Every tradition has to start somewhere. Whether you have a family that has a lot of holiday routines — favorite dinner recipes to make, cookies to bake, songs to sing and ornaments to put on the tree — or you’re group with just a few, cherished traditions, it’s always fun to try something new. And, if it’s a rousing success, you can add it into the rotation for next year, and look forward to doing it again for the next 12 months. Looking back, it’s not really the gifts that families remember most, but the Christmas traditions they do year after year that make the biggest impressions.
Good Housekeeping editors and contributors are no exception. They fondly recall their most cherished holiday memories, and they’ve let us in on their favorite Christmas traditions. If you’re looking for inspiration, feel free to take these ideas, put your family’s twist on them and start using them in your own annual celebrations. From counting down the days before Santa’s arrival — Christmas advent calendar, anyone? — to converting the tree to a New Year tree, these ideas are packed with good cheer that’ll last the whole holiday season.
Create a Countdown Routine
Sure, you can buy an advent calendar based on your kids’ favorite activities and watch with joy as they get a new goodie each day. But it’s even more fun to make your own. “Each year we fill an advent calendar for my son with tiny toys, sweets and notes promising trips to his favorite bakery,” says Jacquelyn Rodgers. Try this: Fill 24 bags, boxes or drawers with love notes, candy, small toys or ideas for good deeds they can do that day to spread good cheer. Or, keep special ornaments aside in a box and add a new one to the tree each morning!
Go All Out for Christmas Eve Dinner
Some families do a Feast of the Seven Fishes, a Southern Italian tradition that likely started due to the Roman Catholic mandate to abstain from meat on Christmas Eve. “We start with fried smelts with a squeeze of lemon juice and scungilli salad,” says Alyssa Jung. “For dinner, we have baccala, or salted cod; roasted shrimp scampi; jumbo pesto scallops; stuffed squid; and spaghetti aglio e olio. This is the one and only time we eat these foods. It’s my favorite meal of the year!” If they don’t do the Feast of the Seven Fishes, other families might do a Polish wigilia, a Sweidsh julbord or just some of their favorite passed-down recipes, but the end result is the same: food coma. Do anybody else’s pants feel a little tight?
Make the Tree Special
When it comes time to trim the tree, find a way to commemorate a milestone or memory from the past year. “One of my favorite holiday traditions is adding to our ornament collection,” says Jeanine Hays. “In the past, ornaments have been from a place we’d traveled or a gift from a dear friend. This year we are adding Black Panther to our tree. I love knowing that each year our tree reveals a little bit more about our family and our heritage.” Making handmade ornaments together is another way to sneak some bonding time into a busy time of year.
Cook Together on Christmas Morning
Opening up all those presents sure whips up an appetite. If you can tear the kids away from their new toys for a minute, have everyone help out in the kitchen and make breakfast. (Put the little ones in charge of the toast.) “My family does a big brunch of eggs Benedict every year, says Chelsea Frisbie. “My mom makes it super lemony just like we like it, and we stay in our pajamas all day.”
“Since I’ve begun hosting holidays, I’ve started my own tradition of preparing a festive waffle bar brunch for my family and friends,” says Nicole Gibbons. Who would turn down that invite?
Take a Family Photo
True, we all walk around with cameras in our pockets and take more photos now than ever before — but how often to you really stop to make sure you get everyone in the same picture, all spiffed up and looking at the camera at the same time? Probably only once or twice a year, so go all-out when it comes to the yearly holiday photo. Costumes, matching outfits, props — the sky’s the limit!
Celebrate Sinterklaas in Early December
Sinterklaas, also known as Saint Nicholas Day, is celebrated on December 5, when “Sint” traditionally leaves a small gift, sweet or poem in the shoes of Dutch children. Gifts are often elaborately disguised as other objects. “My husband’s mother is Dutch, and together we celebrate Sinterklaas,” says Lis Engelhart. “In the past I’ve received gifts that looked like a giant bagel, a fish tank and a wedding cake — I had to dig out the gift hidden in layers of real cake and frosting!”
Choose a Fun Tree Topper
In my house, we have a big, felt cardinal as our tree topper — the cardinal was the mascot at the university where I met my husband. You can choose your own tree topper based on something important to your family (like the dinosaur topper pictured here, which can be found on Etsy). Or, better yet, you can make one yourself!
