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December 2020

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U.S. Census Bureau History: Winter Holidays

Santa recieves his pilot license

Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Aeronautics, William P. McCracken (seated), and Director of Aeronautics Clarence M. Young (right)
provided Santa with airway maps and their assurances that airway lights would remain burning that night to guide St. Nick's sleigh.

A few years earlier, McCracken received the first federal pilot license in the United States. He offered Orville Wright the first license, but
he declined the honor because he was no longer flying.

Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

December marks the beginning of the winter holiday season in the United States. In addition to preparing for the colder weather that often follows the winter solstice on December 21, many Americans will be shopping, cooking, and gathering with friends and family for socially-distanced holiday parties, religious observances, and cultural activities related to the festive season.

The 2020–21 winter holiday season begins with the 8-day celebration of the Jewish holiday Hanukkah beginning December 10. Hanukkah celebrates the rededication of Jerusalem's Second Temple around 165 B.C., following the Israelites defeat of Greek emperor Antiochus. Also known as the "Festival of Lights," the holiday observed by many of the nation's nearly 7.2 million Link to a non-federal Web site Jews symbolizes the "miraculous event" at the temple when a single day's supply of oil provided 8 days of light. In addition to lighting candles on a traditional menorah, Jewish families gather to enjoy traditional foods, 8 days of gift giving, game playing, singing, and prayer.

Christmas follows 1 week after Hanukkah ends, and like the Festival of Lights, often includes family gatherings, singing, traditional foods, and religious observations. Many American households display a decorated fresh or artificial Christmas tree which becomes the focal point for the exchange of gifts between friends and family. Children anxiously await the arrival of Santa Claus and his flying sleigh led by Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer as the "jolly old elf" delivers from some of the gifts that are the result of the billions of dollars Americans spend at hobby, toy, and game stores in November and December.

The relatively new holiday Kwanzaa follows on December 26, and is observed by many of the United States' 44 million Black or African American inhabitants. First celebrated in 1966 after the devastating Watts Riots in Los Angeles, CA, the 7-day holiday began in an effort to encourage the nation's Black communities to celebrate their shared history, values, and culture. During Kwanzaa, celebrants light candles in a kinara that represent the principles of Kwanzaa (unity, self determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity, and faith). Like Hanukkah and Christmas, Kwanzaa includes symbolic foods, family gatherings, a celebratory feast, and gift giving.

As December comes to an end, holiday- and Covid-weary Americans may happily bid farewell to 2020 and welcome the arrival of 2021 on January 1. "First Night" festivals, concerts, fireworks, and countdown parties will be held virtually this year in many cities, such as St. Petersburg, FL; Buffalo, NY; and Monterey, CA. Other cities, including Las Vegas, NV, and San Diego, CA, have decided to cancel all or part of their celebrations to minimize the risk of spreading Covid-19. Similarly, many cities have cancelled or plan to host virtual Lunar New Year events to usher in the "Year of the Ox." Asian Americans who celebrate the February 12 Lunar New Year—the start of the year based on cycles of the moon—may spend the holiday with close family at home instead of at the colorful and raucous events that have been traditionally held in cities with large Asian and Southeast Asian populations, like Houston, TX; San Francisco, CA; Washington, DC; and Boston, MA.

December and the winter holidays can be a hectic time for families as they rush to prepare for holiday gatherings and feasts, shop for and wrap gifts, and celebrate family and cultural traditions. If you find yourself with a few moments of free time between caroling, gift wrapping, and dreidel spinning, you can learn more about your own favorite holiday traditions as well as the culture and holiday celebrations enjoyed by your neighbors using census data and records. For example:

