectively, are major annual events and celebrations. Important places include Disneyland, Hollywood and Grace-land (the estate of Elvis Presley).

Death and the afterlife

Americans have an uneasy relationship with their own mortality. Although the majority of the residents are Christians, the value placed on youth, vigor and worldly goods is so great that death is one of the most difficult subjects to talk about.

Death is considered a sad and solemn occasion. At funerals, it is customary to dress in black and speak quietly. Cemeteries are solemn and quiet places. Some people believe in life after death or reincarnation or another form of continuity of energy or spirit.

Secular celebrations

Several secular national holidays are celebrated, but they are considered less as celebrations of patriotism than as family holidays. Fireworks on the 4th of July mark the Declaration of Independence from Great Britain in 1776, but this is also a time for summer outings like picnics and camping trips with friends and family.

Thanksgiving is part of the national story that is understood by all school children. This annual festival celebrates the hardships of the early settlers, who starved to death in their new surroundings. According to legend, Native Americans came to their aid, sharing indigenous foods such as corn and turkey.

Thanksgiving is important not primarily because of its symbolism, but because it is the biggest family holiday of the year, one of the few large, elaborate meals that families prepare.

The arts and humanities

Arts support

The level of public support for the arts is much lower than in other wealthy nations. Sponsorship of unknown individual artists, writers and performers is rare. The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) has a very small operating budget with which it funds everything from public broadcasting to individual artists.

In recent years, the NEA has come under fire from Congress, whose conservative members question the value and often the morality of art produced with NEA grants.

Support also comes from private donations. These donations are tax deductible and are a popular hedge against income and estate taxes among the wealthy. Generous gifts to prestigious museums, galleries, symphonies and opera houses that often name halls and galleries after their donors are essential means of subsidizing the arts.


Much of American literature revolves around questions of the nature or defining characteristics of the nation and attempts to discern or describe national identity. American literature found its own voice in the 19th century.

In the early decades of that century, essayists Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson expounded on the enduring themes of personal simplicity, continuity between man and nature, individualism, and self-sufficiency. Walt Whitman celebrated democracy in his free verse poems.

Other 19th-century writers, such as Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Mark Twain, articulated moral and ethical questions about the new country and were particularly influential for their critique of American Puritanism.

Turn-of-the-century writers such as Edith Wharton, Henry James, and Theodore Dreiser addressed such issues but were particularly concerned with social class and class mobility. They explored the nature of American culture and the tensions between the ideals of freedom and the realities of social conditions.

In the early decades of the 20th century, writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway began to question the values ​​that earlier writers had stood for. Fitzgerald questioned the reality of the American dream by highlighting the corrupting influence of wealth and questioning the value of mobility and success.

Hemingway, like other modernists, addressed the question of how one should live once one has lost faith in religious values ​​and other social norms. Other early 20th-century writers, such as Zora Neil Hurston, Nella Larsen, and William Faulkner, introduced race and racism as central themes in American literature.

In the 1930s, the Great Depression inspired authors like John Steinbeck and Willa Cather to write about rural America. His novels romanticized the hard work of poor rural whites.

Implicit in these novels is a critique of the wealth and excess of the urban metropolis and the industrial system that supported it. Although these novels are infused with multi-ethnic characters and themes, Anglo-Saxons are generally the focal point.

Questions of identity and race were explored by early black American writers. A generation of black authors after World War II made these themes permanent in American literature, illustrating the poverty, inequality, and racism experienced by black Americans.

Many black writers explored the meaning of living within a black skin in a white nation with a legacy of slavery. These writers included James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, and Richard Wright. Perhaps the most influential contemporary writer dealing with these issues is Toni Morrison.

A major literary school known as Southern Gothic discussed the nature of rural southern life from the perspective of poor and middle-class whites. Writers such as Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams, Carson McCullers, and Shirley Jackson explored the contradictions between a privileged whiteness and a culturally deficient South.

These novels feature lonely, grotesque, and underprivileged white characters who are the superiors of their black playmates, servants, and neighbors, but inferior to America’s culture as a whole.

Beginning in the late 1950s and 1960s, a generation known as the Beats challenged the dominant norms of white American masculinity. They rejected the conventions of family and sexuality, corporate success and money. Among the Beats were William Burroughs, Lawrence Ferlingetti, Allan Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac.

Beginning in the 1960s, women writers began to question the idea that a woman’s place was in the home. Early feminist writers who criticized the paternalism of marriage included nonfiction writer Betty Friedan, novelist Marge Piercy, and poets Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath.

Feminist themes, along with questions of ethnicity and otherness, remain important in American literature. Gloria Anzuldúa and Ana Castillo show how female and Latin identities intersect.

Novels by Louise Erdrich and Leslie Marmon Silko illustrate how Native American families try to survive and reclaim their traditions in the midst of poverty and discrimination.

Other contemporary novels attempt to deconstruct the experience of the “norm” in American culture. Ann Tyler’s characters are often empty and unhappy, but they can’t locate the sources of those feelings.

Don Delillo writes about the amoral corporate world, America’s obsession with consumer goods, and the chaos and anxiety that underlie the tranquility of suburban life. Joyce Carol Oates is drawn to the sinister aspects of social conformity.

These novels are not the most widely read in the United States. Much more popular are genres like crime and adventure, romance, horror, and science fiction. These genres tend to repeat valuable cultural narratives. For example, Tom Clancy’s novels portray the United States as the moral victor in the Cold War and post-Cold War terror arenas.

Harlequin romances idealize traditional male and female gender roles and always have a happy ending. In horror novels, violence allows catharsis among readers. Much of science fiction revolves around technical-scientific solutions to human problems.

Graphic arts

The most influential visual artists are from the modern age. Much of the early art was an imitation of European styles. Important artists include Jackson Pollack and Andy Warhol.

Warhol’s art documented icons of American life such as Cambell’s soup cans and Marilyn Monroe. His work was deliberately fun and commercial. Most graphic art is produced for the advertising industry.

Performing arts

The performing arts include many original genres of modern dance that have been influenced by classical forms as well as American traditions such as jazz. Important innovators in dance include Isadora Duncan, Martha Graham, and Alvin Ailey.

Theaters in every town that previously housed plays, vaudeville, and musicals are now showing movies or have closed. In general, performing arts are only available in metropolitan areas.

The United States has produced several popular music genres that are known for mixing regional, European, and African influences. The best known of these genres are the African-American inventions of blues and jazz.

Major jazz composers and musicians include Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Thelonius Monk. Although now considered classics, blues and jazz were the popular music of their day.

The music fits into the “black” and “white” categories. Popular swing jazz themes were standardized by bandleaders such as Glenn Miller, whose white band made swing music very popular among white youth.

Rock’n’roll, now a major cultural export, has its roots in these earlier popular forms. Major influences on rock and roll include Elvis Presley, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Bruce Springstein. Although rock ‘n’ roll is primarily white, soul and Motown, with singers like Aretha Franklin, the Supremes and the Temptations, produced a popular black music.

Country music, another popular genre, has its roots in the old American folk music of the South East, now called country or bluegrass. This genre reworked traditional gospel songs and hymns to produce songs about the daily lives of poor white people in the rural southeast.

Popular music in the United States has always embodied a divide between its commercial and entertainment value and its intellectual or political values. Country and folk, blues, rock’n’roll, rap and hip-hop have all carried powerful social and political messages.

As the old forms become standardized and commercialized, their political advantage tends to give way to more generic content, such as love songs.

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