8 North American Social Events and Traditions You May Not Know

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Between Ontario and Quebec, Spring 2011

It’s not that I’m losing my French: it’s just that language is highly cultural. That’s my excuse (a valid one, mind you) for not knowing the French equivalent to a lot of North America traditions.

How can you translate something that doesn’t actually exist in your home country? Most French will understand “Halloween” or “Thanksgiving” (thank you Hollywood!) but chances are a lot have never heard of “Boxing Day” or “Tailgates parties”. I know I hadn’t anyway.

During my first few years in Canada, I discovered several social events and tradition I didn’t even know existed. Do you know these?

Baby Shower — in North America, baby showers are a popular way for young parents to celebrate a pending or recent birth and to get gifts related to babies, such as toys, clothes or basic supplies. Baby showers are typically a surprise party for the mother-to-be, so supplies must be bought by friends or even colleagues. Some women are superstitious are would rather wait until the birth of the baby to celebrate while others don’t mind throwing an early party. The father-to-be, who is usually aware of such preferences, usually gives the go-ahead for the baby shower but he may not be invited: some parties are women-only!

Boxing Day — This public holiday in most of the Commonwealth is celebrated right after Christmas and it is mostly known as a shopping holiday. Stores typically offer huge sales and lineups can start forming in the middle of the night before Boxing Day to get a chance to snatch the doorbuster deals. The most popular items on sale are invariably retail electronics.

Casual Friday — Along with the popular initialism “TGIF” ( for “Thank God it’s Friday”), casual Friday is a common way to celebrate the upcoming weekend in North America. Many workplaces give their employees a break from a more formal dress code and encourage them to “dress down”. That said, the level of casualness really depends on the workplace: in some, jeans and hoodies are acceptable while others expect a “business casual” attire. Observe people before you show up at work wearing a Lady GaGa costume!

Halloween — This spooky holiday celebrated on October 31st is now well-known around the world, but celebration in the United States and Canada is probably the most traditional. In North America, many households carve jack-o’-lanterns and display the monstrous faces at the window or on the porch. Kids and teens go trick-or-treating in their neighborhood and even adults enjoy a thrill in some popular “haunted” attractions.

Potluck — A potluck is a communal meal where guests bring dishes to share. It is especially popular with informal gatherings at school, at work or among a large group of friends because it’s a great way to make meal planning easy and to distribute the costs among the participants. Popular dishes include cold salads (with couscous, pasta, quinoa…), chili, breads or bagels with spread, cookies, cupcakes or loaf cakes.

Prom — In North America, high school graduation parties (prom) are a big deal. Students typically dress formally and attend the school dance or dinner as couple. Around May, you can see teens frantically trying on prom dresses in stores to wear on their special night. Similar traditions exist around the world but not in France where I’m from. We didn’t have any kind of graduation party, either for high school or university.

Tailgate Party — This social event is held on and around the open tailgate of a vehicle, usually in the parking lot at stadiums and arenas before a game or a concert. This idea is to have some fun before the event and grab something to eat and drink to avoid paying the traditionally high event price. Tailgating is mostly a U.S tradition but Canadian fans have been known to brave the cold to host their own as well for NHL or CFL games.

Thanksgiving — This statutory holiday, celebrated the second Monday of October in Canada, is the time to giving thanks at the close of the harvest season. People usually enjoy a family meal during the three-day long weekend. Roasted turkey with stuffing, oven-baked yams (sweet potatoes) and pie are popular items to share.

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About Author

French woman in English Canada. World citizen, new mom, traveler, translator, writer and photographer. Looking for comrades to start a new revolution.

32 Comments

  1. We had a potluck for one of our wedding parties in Canada, but it turned out to be a hard thing to explain in France. Now we just start with the history of the “potlatch” among the West Coast Aboriginals, since that’s how I’d learned about potlucks in school.

    So would you have wanted to go to a prom if you’d had one?

    • Well, looking back I find it kind of sad that we didn’t celebrate graduation at all. That said, I’m sure prom can be stressful for teens and considering I wasn’t exactly in the popular group I may have skipped it. Who knows…!

