Traditions make the holidays special. From simple holiday traditions that millions of people share to unique holiday traditions that only your crazy family could have ever dreamed up, traditions give us something to remember from every year gone by and something to look forward to in every year ahead.
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Even though some of the best holiday traditions are the ones we’ve followed year after year, every tradition has to start somewhere. Maybe your family is brand-new and your holiday season is still a blank slate. Maybe your living situation has changed and some of your regular Christmas traditions aren’t possible this year. Or maybe you’re just ready to try something different. No matter what your reason for starting a new tradition, you’ve come to the right place. Here are some of the best ideas for holiday traditions of every kind—because really, isn’t getting help from the Internet the most wonderful tradition of all?
If you ask me, there’s nothing frightful about a thick blanket of snow. Here are some ways to make the most of that winter wonderland.
1. Build a snow beast. A snowman is a good start, but don’t be afraid to get creative. My family has built a snow bear, camel, caterpillar, stegosaurus, minotaur and lion-turtle—and we’re just getting started. Have fun one-upping last year’s creation and impressing your neighbors (not to mention everyone who sees the pictures you share online).
2. Find the best sledding slope around. Nothing beats the childlike thrill of sliding down a snowy hill, and nothing beats the holiday-calorie-burning power of climbing back up it.
3. Build an igloo. Sledding didn’t tire you out? Packing and assembling the hundreds of snow bricks it takes to build an igloo definitely will, but finishing the project is weirdly satisfying—and the resulting structure is surprisingly warm and cozy.
4. Walk in the moonlight. When a full moon reflects off the snow, midnight can look bright as day. Leave the flashlights home, head to a large, open park and enjoy the unique beauty of the season.
5. Take a scenic drive. Odds are your town has a neighborhood that goes all-out on the Christmas lights. Add some fresh snow and you’ve got a sight sure to inspire some “oohs” and “ahhs.”
6. Snowball fight! WOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!
7. No snow? Go find some. By mid-December, snow is only a day trip away for many Americans. You can use this map to find the snow cover nearest you, then pack up the car for a day of frozen fun.
Not everyone lives somewhere snowy, but that shouldn’t stop them from having fun outdoors during the holidays.
8. Take a scenic bike ride. It’s a great way to tour Christmas lights at a leisurely pace and enjoy the mild winter weather.
9. See a professional light display. Places like parks, zoos and botanical gardens often put up spectacular drive-through light displays for the holiday season. They’re all the more beautiful with the windows rolled down.
10. Play a sport. Whether your family is into touch football, basketball, frisbee, cornhole or any number of outdoor games, an official annual Holiday Bowl can really add to the excitement.
11. Have an outdoor meal. Whether it’s an evening meal under the stars or a casual brunch under the sun, there’s something about eating outside that makes everything taste a little better.
12. Decorate a tropical plant. Pine and spruce aren’t the only trees that stay green all year. If you live in the South, try hanging lights on a magnolia or live oak. If you live on a coastline, light up a palm tree. If you live in the Southwest, put on some long sleeves and heavy gloves, then hang lights on a cactus.
The holidays mean a lot of excitement—sometimes a little too much. Here are some ways to slow things down and enjoy being a family.
13. Honor your family’s history. Sit down together to tell your children about their ancestors. Start by telling them something about what your childhood was like, and then see how far you can go back. Do your children know their great-grandparents’ names? Their great-great-grandparents? Talk, too, about the ancestors whose names you don’t know and the places and lives they might have come from. Help your children understand their place in your family and your family’s place in history.
14. Tell stories. Starting with the oldest member of your family and working your way to the youngest, have everyone tell a true story about themselves—as funny or as serious as they want. Or let everyone tell a fictional story—a favorite that they’ve heard or one they make up themselves.
15. Snuggle up for a family movie night. Gather in close for a movie the whole family loves. Phones are forbidden—popcorn is pretty much mandatory.
