Shorelight helps international students attend top universities in the U.S.
Shorelight helps international students attend top universities in the U.S.

This site used cookies to offer you a better experience. By continuing to use this site, you consent to the use of cookies.

Skip to content

What Are the December Holidays Like on a College Campus? 

campus life

Prepare for the American holiday season by learning about the many December holidays celebrated on US college campuses.

Three female college students sit on a couch in front of a Christmas tree wearing reindeer headbands with jingle bells.

The December holidays are here, and it’s time to celebrate! American universities embrace cultural diversity by recognizing December holidays from many different cultures. You can join in the fun by decorating, hosting holiday parties, or participating in other holiday season events along with your fellow students.

At the end of December and beginning of January, many colleges have a winter break that allows students to travel home for the holidays. Whether you stay on campus or celebrate the season with a host family, make the most of the holiday season by learning about the many American holidays celebrated this month, no matter where you are studying in the United States. 


Christmas is on December 25, but the celebrations start weeks earlier. Historically, Christmas is a religious holiday for Christians, and it celebrates the birth of the infant Jesus. Today, though, Christmas is a major cultural holiday across the US, with many non-Christian Americans taking part in the festivities, too. The holiday is often marked by exchanging gifts with friends and family, twinkling lights, evergreen trees, and plenty of red and green decorations featuring Santa Claus, elves, and reindeer. Decorations will be everywhere: on campus, in homes, on streetlights, and even in restaurants, shops, and parks. 

Your college may host a tree-lighting ceremony to illuminate a large Christmas tree, and campus might be decked out with wreaths, more trees, and other holiday decorations like snowmen or candy canes. Your friends may host Christmas parties that are formal, silly, or something in-between. You might receive invitations to ugly Christmas sweater parties, a Secret Santa get-together, cookie swaps, or holiday movie marathons. Christmas caroling, the singing of traditional Christmas songs, is also a popular activity during the holiday season. Additionally, some of your classmates might attend church on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, while others celebrate with parties and gift giving.


The Jewish festival of lights celebration is symbolized by a menorah, a candelabra with eight lights. One light is lit each night during this December holiday, celebrated this year between December 22 and 30. 

During Hanukkah, students may exchange gifts or attend special temple ceremonies. You may also see students playing with a dreidel, a four-sided spinning top game, or cooking traditional Hanukkah dishes, like potato latkes and jelly doughnuts. Because Hanukkah and Christmas can occur around the same time, many colleges will have celebratory events for both of these December holidays on campus.


In 1966, Professor Maulana Karenga at California State University, Long Beach, founded the cultural holiday of Kwanzaa. Inspired by African harvest festivals, Kwanzaa is celebrated by some Americans of African descent and takes place over seven days toward the end of December. Each day represents a principle, or specific reason to celebrate. For example, one day celebrates unity, one day honors creativity, and one day focuses on purpose, to name just a few. 

Kwanzaa is held each year from December 26 to January 1, and each day’s celebration includes the lighting of a candle. You may see a wooden candle holder with seven candles in red, green, and black used to celebrate this holiday. 

New Year’s Eve

Americans of all ages, even little kids, stay up late on December 31 to “ring in” the new year at midnight. Students may host parties, and many use the holiday as an excuse to dress up. If you get invited to a New Year’s Eve celebration, find out if it is a formal party – if so, show up in your most stylish clothes! But whether the party is fancy or casual, your friends will often toast with Champagne when the new year officially begins. Many Americans also watch the annual broadcast of New Year’s Eve in New York City’s Times Square, where the neighborhood’s rooftop ball drop has been an American tradition for more than 100 years. 

In the days leading up to the New Year, some Americans make New Year’s resolutions. These are wishes or goals for the upcoming year. For example, your New Year’s resolution could be to eat healthier or to spend more time studying.

Some campuses may also celebrate Ōmisoka, the Japanese New Year. You may notice decorations made from green bamboo or hear ringing bells. During this time, your Japanese classmates may share rice cakes or other traditional foods.

American Holiday Traditions

Whether they celebrate some, none, or all of these holidays, many Americans mark the holiday season with food, shopping, family time, and music. Gift giving is an important part of many holiday traditions. If you are invited to take part in a celebration for any of the December holidays, you can always bring food or candy as an appropriate gift, especially if you do not know the other guests well enough to pick out something personal. 

Whatever holiday you celebrate in December, your college probably has an event for you. Check your campus calendar or speak to your Shorelight advisor to learn about what’s coming up. The holiday season is all about celebrating together, and cultural diversity is a big part of what makes American holidays so special. 

Happy holidays!

Cultural diversity is just one reason international students consider American colleges and universities. Explore other reasons to study in the USA