  2. My bf does causual Friday, regardless of what the others do … no one has never told him anything so my guess is that he’ll keep on doing it 😉

  3. I pretty much know most of this before I came to the United States, but one I didn’t know at all: tailgate party. I found the concept very bizarre. I mean, before the game, people would go to the parking lots of the stadium and with their pick-up trucks, their portable barbecue grill, their coolers, they would have a party! I was like, really? And their clothes all match the sports teams too! In fact, I was surprised that even in college football matches it would happen, that the university already planned for it by installing portable toilets and trash bins!

    • I was surprised how “big” were sporting events generally speaking in North America. Sure, Europeans like soccer and take the sport seriously but events around it (except maybe when France hosted the world cup in 98) are not as big.

  4. I always thought casual Fridays were only in Calgary but now I find that they’re across the country. Prom is unfamiliar to me. In high school we just called them graduation parties. I heard the term in American TV shows and a friend told me that they use the term in Ontario. I’ve never heard of tailgate parties. But I do know about “scalpers” “scalping” game tickets.

    I know that you celebrate April Fools in France because when I taught at a French School in China the students stuck fish on my back (a tradition we don’t do in Canada). I’m guessing there’s no St. Patrick’s Day, though it’s not a big deal here. Valentine’s Day?

    • We celebrated St Patrick’s Day in Brittany where I’m from, probably because we are close to the UK and well, anything involving drinking is worth celebrating in Brittany!

      Valentine’s Day is kind of celebrated too, much like in North America. But I’d say most people don’t care although there is a lot of marketing around the event.

  5. One of the teachers I worked with in France was kind of surprised that we have a holiday like Thanksgiving that revolves around being thankful and not getting presents. I always found that funny.

  6. Potluck dinners, also called Covered dish dinners are a staple for church events where a meal is served.

    I know that the day after Christmas is called Boxing day in the UK and commonwealth countries but I don’t know why it is called “boxing” day.

    In the USA Thanksgiving day is celebrated the 4th Thursday in November. It is a traditional time for families to gather for a big meal, often with a big roast turkey. It is accepted as a time to count your blessings and you are correct, it does not involve gift giving.

    Proms (short for promenade) are celebrations of high school graduation and are occasions to dress formally and dance. It is probably the first (and maybe the last) event where girls wear formal dresses and boys wear rented tuxedos.

    • I think someone once told me it’s called “Boxing Day” because of the fact that post-Christmas, a lot of people have tons of boxes at home (from presents). Not sure whether the explanation is valid!

  7. Salut Zhu,

    You are taking me back home :))
    Sigh… France doesn’t have any of this(Though Boxing day, I am aware of but, it is like “after Christams clearance sales”).

    I don’t care for Halloween but Thanksgiving is a a hard one to skip.
    D & I try to do a few side dishes on this day, but it is not the same. You need family or at least friends around the table.

    Yes; baby showers are most often “female only” My cousin’s wife had her baby shower and she gave birth the next day! I had to explain the tradition to D… I said that the females(I included), would have you guys stay in a bar or at out to the stadium for sports!

    Bises x

    • Thanksgiving is definitely a big deal for most North Americans and I can imagine it’s hard not to celebrate it properly in France. I never really did it the traditional way in Canada but I grew to like it a lot. It’s a not break before the descent into Fall and Winter too.

  8. So interesting to hear about North American events from somebody outside of North America. As I grew up with all these, there’s nothing special about them to me. I didn’t realize that a potluck was a North American thing though, I thought it was such a good idea that it would be found all over the world.

    • I agree! But I had never heard of potlucks before coming here. Come to think of it, I wonder how French deal with these kind of gatherings…!

  9. Oh we have baby showers in India too, and it can become quite a religious affair in some areas. Last week we had a baby shower at work for a male colleague. It was kinda weird. 😀

  10. Hi Zhu,

    I was just reading your article on Casual Days. I saw a woman wearing a tee shirt that said “You Are Just Jealous Because The Spririts Talk To Me.” She looked normal but she had a seat all to herself on a crowded bus.

    Cheers!

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