Christmas for me isn’t merely about the gifts and the holiday splendor. Don’t get me wrong – I enjoy unwrapping a new flavor of tea I’ve never tried before and driving around to see the Christmas lights in the city. But the traditions, the time spent with family and chosen family, and the beautiful memories we make each year as we celebrate our faith, and the holidays are what make Christmas my absolute favorite time of year.
Because of that, I have many, many recommendations I’d love to share with you and yours to consider trying out this holiday season and possibly making them your own for years to come. These are just some of the traditions my family holds to – I could go on for days, but we’ll be reasonable here and I’ll just give a bunch – even if I can’t narrow the list to my favorite tradition.
Decorate Early For Christmas
Every year, on Halloween, I start the holiday festival by starting to decorate the house for Christmas. My husband and I both participate in NaNoWriMo in November, so we don’t have much time to decorate otherwise, so decorating on Halloween is the perfect way to kick off the season.
I have a lot of other reasons, too, but the main one is this tradition just makes me happy. The holidays are a hard season for me – so many losses – but they’re still wonderful and decorating early helps keep them that way.
Treasure Hunts with Poetry Clues
This is probably my most beloved tradition from my childhood, passed on from my dad’s family. I’m not sure where it originated, but the idea of a Christmas treasure hunt goes back to at least my great-grandparents from the Netherlands.
To engage in this happy tradition, purchase small gifts or a gift set (e.g., one year my dad bought me a toolkit, another he bought me a stage makeup kit). Wrap each component of the set separately. Then hide the pieces around the house, attaching a simple poem to each one, offering a clue to the location of the next one. The first clue is attached to a gift in stockings or a present under the tree.
I hear you! Don’t worry. Poets not required. Most of the clues should be simple, silly even. One that always finds its way into our hunts reads, “Look high and low and all around. Not on the tree, not on the ground. But I’m somewhere Christmas-y for sure.” The next gift is usually in the nativity set, Christmas village, or somewhere similar. Don’t go elaborate – go easy.
Buffet All Day
Despite my mom being a home-economics teacher, she didn’t really enjoy doing sumptuous feasts all that much. So, instead she instituted a buffet all day mentality. So, instead of slaving in the kitchen for hours crafting a turkey or ham and all the sides, she’d whip up a few easy apps first thing in the morning (think pigs in a blanket, ham and cheese roll ups, and some kind of dip with crackers), and let us snack on those as the day began.
Throughout the day, we add another few dishes here and there. The key is a steady flow of easy to make finger foods. Don’t do anything too ambitious, unless it’s going to be your single central piece for the day.
Hot Cocoa and Stockings
One year, my parents bought a set of four mugs, each one a different shade. We then filled those mugs with hot cocoa and sipped the sweet chocolatey drink while we opened stockings, one by one, showing off our little trinkets.
To make stockings affordable, by the way, we’ve always done simple, inexpensive items like Dollar Tree toys, candy, and simple things that cost under $5. That way everyone gets a full stocking and no one feels left out, even visitors.
Jewelry on the Tree
Any time anyone in the family receives jewelry for Christmas – whether fine gold or cheap trinkets from Hawaii – we always hide the jewelry on the tree in some way. The mini stockings you can find online or at dollar stores are great for rings. Necklaces, earrings, and bracelets are looped, hung, or tucked in somewhere that the Christmas lights catch and sparkle, drawing attention to the gifts. Just make sure there’s a tag attached so folks know who each piece is for! And keep track so nothing gets forgotten.
Playing Santa or the Elf
I was only four when I realized Santa probably wasn’t going to come down the non-existent chimney in our house. My grandmother was heartbroken – but I was so excited. That meant I got to play Santa! That was my first year stuffing the stockings with walnuts and oranges. I could barely reach on my tiptoes, but that didn’t matter. If you’ve got kids who have figured out that Santa isn’t coming, invite them into the game and let stuff the stockings.