16. Have a sing-along. Let everyone pick their favorite holiday carol, show tune or other song, then sing them all together as a family. (It doesn’t matter if you can hold a tune, because nobody else is listening.)
Here are some great ways to gather with friends or extended family during the holidays.
17. Throw a last-second holiday party. Keep the party a secret from everyone—including yourself—until a few hours before. That way, you can’t possibly spend an undue amount of time preparing and neither can your guests. Text invitations to plenty of people, knowing not everyone will be free. Order some food delivered or put out some snacks you already have around the house. The result: a low-stress, low-investment good time with some people you like.
A note about 2020: Not being able to get together live shouldn’t stop you from gathering with friends and family. If you’ve got a “quaranteam” or pod, invite them over. If not, video calls are easy (once you get used to them) and fun (when they’re not work-related)—and you can pull off most of these ideas even from a distance.
18. Have a cookie potluck. It’s all the casual fun of a regular potluck with none of the weird-looking casseroles. Do this remotely by dropping cookies off for each other or sharing recipes.
19. Host a wrap ’n’ yap. Have fun and get some work done by inviting people over to wrap gifts. Check out this article for more tips.
20. Have a holiday game day. Let your kids invite some friends over for some holiday-themed play. With these 15 ideas for Christmas party games, they’ll be entertained for hours—and the grown-ups might find themselves wanting to join in, too.
21. Throw a Festivus party. Just make sure you only include people who will still be your friends after the traditional “Airing of Grievances” and “Feats of Strength.” Remember: Festivus isn’t over until the head of household is wrestled to the ground and pinned.
Want to connect with people even when you can’t be together in the same room? Here are some ideas to make that happen.
22. Host a party in your driveway. Avoid a dense crowd by opening up a large window of time for people to stop by. Serve hot drinks in case the weather gets cold.
23. Gather around a firepit. Invite guests to bring their own sticks and favorite foods for roasting. All you have to do is keep the fire going.
24. Start a Christmas-caroling caravan. Pile into a car with your own household, and then meet up with other car-fuls of carolers. When you pull up to houses, roll down the windows and sing.
25. Have a video chat party. If you’ve tried group video chats before and found them clunky or awkward, here are some ways to infuse some fun:
- Make it a pajama party. Don’t forget to take a screenshot for a fun twist on a big group picture.
- Take turns talking. Write up a list of questions for the group, and then ask everyone to take a turn answering. That way you guarantee everyone gets a chance to have their say and you lessen your chance of audio glitches.
- Have everyone use the same virtual background to make it feel like you’re all in the same space together.
- Wear funny hats. Kids love a good funny hat, so this is a great way to get their attention and keep them on the call.
- Celebrate Noon Year’s Eve. Ring in the new year 12 hours early over video chat with the people you can’t see in person. That way you leave midnight open for non-virtual partying.
- Make it a watch party. Pick a favorite holiday movie and follow our tips.
26. Share impromptu holiday pics. Don’t stop at sending a professional-looking, posed picture. Take candid shots of your family enjoying the holidays and text them to your favorite people. It will make them feel like they’re in on the fun.
27. Write letters. As long as we’re all writing letters to Santa, why not write some casual, personal letters to loved ones? Getting an honest-to-goodness letter is a rare treat these days, and it might mean a lot.
Giving gifts and cards is a big part of the holidays. Here are some ways of making the experience even more special.
28. Put gifts under the tree one at a time. Young children love to obsess over what their presents might be. Add to the fun by getting an early start on wrapping and placing one new wrapped gift under the tree daily until Christmas. It will help build anticipation.
29. Let everyone open one gift a day early. It will feel so naughty, and yet…so nice.
30. Organize a fun gift exchange. You have lots of options here. You could go Secret Santa. You can try the White Elephant route. You could try one of these creative gift exchanges. Or, consider this simple trick: let everyone sit in a circle with a randomly chosen wrapped gift. Have someone read “’Twas the Night Before Christmas” and every time you hear the word “and,” pass the gifts to the left. Whichever gift you’re holding at the end of the poem is the one you get to keep.
