All-Time Favorite Christmas Traditions

three presents with snowman tags on table
From decorating the Christmas tree to leaving cookies for Santa, Christmas traditions offer great ways to enjoy the holiday season. Here are our favorite old and new traditional Christmas activities to help you celebrate.

Start an Advent Calendar

This fun and festive Christmas tradition makes the countdown part of your daily routine. Put little notes, presents, or sweet treats inside an advent calendar to make each of the 24 pre-Christmas days merry and joyful.

Behind the tradition: The term Advent comes from the Latin "adventur," meaning arrival. The tradition of marking the Advent dates back to the early 19th century when families would make a chalk line on their front door counting down the days in December until Christmas Eve.

Send Out Christmas Letters

Wish your friends and family a very merry Christmas by sending them a sweet holiday letter. Share all the highs—academic and athletic achievements of the kids, promotions at work—and even the lows—the loss of a family pet, battling a tough disease like metastatic breast cancer—so those who are dear to you, near and far, can see all that you’ve truly been through in the year. Opt for one of our unique Christmas letter designs for a more personalized touch to this Christmastime activity.

Behind the tradition: The first Christmas greeting card was designed by a British artist named John Horsely in the Victorian period in England. Since then this Christmas tradition has continued to grow and evolve.

Related: Free Christmas Letter Templates

Give a Meaningful Ornament

Add a little something special to your Christmas tree by giving your family members a meaningful ornament. Choose one that signifies a milestone or special moment from the year, and give it to them before you decorate the tree. One day your children will be creating Christmas traditions of their own and will look fondly on the keepsake ornaments they’ve been gifted over the years. 

Behind the tradition: The first Christmas ornaments in the 1800s were varieties of fruits and nuts. As the classic Christmas tradition of decorative trees in the home spread, ornaments became more ornate and specialized. Now the manufacturing and sale of Christmas ornaments is one of the biggest markets worldwide.

Set Up the Christmas Tree

Put on your favorite Christmas tunes, indulge in your favorite treats, and make a day of decorating the tree. Your home won’t truly feel ready to celebrate the joy of the holiday until the final angel or star is placed atop the tree during this Christmastime activity. To keep your tree fresh for the entire holiday season, keep it cool and out of direct sunlight. This will prevent it from drying out. Crisp, cold water is also a must for keeping your tree hearty and healthy.

Behind the tradition: Originally a German tradition, putting Christmas trees in the home was an oddity in America until the late 1800s. Now approximately 25-30 million real Christmas trees are sold each year.

Enjoy a Christmas Dinner

Gathering with family and friends to enjoy a hearty meal is definitely a favorite Christmas Day tradition. The traditional holiday meal is dependent on your heritage and geographic location, but a must-have is sweet and sugary Christmas cookies.

Behind the tradition: The Christmas dinner ritual started in Old England after Saint Francis of Assisi proclaimed that everyone should share equally in the joy of the day. In respect for Christ, families would invite their servants to eat with them at the same table. In the morning, the leftovers were fed to the animals.

Bake Some Christmas Cookies

If you are looking to add to your Christmas tradition list, gather the family in the kitchen for a new Christmas activity: baking one of our tasty Christmas cookie recipes. You might even invite friends and family over for a cookie exchange—a Christmas tradition that will leave your sweet tooth satisfied and your Christmas spirit bolstered.

Make Pomanders

Add fresh and festive aroma to your home with DIY pomander balls. The entire family will love making these fragrant Christmas decorations. All you need are a few oranges and whole cloves—that's it! Simply poke the cloves into the oranges in your desired pattern, then hang them to dry or display them in a bowl for a Christmas centerpiece. You can also dust them with cinnamon to help them last longer.

Behind the tradition: Pomander derives from the French word "pomme d'ambre," which means apple of amber, in reference to its round shape and perfumed scent. Pomanders date back to the Middle Ages, when they were used to in Europe to purify the air and bring strength and good fortune.

Display Your Christmas Stockings

Hanging Christmas stockings is a fun and festive Christmas tradition that spruces up your mantel and shows off your family's style. Reuse stockings year after year for a bit of nostalgia. And make sure you behave; you don't want coal in your stocking!

Behind the tradition: According to legend, a widowed nobleman was financially strapped and fretting about how he could pay the dowries necessary for his three daughters to wed. One night, the daughters did their laundry, left their stockings hanging by the fireplace to dry, and went to bed. St. Nicholas, who had heard about the family's despair, visited the house that night. He threw three sacks of gold down the chimney and into the stockings, giving the girls the money they needed to get married.

Hang Outdoor Christmas Lights

The beauty of Christmas lights glowing amid a blanket of snow is pretty hard to beat, making hanging outdoor Christmas lights one of the most magical Christmas traditions. Decorate your yard with twinkling lights to give your home that extra sparkle during the holidays.

Behind the tradition: Originally people would light their trees using small white candles. But in 1882, Edward H. Johnson invented the first string of electric lightbulbs, which were displayed on the White House in 1895. Now every year this American Christmas tradition seems to grow, with inflatables and projectors taking outdoor Christmas decor to another level.