Or, something I still do – invite the youngest kid to sit under the tree as the “Elf” and pass out the gifts one by one. This taught me patience and sharing as a kid and remains one of my favorite things to do Christmas morning.
Christmas Eve Church Service
Whether the church we attended at the time or not held Christmas Eve candlelight services, we went. It might be a church of another denomination, but we always go. There’s something truly wonderful about gathering with other people celebrating the season and, if you share the faith, the birth of Jesus.
Singing (or Reading) the Christmas Story
When my mom was in high school, her band director put the words of the Bible passage about Jesus’s birth in Luke 2 to music. Ever since then, it’s been our family tradition to have someone sing the passage on Christmas Eve after we get home from the candlelight church service.
Since most folks don’t know this song or have access to it, I recommend having someone read the passage of Scripture aloud for the family, or singing your favorite carol that tells the story of Jesus’ birth, like “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” “Mary’s Boy Child,” or “The First Noel.” If someone has the vocal range for it, “O Holy Night” does the story justice pretty well.
One Christmas while I was in college, my dad decided it was time for me to have my own nativity set. So, he went out, purchased the figurines and wrapped them. When I opened the gift on Christmas morning, I was ecstatic. I put the pieces up in my room and then discovered that several of the angels (and there were several of them) didn’t fit the scale at all.
The next several years – until he passed away – I received more angels of all kinds, both appropriate and inappropriate for the set he had given me. Now, I treasure this bizarre mismatched set more than all of my other Christmas décor. My mother-in-law and others have gotten in on the action since and now my nativity set has 14 angels, most of which don’t remotely fit! I love it!
You can replace the concept of the nativity with something else like a Christmas village and purchase new pieces each year. Go with my wonky mismatching or, if you’re more symmetrical than I, go to scale, Whatever you like!
Christmas Craft Party
Ever since I was little, I’ve loved making crafts, especially with other people to participate with me. I remember making felt napkin rings, paper angels, glass bead ornaments, and others over the years. Many I gave as gifts to extended family.
Now, as an adult, I still enjoy doing this. I still make felt napkin rings and other holiday-themed goodies. I highly recommend checking out Pinterest for some amazing ideas.
Carols on Christmas Eve
For as long as I can remember, we’ve gathered around the Christmas tree on Christmas Eve for a holiday celebration component, pulled out hymnals or caroling books, and sung a dozen or so favorite Christmas carols to bring in the holiday. My grandmother Jerrie particularly loved this tradition as she wasn’t a singer but adored music. My fondest memories of her are from Christmas Eve as she snuggled deeply into her favorite chair and listened as my mother and I harmonized on songs like “Silent Night” and “Joy to the World.”
Family Recipe on Christmas Eve
My family has a Christmas Eve soup in our history, though, unfortunately I can’t share it – family secrets and all! But there’s bound to be a dish your family adores and would love to eat each year on Christmas Eve. I recommend something you’re willing to make, but not so often, allowing it to be something distinct and set apart for that one day of the year.
Open Your Table
I didn’t know it until years later as a teen, but each year I spent Christmas with complete strangers. I found it utterly delightful! But my parents opened our home to folks in need, providing their entire families with warm food, a happy place to be on the special day, clothing, food to take with them, and special little gifts that helped to brighten their day.
Not everyone was homeless, though some were. Not everyone was down on their luck. Many were widows and widowers who no longer had family living. Others were college students who couldn’t go home for the holidays. Whoever they were, we opened our doors, shared a meal (or buffet, I should say), played games, and enjoyed a comfortable, peaceful day.
My husband and I now do this ourselves mostly with single friends who don’t have family to celebrate with or folks who can’t travel home for the holiday for whatever reason.
Watching Movies on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day
So, we’re definitely movie buffs. We like to watch “Die Hard” on Christmas Eve, “It’s a Wonderful Life” on Christmas Day – along with a new release in the theater – and “Home Alone” on Boxing Day. There’s something about each of these movies that we simply enjoy watching over and over again but taking in a new movie also adds some “spice” to the season. It’s a tradition without being the same thing over and over again. And, yes, sometimes we’ve done a movie marathon.