31. Get some little helpers to decorate cards with you. Have your kids draw pictures in the cards you send. Whether they’re barely old enough to hold a crayon or already aspiring artists, they’ll enjoy being involved, and they’ll give the cards an adorable personal touch. Here’s an idea to turn card signing into a family party.
32. Send ALL THE CARDS. Send cards to people you’re close to and people you’re grateful for. Send them to strangers. Send them to your favorite zoo animals. Send them to your least-favorite zoo animals. You’ll not only be spreading cheer and building connection—you’ll also be keeping greeting-card writers and artists employed.
33. Celebrate National Thank You Note Day. National Thank You Note Day falls on December 26th, so it’s a perfect time to thank people for their thoughtful Christmas presents. But don’t hesitate to thank people for the other ways they’ve brought you joy all year long. (Want thank-you note tips? We’ve got you.)
Here are some ways to have a little extra fun with your Christmas tree.
34. Decorate a live tree. In addition to the cut or artificial tree in your house, decorate one of the trees in your yard. Make sure you find durable lights and ornaments capable of braving the wind and snow.
35. Make a squirrel’s Christmas merry. Decorate a tree in your yard with edible ornaments, like pine cones spread with peanut butter and dipped in birdseed or strings of popcorn. Then watch the adorable antics of the birds and squirrels that come to visit.
36. Make tree-decorating an event. I grew up with an artificial tree, and from sorting the branches to assembling the tree to hanging the lights to adding our way-too-many ornaments, the whole family participated. We played music in the background and often sang along. My sisters and I each had a few special ornaments we were always in charge of hanging. It made us feel important and made the tree-decorating feel like a kind of ritual. Try finding a rhythm and routine to the way you decorate your tree, then doing it the same way every year.
37. Have a picnic under the tree. Set up a table that’s easily moved, or even just a blanket, by your Christmas tree, and enjoy a simple family meal.
A Christmas tree isn’t the only way to make it look like the holidays.
38. Put up an Advent calendar. It’s a perfect anticipation-builder for Christmas, and there are plenty of great ways to enjoy it.
39. Decorate the yard. Maybe a subtle string of lights is your speed. Maybe you want to be known all over town as the house that goes all-out. Either way, outdoor decorations are a great way to spread cheer to your neighborhood.
40. Make ornaments with the kids. Use this easy craft to turn old Christmas cards into festive ornaments.
41. Keep a Christmas cactus. The Christmas cactus is a popular houseplant in the genus Schlumbergera. Keep it alive and healthy, and this green plant should bloom red every year, just in time for the holiday season.
42. Don’t forget Thanksgiving. Everyone seems to love the bright, flashy decorations that come with Christmas. But Thanksgiving can look great, too, with warm, cozy fall decór like pumpkins, mums and autumn leaves. Or you can look here for some simple Thanksgiving crafts.
Kids love getting ready for a visit from Santa and his helpers.
43. Leave out cookies and milk for Santa. Just make sure not to leave them out too long, because you can’t spell “Santa” without “ants.”
44. Leave out carrots or popcorn for the reindeer. Hey, it’s probably hard work pulling a sleigh filled with that many toys.
45. Get help from Santa’s spies. Pick out a plush—probably that elf, reindeer or other North-pole resident—and tell your children it’s keeping an eye on their behavior to report back to Santa. Move it around the house while they sleep so they can wonder where it will appear every morning.
46. Have a Santa look-alike contest. Grab a can of shaving cream and see who can craft themselves the best-looking beard. Fun photos are sure to follow.
47. Visit some real live reindeer. You might be surprised how easy it is to find reindeer. From zoos to small-town farm attractions to malls and furniture stores, tons of businesses have year-round or holiday-specific opportunities to view or even feed reindeer. And even if your town doesn’t have a single reindeer to its name, young children can easily accept a close substitute. Try looking for attractions with elk, whitetail or mule deer, or even horses or goats.
