The Best Holiday Traditions

Twenty-six practices that cost little but pay off forever

Like it or not, the holiday season is underway. It happens earlier every year.

There is no stopping it.

Why not embrace it?

Here, people from all over the country share their personal favorite traditions, old and new.

Great Things to Do
My favorite childhood memories are my grandmother coming over and staying on Christmas Eve, and we got to open her present first (always PJs); my brother and I ate a snack in front of the tree. — Natalie, grew up in Erie, Pennsylvania

We volunteer somewhere together as a family. — Mark, Washington, D.C.

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Related: Gratitude for the Holidays

I’m so excited to start fun traditions with my babies (1-year-old twins). One friend wraps 25 children’s books and her little boy opens one book each day leading up to Christmas. That’s one we’ll start this year. — Mary, Jamestown, New York

We do a family gift game. We pick one Saturday leading up to Christmas and set spending limits. One parent, one kid (we switch teams each year) goes out to find presents for the other pair. Then we rush back and wrap them and put them under the tree. We started it years ago and look forward to it ever year. — Lori, State College, Pennsylvania

“It’s so nice to have a pause in the middle of the crazy rush of gift giving, cookies, and decorations to reflect and think about family and love and peace,” said one mom.

My siblings and I escape to do karaoke at a bar by the airport after dinner on Christmas. It’s perfect. — Karen, from Madison, Wisconsin

We always go cut our own tree. The boys and I bake cookies the night before Christmas for Santa. The hubs and I watch “It’s a Wonderful Life” every Christmas Eve. — Traci, Richmond, Virginia

We make a gingerbread house each year just after Thanksgiving. We also take a nighttime drive to look at holiday lights. We’re always trying to add new traditions too. This year we’ll each be painting an ornament on the tree. — Crystal, Las Vegas, Nevada

Making an ornament with the kids and marking the year it was made. — Renee, Cincinnati, Ohio

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We are not a religious family. But my favorite tradition is still church on Christmas Eve. It’s dark outside and the church smells like pine and incense and candle wax. Everyone is dressed up and the kids are excited but behaving. It’s so nice to have a pause in the middle of the crazy rush of gift giving, cookies, and decorations to reflect and think about family and love and peace. When I was a kid and before we had kids, my family did midnight Mass, which has the added bonus of feeling scandalously late. My cousins and I would take bets on which tipsy uncle would fall asleep first. — Melissa, grew up in upstate New York

As a kid growing up in Berlin, Christmas markets and the first snowfall were my favorites. The city is so magical with the white stuff pouring past the streetlights. Sledding in the city parks was a blast. These days, we visit the train display in Washington, D.C., and check out the zoo’s holiday light display. There’s no snow, but our kids make it magical. — Daniel, Alexandria, Virginia

Great Things to Eat
Meat, cheese, and chocolate fondue on Christmas Eve. Friends who have no relatives in the area come over for Christmas dinner. — Charlie, Canadian transplant in Washington, D.C.

I make beef empanadas in an attempt to replicate my father’s recipe. — Fabian, a New Yorker in Fairfax, Virginia

Related: Moms, Kids and Fast Food

When I was growing up in Ohio, our dear family friend and neighbor would make us a coffee cake to eat every Christmas morning after we opened presents. I got that recipe from her a few years ago so that tradition could live on with my children. — Erin, Alexandria, Virginia

Every Christmas Eve my family has a traditional Polish dinner called Wigilia, opens presents, and attends midnight Mass. Christmas dinner is at our house and we serve ham, scalloped potatoes, green bean casserole, pumpkin and pecan pies. — Julia, Jamestown, New York

Great Things to Watch
We watch “The Christmas Story” and “Elf” as a family every year. Our cat is even named Buddy. — Jenny, Columbus, Ohio

I like to marathon watch “Arrested Development” while wrapping Hanukkah presents. Something about the Bluth family screams “Happy Holidays” to me. — Marigold, Fairfax, Virginia

Constant rotation of “Elf,” Jingle All the Way,” and “Home Alone” all the way up until Christmas Eve. Then it’s “A Christmas Story” while wrapping gifts. Christmas Day we drive to Massachusetts to be with our family. We usually arrive to watch “A Christmas Story” one last time while eating Chinese food. — Kellie, Alexandria, Virginia

Related: Five Films to Watch with Your Son

“A Colbert Christmas: The Greatest Gift of All” and “Scrooged.” — Matthew, Woodbury, Minnesota

My husband watches “Die Hard” every year. — Michelle, St. Paul, Minnesota

Ways to Think Outside of the Box
My favorite tradition is to go camping on Thanksgiving. The beaches in Florida are practically empty and I enjoy the waterfront solitude. After Christmas I catch a Beatles marathon performed by local musicians. They play every song from every album in order. It’s 12.5 hours of brilliance. — Steve, Columbus, Ohio

I have a sweater that I have owned wince I was roughly 12 years old. It is SO stretched out and faded, but it still “fits” and I pull it out after Thanksgiving and I wear it all season, much to my husband’s dismay. That sweater is famous among my friends. We all joke that Christmas doesn’t start until I bring it out. — Mandy, Alexandria, Virginia

I made a clay turkey necklace in fourth grade. I have worn it every Thanksgiving since. — Theresa, Kinsman, Ohio

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I pot tons of paperwhite flower bulbs so that by the end of December my house smells and looks Christmas-y and ppring-like at the same time. — Rachel, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

My boyfriend and I started this many years ago: our gift to one another is a stress-free holiday. We don’t exchange gifts. We may even spend the holidays in a different place if we feel we need to be somewhere else (usually with our own families). Because we don’t have expectations for one another it has helped us with all the other expectations that come this time of year. — Terah, Boston, Massachussetts

My husband and I go day-tripping on Black Friday. No shopping for us. We’d rather do a beer tasting. — Julia, Jamestown, New York

To reduce the gift swapping stress and opt out of the commercialization of the season, my wife and I give a donation to our local animal welfare league. This isn’t a brag; I share this as an idea for others disillusioned with the gift shopping aspect of the holidays. It feels much better than a ribbon wrapped Mercedes. — Doug, Alexandria, Virginia

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