Observing family Christmas traditions and customs can be one of the most memorable aspects of the holiday season. The sights, sounds, smells and tastes – not to mention all the feels – often linger longer in our thoughts than that present we were just dying to find under the tree. Our own family keeps coming back to these 15 fun Christmas traditions that make our holidays feel complete. Borrow some, add some, swap some out. We’d love to hear from you – what customs does your family cherish during this season?
1. Pick a fun Advent calendar or other Christmas countdown
Growing up, my siblings and I counted down the days ’til Christmas with two Advent calendars we re-used each year. They were very simple – a handmade felt holiday tree with Velcro-backed ornaments to stick on, and a second little tree with branches to hang a new ornament on each day. So simple, yes, but we looked forward to our turn to add a decoration and subtract one more day until Christmas morning. Now that I have my own kids I’ve gone searching for fun twists on the traditional Advent calendar – whether that be chocolates, mini-figures or even puzzle pieces.
If you’re looking to consume or spend less, try this great idea from Joy: She wraps up holiday-themed books they already own and reads a new one for each day of Advent with her kids. You could also try borrowing from friends, checking some out from the library or picking up inexpensive titles at a used book shop. Sounds like this cozy Christmas tradition is the perfect excuse to curl up and read with the kids.
2. Tell a story with your holiday decorations
As any of my kids will be quick to point out, I like to wax on about holiday and Christmas traditions while we’re decorating together. We hang the stockings and I describe how their grandma picked out a needlepoint pattern for each of them before they were born. I prominently hang the ornaments their kindergarten teachers helped them craft with their names scrawled in crayon across the back. They play (very carefully) with the same Precious Moments nativity scene I received for my first Christmas way back when. Explaining the roots behind these holiday decorations helps imprint our family stories onto the next generation. We encourage you to start (or keep up) an oral holiday tradition of sharing the stories behind your own family’s Christmas trappings – and add to the collection as you go.
You can also tell stories as Christmas cards begin to arrive. “Oh, this is from Aunt Ruth. She makes the BEST angel food cake. Remember?”
3. Cut your own tree from a Christmas tree farm (or purchase a real one locally)
Joy has been the only member of the FFTC Team that has actually gone and chopped their own Christmas tree down. (Personally, I still have mental scars from the 45 minutes in my garage spent hacking at the stubborn trunk and bottom branches of our tree from two years back.) It was memorable enough to become a special holiday tradition for her family to hop in the car and travel outside the city to select and cut their own tree. If you’re thinking about adding this custom to your own list, Joy has rounded up a list of the BEST CHRISTMAS TREE FARMS NEAR THE TWIN CITIES.
4. Pay a visit to Santa
I don’t go out of my way to find Jolly Old St Nick during the holiday season – part of the reason being that he kind of manages to be omnipresent in the Twin Cities this time of year. If our family happens to be down at Minneapolis Holidazzle (another fun Christmas season tradition of ours, though it is on hiatus for 2023) we’ll probably jump in line for a good photo op. There are plenty of places to run into the guy (and sometimes the Missus or some reindeer) all over the Metro area from festivals to parks to malls – seek him out in our giant roundup of WHERE TO FIND SANTA IN THE TWIN CITIES. Kids, get your Christmas lists ready.
5. Explore a local shopping district
I hear you; Amazon is pretty convenient and our family has used it plenty to holiday shop in our pajamas. I’m not completely ruling it out this year, but as a Christmas tradition, we like to pick one day to head out and browse gifts in a local shopping district. As St Paul natives, we usually choose the GRAND MEANDER and are so happy to see it return again this year. The event, located in the Grand Avenue shopping district, is 20 blocks of samples (including hot soup from local restaurants!), specials, Vulcan fire truck rides, carolers and multiple venues to visit with Santa. (December 2, 2023, events run starting 8:30am through the afternoon.) Similar shopping events are scheduled for communities such as AFTON, ANOKA, EDINA, STILLWATER, & WHITE BEAR LAKE – find the details on our Twin Cities Holiday Shopping Events page.
And keep in mind when making out your lists! SMALL BUSINESS SATURDAY/SHOP SMALL SATURDAY is November 25, 2023.
6. Find the best Christmas lights displays
Dancing light displays can’t help but equal instant holiday cheer. One of our most-loved Christmas traditions is seeking out a holiday lights display to enjoy with the whole family. It doesn’t have to be the same old routine each time; we’re known to switch it up from year to year. If we’re feeling frugal, we enjoy checking out the free HOLIDAY LIGHTS ON YORK displays (St Paul). If we’re feeling more like a splurge, the GLOW HOLIDAY FESTIVAL (CHS Field, St Paul) might be magical. Our personal favorite holiday-lights road trip is to see the dazzling display at BENTLEYVILLE TOUR OF LIGHTS in Duluth (video below for a sneak peek). You can plan your own Christmas tradition by customizing a holiday lights route for your own family with our huge list of the BEST CHRISTMAS & HOLIDAY LIGHTS DISPLAYS in the Twin Cities. This year, we’ve added an EASY OPTION: Pick a nearby city that has created a Holiday Lights map. So get the kids in their PJs, grab some hot chocolate and go on a holiday adventure!