The Twelve Days of Christmas Shows
We also happen to love TV – like most of us out there! So, instead of watching movies on the Twelve Days of Christmas, we like to watch TV Christmas episodes instead. We usually round up episodes of Doctor Who, 30 Rock, Community, Home Improvement, and Corner Gas, along with any new-to-us shows that we’ve gotten into in the last year.
Oranges and Nuts in the Stocking
This old tradition dates back to the legend of St. Nick. Well, sort of. The legend goes that Nicholas tossed gold into the shoes of poor children. Now, the oranges represent those gold coins since those aren’t exactly a thing most of us have access to freely give out!
And back in the 18th Century when Christmas trees started being more of a thing, folks used nuts to decorate them. So, now we give oranges and nuts in stockings as a throwback to the old days. Personally, I love this tradition because I love eating oranges and nuts and they’re a lot healthier than candy!
Christmas Lights and Hot Apple Cider
Since the year my dad died, driving around on Christmas night with a thermos of hot apple cider (or hot cocoa if you prefer) has been a beautiful moment each year. That first year, I was in a dark place, having lost my dad only a month before on Thanksgiving Day. Friends from church knew my mom and I needed a moment of joy, so they invited us out. We drove around town for a couple of hours, visiting all the decked-out neighborhoods, with a stop over at Starbucks for a hot cup of something sweet.
Now, my husband and I drive around on Christmas Eve and Christmas night with a thermos full of goodness, Christmas carols blasting, and a full tank of gas. Despite the tradition starting in a place of sorrow, it has become one of my absolute favorite parts of the holidays season.
Choosing a Family Ornament Each Year
Since the first year my husband and I dated, we have chosen an ornament to represent the year each Christmas. The first year, we had a long-distance relationship, so we chose a mailbox, since we actually wrote good old-fashioned letters to each other! When we got engaged, we found a ring to represent the year. The first year we had a real home, my best friend bought us a Christmas door with the year printed on it. This year, I don’t know what it will be, but I’m guessing something from our seminary since we started grad school this Fall together.
A Christmas Pinata
It might sound like the wrong holiday – and perhaps it is. But we find a Christmas pinata filled with little trinkets and candy is a super fun way to spend a few moments outside in the cold without freezing our tushies off. We grab a stick and whack away at it, letting the candy fall onto a tarp we’ve laid to out (hopefully) catch all the plunder.
Silly Photos with Crazy Props
I’m a sparkles and crazy costume kind of gal, so I’ve managed to talk my husband into doing crazy, silly costume pieces (like hats, scarves, and funky glasses) for our family photo on the holiday. Anyone who joins us gets in on the fun and dresses up with our accessories, too, for some fun memories we can all cherish for years.
My husband is into board games. I’m into games like Scattergories. So, we grab the games and play away, sometimes inviting friends and family from far away to join in via Skype for a fun holiday tradition we can share. It’s a great way to spend a low-key afternoon with friends present and far away.
Silence Under Christmas Lights
The last tradition I’m going to share before wrapping up is a simple one. We turn out all the lights in the house except our Christmas lights, and we simply sit in silence, breathing in the beauty of the holiday for a few moments. It allows us to truly appreciate the day we’ve shared together, the year we’ve had over all, and the love we have for one another. It’s one of the loveliest parts of the day, even though it usually lasts only ten minutes before the cat creates some chaos with an ornament or the neighbors interrupt us with loud crashes from above.
Your Traditions, Your Way
All of these traditions are my family’s and we love them. There are a lot, though, and certainly, we don’t get to partake of all of them each year. So my best suggestion is to consider each one and see if a few resonate with your family’s spirit. Try them out, see if they fit – see how people respond before the holiday falls. You might really enjoy some of them and make them your own, or you might hate them. Either way is fine. The holiday is about loving each other, celebrating your own faith and hope, and enjoying the presence of those you love.