Host a Movie Marathon
There’s a Christmas movie out there for every personality. Do you like romance? Hallmark Christmas movies have you covered. Action? There’s always Die Hard or Batman Returns. Kids at home? There are tons of Christmas movies for kids to choose from. “My family is obsessed with National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation — now we all wear sweatshirts with funny sayings from the movie for our holiday portrait,” says April Franzino.
In December, have every person in the family pick a favorite, then either take a weekend to binge them all, or watch one a week leading up to Christmas. You can even design a bingo card to keep track of movie tropes.
Carefully Select a Tree
This year’s Rockefeller Center Christmas tree is a Norway Spruce — what will yours be? Some tree varieties are known for their scent, others are celebrated for their shape, sturdiness or needle retention. But choosing a real tree helps support a farm — and a trip to go get one is always a fun family outing.
Spread a Little Magic With Elf on the Shelf
No doubt, come December your feeds are filled with elves that get up to mischief in the night. But whether you commit to an Elf on the Shelf or find another way to bring enchantment into the house — like hiding and “discovering” a Santa Key that lets Santa into the house on Christmas Eve — do something that keeps them guessing about the nature of Santa’s magic.
Use a Nutcracker
You only get to use one of these bad boys this time of year. Better (carefully) make the most of it.
Get In Touch With Santa
A letter to the North Pole is probably the best (and most long-lasting) way to get in touch with St. Nick. But, in this digital age, of course you can reach out through an app, too. Capture the Magic lets you snap a pic of Santa in your living room by your tree, Portable North Pole allows Santa send a personalized video message, or and Santa’s Magic Phone lets kids get a voicemail from him. Either way, you get a helpful reminder to stay on the “nice” list.
Start a Holiday-Themed Collection
Some people collect holiday dishes, like Spode, Lenox or Nikko. Others gravitate towards designer collections, like ornaments from Christopher Radko or decorations from Annalee. Your family might want to put together an elaborate ceramic Christmas village, or find something else — nutcrackers, ceramic trees, old Coca-Cola polar bears — to gather en masse. Whatever you choose, you’ll have a great time hunting year after year for the perfect piece to add to the collection.
Go Caroling (or Host a Sing-Along at Home)
There are so many good Christmas songs, and you only get one season in which to play them over and over and over again. (Unless you’re one of those people — the kind that listens to holiday music year-round.) Print out some lyrics, fire up a playlist and get ready to belt out your favorites. (Bonus: This is definitely something you can do over Zoom with far-flung relatives.)
Play Holiday Hide-and-Seek
“My mom hides a pickle ornament on the Christmas tree for the family to find,” says Sarah Lyall-Neal. “Last year she tucked it so well among her 40 years’ worth of ornaments that it took us two days to find it!” The origins of the Christmas pickle tradition are murky, but experts believe that the glass gherkin ornaments have been hung on American Christmas trees since the late 1800s.
Look for Decked Halls on Christmas Eve
Take a stroll and check out all the decorations. “On Christmas Eve, we walk the neighborhood to look at lights and sing our favorite Christmas songs,” says mom Anne F. It helps to move around a big before you settle in for the big Christmas Eve feast.
Let Everyone Open One Present on Christmas Eve
“When I was a kid, my parents allowed my brother and me to choose one gift each to open on Christmas Eve,” says Monique Valeris. “It’s one of my favorite holiday memories, which I plan to recreate with my own children.”
Honor a Loved One
“I bought my (now deceased) husband a heart ornament every year, starting with our first tree — that one goes on top every year,” says Lisa Bain. “As my kids and I decorate, they love hearing about where I got them, including the heart I stole off my mother’s tree one Christmas Eve when I realized I’d forgotten to get one, and the heart I bought a few months before he died.”
But Leave Room for Dessert!
Celebrate La Noche Buena
Many Latinx cultures across the world celebrate “the good night” on Christmas Eve with feasts from a whole roast pig to hot noodle soup. The evening often involves music, dancing and even fireworks. “Growing up in a Dominican household we always celebrated ‘La Noche Buena,’ which is December 24,” says Fatima Torres. “That night we cook as a family and eat the same dishes every year: pastelitos (also known as empanadas), honey barbecue ribs with homemade mashed potatoes and a side of arroz con fideos (rice with noodles).”