Different parents talk about Santa in different ways—we asked how they introduce the Jolly Old Elf to their kids.
When it comes to traditions everyone will enjoy, nothing beats delicious holiday foods.
48. Decorate cookies. Grab a simple sugar cookie recipe, whip up some icing and grab the grocery store’s entire selection of sprinkles. Kids will love making these sweet treats sparkle—and everyone will love eating them.
49. Get back to your roots. Every culture has its own special holiday foods. For my family, Italian-American on my dad’s side, Christmas Eve always meant the Feast of the Seven Fishes, which I loved all the way from the shellfish pasta to the cold leftover tilapia on Christmas morning (don’t judge me). But even if you didn’t grow up with traditional holiday foods from your ethnic background, a little research is all it takes to find recipes from your family’s delicious past.
50. Take something good and make it even better. Try preparing a gourmet version of a classic holiday favorite. Extra-fancy hot cocoa with all the fixings? Yes, please.
51. Order takeout. On a day like December 23, when Christmas prep is at its most hectic, give yourself a break by ordering something like pizza or Chinese food and sitting down to share it as a family.
52. Shake things up. Getting tired of turkey and mashed potatoes every year? Well, it turns out there’s nothing in the rules saying everybody needs to make the same holiday meal. Talk to your family and see if there’s something else they would rather try. Tacos? Waffles? Waffle tacos? The choice is really all yours.
53. Try latkes. Whether or not you normally celebrate Hanukkah, these crispy potato pancakes are hard to resist. You can make the regular or sweet-potato version—either way, they’re great with applesauce and sour cream.
54. Don’t forget drinks. A festive beverage can really make it feel like Christmas, whether your favorite is cocoa, hot cider, eggnog or one of these crowd-pleasing punch recipes.
55. Let the kids help. Find a simple recipe—I’m talking pretzels-dipped-in-melted-chocolate simple—that your whole family enjoys and that the kids can help make. Things will get a little messy, but the kids will love making a treat they can’t wait to eat.
56. Make New Year’s Eve appetizers. It’s hard to imagine a better motivation to stay up all night than hot, savory appetizers. Try this recipe for cheese straws, which can even be twisted into numbers to spell out the year.
It’s the season of giving—here are some ways for the whole family to join in.
57. Do some shopping for people in need. Take your kids to the store to help you pick out necessities for a local food bank or other charity. Or participate in a program that lets you “adopt” a family and buy them Christmas gifts.
58. Ring a bell for a charity drive. It’s a simple way to share some smiles and help a good cause.
59. Volunteer at a soup kitchen. A hot meal means a lot as winter settles in.
60. Show thy neighbors some love. Why not triple that cookie recipe and share some with the people on your street? Or eat all the cookies yourself and ride that sugar rush to shovel their walks and driveways.
61. Brighten a lonely senior’s day. Taking some time to chat with residents in a nursing home is always a meaningful way of spreading cheer. When visiting in person isn’t feasible for you right now, try talking over the phone or video chat. There are organizations that let you sign up to have regular phone calls or become pen pals with isolated seniors and build a real connection.
62. Celebrate Giving Tuesday. The Tuesday after Thanksgiving—after the shopping rush of Black Friday and Cyber Monday—is a holiday dedicated to giving back. Consider donating to a charity that is important to you.
Get more ideas for teaching kids about generosity here.
This season holds special meaning to people with different religious beliefs and backgrounds. Here are some ways to focus on faith during the holidays.
63. Attend religious services. Even if you’re not a regular churchgoer, this is the perfect time to reconnect with the faith you grew up in—or to learn more about a faith that is new to you. Most places of worship are extremely welcoming, especially during the holidays.
64. Go to midnight Mass. For families who go to church often, this is a great way to make the holiday Mass feel even more special. Your kids might also think it’s pretty cool to stay up that late.