Decorate with Poinsettias

The queen of Christmas plants, the poinsettia is versatile and pretty. Native to Central America, gifting and decorating with poinsettias has become a Christmas ritual. Choose a variety of colors and display the leaves throughout your home as cut flowers.

Behind the tradition: The star-shape leaves of the poinsettia are said to symbolize the Star of Bethlehem. The festive plant rakes in more than $200 million in sales a year, with most happening in December.

Set Up a Nativity Scene

Displaying nativity scenes is a great way to show what the celebration of Christmas is all about. From a miniature version on your coffee table to a large outdoor light display, there are many ways to share and enjoy the scene.

Behind the tradition: The nativity scene is one of the oldest Christmastime traditions. Legend states that St. Francis of Assisi introduced the world to the first live scene after a trip to Egypt in 1220. Traditional nativity scenes usually consist of the holy family, an ox, a sheep, and a donkey.

Build a Gingerbread House

Adorable, delicious, and oh-so fun to make, designing gingerbread houses is a cute and crafty way to decorate for the holidays. Make your own gingerbread cookies or pick up a set from your local grocery store. Either way, the end product will make you happy you participated in this delectable Christmas tradition.

Behind the tradition: Gingerbread became a popular treat in central Europe during the middle ages. Queen Victoria and her husband Prince Albert are credited with making gingerbread cookies a Christmastime tradition.

Hang Mistletoe

Kissing under the mistletoe is a flirty and festive tradition that is essential for any Christmastime celebration. Hang the mistletoe somewhere in your home. Some family members and friends may make a Christmastime activity out of not being caught under it.

Behind the tradition: The ancient Greeks were the first to believe in the power of mistletoe. During Saturnalia, ancient Greeks would kiss under the mistletoe; they later incorporated the act into wedding ceremonies. Custom says if you are kissed under the mistletoe, you will have a deep romance or a long-lasting friendship with your lip-locked partner.

Dust Off the Christmas Dinnerware

Celebrate the special occasion of Christmas dinner using special dinnerware. Use your favorite china or festive set to enjoy your hearty holiday meal. Sitting down to fine dining will make the day feel extra special and will quickly become a popular Christmas tradition in your home.

Behind the tradition: Christmas dinner became a Christmas ritual centuries ago in the Old England era. Using special place settings makes the event more meaningful.

Read a Christmas Book

Including 'Twas the Night Before Christmas and The Polar Express, book-lovers have a wonderful variety of Christmas tales to enjoy. Cozy up in front of the fire with your favorite fable and a hot cup of cocoa. For a Christmas tradition surprise, wrap up a few books and put them under the tree, allowing a different family member to select and unwrap a new book each night.

Behind the tradition: Children's books played a large part in spreading Christmas traditions after the Civil War when Christmas became a national holiday. Now The Polar Express is one of the most recognized picture books on the market.

Go Window Shopping

The retail displays during the holiday season are definitely something to enjoy. Forget about the inside of the mall and head outside. Bundling up and window shopping in big cities is an American Christmas tradition that big stores, such as Macy's, count on.

Behind the tradition: The Macy's Christmas window displays have been a time-honored tradition since World War II. The gorgeous displays—in Chicago and New York—draw people from all over the world.

Tour Outdoor Christmas Light Displays

Enjoying outdoor Christmas light displays is a great way to get into the spirit in the days leading up to Christmas. Many cities offer large drive-through displays, but it's also fun to find a neighborhood that is notorious for its creative decorations. Tune your radio to a Christmas station, sit back, and cruise!

Behind the tradition: Rockefeller Center in New York City is one of the biggest outdoor holiday light displays. The Saks Fifth Avenue holiday snowflake display has more than 72,000 lights and 50 bright snowflakes.

Go Christmas Caroling

Some traditional Christmas activities are rooted in song. Whether you're cozy in your doorway enjoying the tunes or bundled up and hitting the bricks to spread some joy, Christmas caroling is a wonderfully merry Christmas tradition.

Behind the tradition: Carols originated in Europe thousands of years ago—the earliest Christmas carol was written in 1410. Over time more Christmas carols were written and many orchestras and choirs began singing them around the holidays as part of their Christmas traditions. As carols became more popular, the Christmastime activity of singing them in the streets also emerged.

Open One Present

This tradition helps curb present-peekers and indulge some of the pre-Christmas excitement. Gather around with some hot cocoa and delicious treats and let the kids—and kids-at-heart—enjoy opening one single present, such as a pair of Christmas pajamas.

Behind the tradition: As early as the 13th century, the act of giving gifts on Christmas was very common. However, gifts were often pieces of fruit or simple toys. Now the holiday shopping season is the biggest and most lucrative time of the year for retailers.

Set Out Cookies and Milk for Santa

The big guy and his reindeer work hard on Christmas Eve, so make sure you're leaving them a yummy treat. This popular Christmas tradition is fun for the entire family. Make your favorite Christmas cookies, set them out before bedtime, and keep the leftovers for a post-present opening indulgence.

Behind the tradition: Children eagerly leave Santa delicious cookies and milk on Christmas Eve to help him fuel through the night. This Christmas Eve tradition is one of the newer ones. It started around the time of the Great Depression as a way to encourage children to share with others.

Share the gallery



Better Homes & Gardens may receive compensation when you click through and purchase from links contained on this website.