Meanwhile, Michaela Johndrow puts together a Mexican feast. “I grew up in Southern California, near the Mexican border town of Mexicali. Our family celebrates Christmas Eve with a Mexican-food dinner, including tamales and special quesadillas.”
Teach Your Kids About Giving Back
“My boys are young, but I’ve already started incorporating the Santa Sack tradition into our Christmas,” says Siobhan Alvarez. “Each year our children pick out toys they own but don’t play with anymore to give to other children as extra presents when Santa visits them, placing them in a special sack waiting for Santa under the Christmas tree. It teaches them that the best part of Christmas is not receiving gifts, but given them to others, especially those in need.”
Build Memories One Gingerbread House at a Time
“My family of seven makes gingerbread houses together every year,” says Erika Hollinshead Ward. “It’s fun and it allows me to teach the lesson that at the core we are all the same, but there are little things that make us special.”
Make Place Settings Special
Pass on Family Heirlooms
“When I was a kid, we set out snacks for Santa using a matching Christmas plate and coffee mug,” says Tonya Mickelson. “Now my kids are carrying on the tradition using the same set of dishes.”
Bridget Shannon’s family has bonded over Byers’ Choice Carolers. “Each year, the women in my family give each other a Byers’ Choice Caroler to add to their collections, and these are carefully saved in the original boxes,” she says. “As relatives pass away, the statuettes are given to the younger generation. What started as a decorating idea has turned into a way to share memories.”
Wear Matching Christmas Jammies
Matching or coordinating holiday PJs, heralded in many-a family photo and in song, makes for an extra pop in Christmas photos. “My mom still gets way too excited to surprise us with matching PJs,” says Blake Bakkila. (And she’s not the only adult who’s told us this!)
Read Aloud to Hasten Santa’s Arrival
Pass Down a Family Recipe
Wear an Ugly Christmas Sweater
You leave it in the back of the closet all year long, waiting for its day in the spotlight. Now it’s time to bust out your tackiest fashions and wear them with pride (and possibly a Santa hat).
Set Gift-Giving Rules
Whether you do a Yankee Swap, Secret Santa or some other type of gag gift grab bag, when it comes time to give presents to your extended family, the wackier the rules, the better. “We do a spin on a white elephant where half of us bring gag gifts and the other half brings nice gifts,” says Lindsey Murray. “This admittedly started by mistake, but it’s makes for a much better competition!”
Pick a Festive Gift Theme
If complicated exchanges are too unruly, try a theme instead. “Instead of stocking stuffers, my family does a craft beer swap,” says Taysha Murtaugh. “They each bring a six pack from different parts of the country and trade.” Lindsey Ramsey says, “My family votes on a theme every year. We’ve done BBQ, baseball and I’m trying to get them to do A Christmas Story.”
It might be too much to ask overstimulated kids to sit and do hand-written thank-you notes when they’d rather be playing with their new toys (though that’d certainly be meaningful if you can get them to do it). But it’s not too hard to make sure that everyone takes a beat before dinner to be thankful for the good holiday — and year — they’ve had.
By the time it gets to Christmas night, after the brunch and the presents and the bonding, lots of families are too exhausted to cook and just order takeout. That can become tradition in itself. “My grandma was the one who always cooked for holidays,” says Jennifer Aldrich. “The Christmas before she died, she was really sick. My mom asked my grandma which dishes she really wanted, and my grandma said, ‘Honestly, I love Chinese food. I’d rather just have that.’ So now, to honor my grandma, we order Chinese takeout for dinner on Christmas.” Just like the end of A Christmas Story!
Play a Game Together Until Late at Night
Get Ready for New Year’s Eve
Even if you don’t officially convert your tree into a New Year Tree — replacing the Christmas ornaments with ones meant to ring in the new — you can still keep one eye on December 31. Get prepare for resolutions, the ceremonial eating of 12 grapes (which some cultures do, one for every month, for luck) and chasing the old year out the door or window.
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