7. Read a Christmas story together
Gianna shares this warm, fuzzy Christmas tradition from her childhood: her parents woke the whole house up early on Christmas morning (while it was still dark, she stresses) and gathered them by candlelight to read A Christmas Story before opening gifts. I’m still scratching my head as to why the parents were awake before the kids that morning (in my house, it’s quite the opposite) but it sounds like the tradition left Gianna with fond memories. Parents, if you’re not into being an early bird, there’s always The Night Before Christmas…
8. Go ice skating on an outdoor rink
We don’t skate often as a family but try to incorporate a trip to an outdoor ice rink as one of our annual holiday traditions. Pictured is one of our favorite outdoor ice skating rinks — that, sadly, has not been available the past few years — but there are plenty of community rinks that will be. You can find a place to take a spin (or spill) in the frosty air on our giant list of FREE TWIN CITIES OUTDOOR ICE SKATING RINKS.
9. Bake Christmas cookies
Mmmm. Filling up your house during the holiday season with the aroma of freshly-baked cookies is a favorite Christmas tradition. Little ones always enjoy getting in on the frosting and decorating. We’re happy to share our own recipes for easy sugar cookies and a sweet, spicy holiday gingerbread. Gianna will typically set aside an entire day just for baking with her family – which is probably why she crafted this year’s list of WHERE TO MAKE CHRISTMAS COOKIES IN THE TWIN CITIES.
10. Give to others during the holiday season
Tis the season to feel good about giving to others. Sometimes we get so caught up in enjoying our own Christmas traditions that we don’t think about the ones for whom the holidays aren’t as magical. You may be wondering, how can I make a holiday tradition out of volunteering with my kids? Here are a few ideas: several stops on our huge list of TWIN CITIES HOLIDAY LIGHT TOURS collect donations for food shelves or Toys For Tots. Or consider decorating placemats and holiday cards to be delivered to clients of Twin Cities Meals on Wheels. Our own FFTC Team Kids pulled a very successful shift ringing bells (and singing carols all the way!) for the Salvation Army a few years ago.
11. Have fun with your Elf on the Shelf
There may be a story behind this little elf, but our family has never read it. Instead, we treat our elf (his name, christened by the kids, is so silly I’m not even going to share it here) like a month-long game of hide seek. He does the hiding — usually in a different place on the main floor each night…unless Mom spaces out, which is a safe bet a few times during the busy season. The kids thrill at seeking him in the morning, or stumbling upon him as they go about their day. A holiday tradition, the elf is also responsible for filling their sneakers with treats on St Nicholas Day (December 6 in 2023). This custom was passed down to me by my own parents and I’ve enjoyed putting my own spin on it.
12. Pipe in the Christmas tunes
Are you in the camp that turns on the Christmas tunes as soon as Halloween has wrapped? Or do you hold out until after Thanksgiving? Our family’s holiday tradition is to crank up the Christmas music station the first weekend of December, a soundtrack to decorating for the holiday season. Holding off keeps me from wanting to throw something at the speaker by New Years (when I just can’t take one more round of Gene Autry’s “Here Comes Santa Claus”).
And speaking of Christmas music, here’s where you can find all your holiday favorites performed in the Twin Cities.
13. Decorate gingerbread houses
Whether you simplify with a kit or bravely bake homemade, decorating a gingerbread house is a sweet holiday tradition of ours. Most often, my kids still have plenty of Halloween candy left over for garnishes. More visual delight than edible creation, the row of gingerbread huts cheer up our kitchen well into January.
14. Put on your own Christmas pageant
Believe it or not, I can still wheedle and coax my teenagers into performing our traditional family pageant on Christmas Eve. It is an absolute delight for their grandparents to witness, who have been watching their grandkids perform since they were literally babies in mangers and tiny angels with tinsel halos. We vary the script from year to year. If the holiday spirit moves us we belt out Christmas carols. There’s usually a constant stream of chuckles and clicks of the camera. No matter your values and beliefs it’s fun to be creative around the holidays and entertain visiting family. Try putting your kids in charge of the performance and see what they come up with!
15. Watch your favorite holiday movie as a family
Ours is White Christmas, premiering in 1954 and starring Bing Crosby as he and pals croon about a holiday dressed with the fluffy white stuff. This Christmas tradition was another passed down by my own mom. We still gather to watch, noshing on brunch and wearing pajamas, every year with the next generation while they’re home on break from school. What holiday movie gets you every time? Want to see if your favorite classic is showing on the big screen this season? Consult our list of Where to Watch the Best Family-Friendly Christmas Movies in 2023 to find out!