65. Have a daily prayer time. Gather your family at the same time each day to pray. Do so in a special place—say around a candle, by the Christmas tree or under the stars.
66. Light a hanukkiah. Celebrate Hanukkah with this nine-branched candleholder, often called a menorah. A new candle is lit each of the eight nights of Hanukkah; the ninth candle, called the shamash, is used to light the other eight. If you want, you can even craft your own menorah. And read more about Hanukkah traditions here.
67. Read the kids a book about Jesus’s birth. A children’s picture book, like The Light Of Christmas, may help them connect better to the story.
68. Read the biblical account of the nativity. Read Luke Chapter 2, verses 1–21, out loud. Get everyone in the family involved (everyone old enough to read, anyway), switching readers after each verse.
69. Arrange a nativity scene. Or even better, act out a nativity scene (and be sure to get the pets involved).
70. Celebrate Epiphany. Also called Three Kings’ Day or Little Christmas, Epiphany celebrates the arrival of the three Magi to visit the baby Jesus. The holiday is especially important to some Spanish-speaking cultures, and it can be celebrated with church services, special foods and gift-giving.
Read about how parents use manger scenes to teach the Christmas story here.
Whether or not your family is religious, the holidays can be a time to slow down—to reflect, remember and give thanks.
71. Toast lost loved ones. Share some favorite stories about people you’re missing and celebrate their memory.
72. Share what you’re thankful for. One classic way to do this is to have everyone share one thing they are thankful for just before the Thanksgiving meal. But you don’t have to stop there—try repeating this ritual once a week at a set time for the rest of the holiday season.
73. Light candles. With soft music playing, give a candle to everyone in your family old enough to hold one. Light one candle, and then turn off the electric lights. One at a time, pass the light from candle to candle until everyone’s candles are lit and the whole room glows. Share a few minutes of peaceful, quiet reflection.
75. Light a Kinara. Celebrate Kwanzaa with this seven-candle holder that represents the Seven Principles of Kwanzaa. Find out more about Kwanzaa traditions here.
76. Share New Year’s resolutions. Encourage everyone to think about goals they want to pursue or habits they want to change in the new year. Then, ask them to share out loud—having other people know about your goals can be a great motivator to keep pursuing them.
Different parts of the country celebrate the holidays in uniquely amazing ways.
77. See luminarias. In the Southwest (and beyond), these paper lanterns are arranged into breathtaking large-scale displays. Luminarias are a Catholic tradition, and some of the most beautiful displays are found at churches, but they can be seen anywhere from town squares to botanical gardens. You can make your own with paper lunch bags—fold the tops down a few times, fill the bottoms with a few cups of sand, and add an LED votive. Use the bags to line a porch or sidewalk.
78. Try lefse. In the Scandinavian-influenced upper Midwest, this soft potato-based flatbread is a holiday staple. Don’t feel like heading north in the dead of winter? Then make some yourself with this recipe.
79. Step back in time. The Northeast is a perfect place to party like it’s 1699. You can see colonial mansions decked out for the holidays, visit a restored 17th-century village, ride a real horse-drawn sleigh or even eat roast goose. But if an annual trip east isn’t in your budget, odds are decent that a living history attraction in your area hosts Christmas events—more likely with a 19th-century theme.
80. Deep-fry a turkey. That’s how they do it down South. Another Southern holiday food tradition is to eat Hoppin’ John on New Year’s Eve to bring good luck and prosperity in the new year. It’s a rice dish made with black-eyed peas, onions and pork—or you can make it as a soup. A Southern holiday is also likely to include oranges, which are given as a stocking-stuffer. (For adult and kid-friendly takes on another Southern tradition, try this Orange You Glad It’s Christmas cocktail.)
81. Cut your own Christmas tree. In the Northwest, many choose to buy a permit from the National Forest Service that allows them to head into the woods and harvest a wild tree for their Christmas—but Christmas-tree permits are available at National Forests all over the country.