  • According to the U.S. Census Bureau's County Business Patterns series, there were 532 doll, toy, and game manufacturing establishments (NAICS 33993) in the United States in 2018, up from 509 in 2017. California led the nation with 93 manufacturers, followed by 31 in Illinois, and 30 in Texas.
  • Hobby, toy, and game stores depend on holiday shoppers to make their year profitable. Stores specializing in this merchandise were busiest in November and December of each year, earning nearly $4.3 billion during the 2-month period in 2019.
  • One of the most popular holiday stories—Clement Clarke Moore's poem A Visit From St. Nicholas was published 197 years ago on December 23, 1823, in Troy, NY. Nearly 12 decades later, Robert L. May published a "new" holiday classic, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer as part of a 1939 winter holidays promotion for the Montgomery Ward department store headquartered in Chicago, IL.
  • An American delegation led by John Quincy Adams (who would later oversee the 1820 Census as secretary of state and become president in 1824 Link to a non-federal Web site) and representatives from Great Britain signed the Treaty of Ghent ending the War of 1812 on Christmas Eve 1814. The war continued in the United States as the news traveled slowly across the Atlantic. As a result, future president Andrew Jackson led American troops in an overwhelming defeat of British forces in the January 8, 1815, Battle of New Orleans. When the smoke cleared, approximately 2,000 British soldiers had been killed or wounded compared to roughly 60 casualties for the Americans.
  • Shopping malls and their anchor department stores once drew huge crowds of holiday shoppers. Department stores reported nearly $57.8 billion in November and December 2000. More recently, online shopping has drawn shoppers away from malls and department stores. By 2019, combined November and December sales at department stores had fallen to $31.8 billion while spending online and at mail-order houses rose from approximately $24.9 billion to $152.3 billion during the same period.
  • Where will you celebrate the winter holidays? Perhaps you will enjoy holiday festivities in Snowflake, AZ; Santa Claus, GA; Noel, MO; Holly Springs, NC; Hanukkah Village in Goshen, NY; Holiday, FL; Los Angeles, CA, home to the nation's first Kwanzaa celebration in 1966; or New York City's Times Square to usher in the new year.
  • North Pole, AK, is a popular place during the winter holidays. Incorporated on January 15, 1953, the city's population has grown from 615 in 1960 to an estimated 2,660 in 2019. Hundreds of thousands of childrens' letters addressed to Santa Claus arrive at the North Pole, AK, post office annually. Tourist enjoy mailing letters with the "North Pole" postmark, visiting Santa Claus House Link to a non-federal Web site, watching sculptors from around the world compete in the North Pole Ice Contest, and celebrating the holidays at the city's annual winter festival featuring holiday-themed streets, vendors, caroling, and nightly fireworks.
  • Many Asian Americans will celebrate the Lunar New Year on February 12, 2021. According to 2019 American Community Survey estimates, the United States' Asian population was more than 23.2 million. Many of the nation's 5,172,492 Chinese (except Taiwanese), 2,182,735 Vietnamese, 1,908,053 Koreans, 342,917 Thais, 338,637 Cambodians, 254,304 Laotians, and 129,329 Indonesians will celebrate the arrival of the "Year of the Ox" with festivals, concerts, parades, family gatherings, and wishes for a happy and prosperous new year. The Asian population in San Francisco, CA, began celebrating the arrival of the Lunar New Year during the California Gold Rush. Today, San Francisco's Asian population of 338,945 claims the largest annual Lunar New Year celebration in the United States. Asian populations in many smaller American cities celebrate the holiday with their own festivities, including many of the 14,978 Asians living in Orlando, FL; 1,771 Asians from Falls Church, VA; 1,221 Asians who call Bangor, ME home; 21,346 Asians in Omaha, NE; the 7,018-strong Asian population living in Salem, OR; and 1,157 Asians living in Terre Haute, IN.

Holiday Shoppers

Retailers depend on holiday shoppers to make their year profitable. The U.S. Census Bureau's Monthly Retail Trade and Food Services Survey reported that retailers earned nearly $526.3 billion
in December 2019. Department stores earned more than $18.4 billion, bookstores earned more than $1.0 billion, electronics and appliance stores earned 11.8 billion, and even new car dealers
ended the year strong with nearly $82.4 billion in sales.

Image courtesy of the Ohio Development Services Agency.

Did you know?

The U.S. Census Bureau must deliver the population data used for apportionment to the president by the end of the census year.

In 2010, the agency delivered the U.S. resident population data to the president on December 21, 2010.

On August 3, 2020, Census Bureau director Steven Dillingham said that despite Covid-19's challenges, the agency would deliver the 2020 Census data to the president by the December 31, 2020, statutory deadline.

Happy New Year Postcard
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Happy New Year!

When Americans welcome 2021, the nation's population could be nearly 331 million—a more than 3.5 million increase since January 1, 2020, and about 11.4 million more since 2015.

Traditionally, revelers celebrate the New Year with parties, parades, and a midnight countdown. New York City, NY—the nation's largest city with an estimated population of 8,336,817—holds one of the most famous New Year celebrations that culminates with a "ball drop" that began in 1907 Link to a non-federal Web site.

Due to Covid-19, New York City will celebrate the arrival of 2021 virtually.

2013 White House Hanukkah Reception
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Holiday Candles

Candles play an important part in the celebration of the holidays. During the celebration of Hanukkah, Jews light candles on a menorah; families celebrating Kwanzaa light candles on the kinara; and Christians light advent wreath candles. Other households enjoy the warm light candles cast or the fragrance from scented candles during the holidays.

According to USA Trade Online import data, the United States imported $546.8 million of candles in 2019, with the largest suppliers being Vietnam ($255.8 million) and Canada ($91.0 million). Between January and July of 2020, total imports of candles were $291.9 million, with Canada and Vietnam supplying candles worth $63.2 million and $138.3 million, respectively.

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Source: U.S. Census Bureau | Census History Staff | Last Revised: December 31, 2020