35 Christmas Eve Traditions That Create Merry Memories
Liven up this merry holiday with new customs and fun twists on old favorites
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Christmas Eve traditions the whole family will cherish
From hanging stockings and opening one of your holiday gifts to leaving cookies for Santa, Christmas traditions make Christmas Eve a magical night like no other. Every family has its own rituals on the night before Christmas. Looking to add some new Christmas activities to your family’s holiday tradition before the big guy in red makes an appearance? We’ve rounded up some unique Christmas Eve traditions to help you celebrate, honor age-old Christmas symbols and give your kids a memorable Dec. 24.
Open a gift
Don’t open until Christmas? Not for the scores of families that like to get a little preview by opening just one gift on Christmas Eve. You can designate a specific gift or just pick from under the tree.
Read The Night Before Christmas
This one’s got to be on the list, right? Clement Clarke Moore struck gold in 1823 when he published a poem called “A Visit from St. Nicholas.” You read that right: It’s not actually called The Night Before Christmas, though it’s commonly referred to by that title. You’ve probably heard it a bunch of times, but it’s good for a once-a-year read right before bed. This Christmas poem has become emblematic of Dec. 24, with its tale of Dad stealing an inside look at Santa’s operation. Follow it up by reading one of these wonderful Christmas books for kids.
Hang a pickle ornament
You may have noticed all the pickle ornaments at holiday shops. There’s a reason for that. According to the tradition of the German Christmas pickle, or Weihnachtsgurke, an ornament in the shape of a gherkin is hung on the tree on Christmas Eve. The first child to find it gets a special gift; some versions have the child opening the first present on Christmas morning. This is likely a German American tradition that began with pickle-loving Germans in the Midwest. It’s a fun addition to Christmas Eve celebrations and a creative way to decorate your tree. Check out these other Christmas tree ideas.
Make a cookie tree
Take your Christmas cookie game up a notch with this 3D representation of a Christmas tree. It’s fun for the whole family to get involved in a Christmas Eve tradition of cutting out star-shaped cookies and, after baking, stacking them (starting with a big one on the bottom and progressing to the smallest at the top) and decorating the “tree.” Your cookie tree can serve as a centerpiece for your Christmas Day feast—if you can stop your crew from digging in the night before. Grab your most festive cookie cutters and get to work!
Many families give new pajamas for Christmas Eve, but you can further embrace the warm-and-fuzzy feelings of the season by bringing hygge to your holiday. Pronounced “hue-guh,” this Danish way of life means many things: a warm ambiance and atmosphere, being with loved ones and enjoying the coziness of a winter night inside. Perfect for Christmas Eve! So after you don those holiday PJs, snuggle together under cozy throw blankets, light some candles and drink hot chocolate. But since hygge is above all a feeling, practicing the philosophy mostly means relaxing, finding contentment and living in the moment with your family and friends.
Make Santa dust
Can you imagine if Santa missed your house? Devastation! Ensure that’s not a possibility by sprinkling Santa dust on your lawn. There are a couple of variations on the concoction itself, so you can get creative. Many opt to target the animals pulling the sleigh with “reindeer dust” consisting of oats, herbs, colored sugar and anything else they might like to munch on. You can also add something sparkly and shiny to catch the eye of Father Christmas—preferably something that doesn’t double as litter, like edible glitter. Check out these DIY Christmas ornaments that’ll make your tree stand out too.
Take the same picture every year
Even in the age of Instagram, it can be hard to remember to stop and take a photo when you’re trying to live in the moment. But starting a new family tradition of taking even just one nonprofessional photo on Christmas Eve can leave you with a personal and permanent record of how your family has changed over the years.
Each Dec. 24, take a picture of the kids, preferably in the same spot in your home or with something that stays the same, such as in Santa hats or their Christmas pajamas. As time goes on, you’ll have a visual representation of how they’ve grown, which can make a lovely collage to hang on the wall. Once you’ve got your photos, have these Christmas captions ready.
Zoom with the family
Christmas Day might be for celebrating with your close or immediate family. But on Christmas Eve, take the opportunity to connect with family members and/or friends near and far. Schedule a Christmas Eve chat on Zoom (or your preferred video chat platform) with your extended family so you can wish everyone a merry Christmas. That way, you don’t have to worry about missing someone on Dec. 25. Make some delicious Christmas appetizers and have a nice snack together on camera.
Have a feast of seven fishes
If you always host a family get-together on Christmas Eve, take a cue from the Italians—or Italian Americans—and make it a feast of the seven fishes. Fish was traditionally eaten on Christmas Eve, in keeping with the religious custom of fasting from meat on holidays.
Which seven fishes? Although some dishes (salted cod and fried smelts, for instance) are considered traditional, the choice of fish isn’t set in stone, so feel free to pick your favorites. Dishes may include seafood pasta or pasta with fish sauce, crab dip or shrimp appetizers and, of course, fried calamari. The feast could even be a potluck, with guests bringing their own choice of fish dish. Make sure you eat the fish dishes up though, as they may not last long in the fridge.
Make a bûche de noël
For Christmas dessert, get inspired by the French with a whimsical cake that looks like a yule log. Creating it on Christmas Eve is enjoyable for the whole family. After baking the spongy cake, cover it in a buttercream concoction. Next comes the fun part: The cake gets rolled into a log shape, creating a delectable swirl inside. Cut off the ends, which can then be used as “stumps” on the log, and cover the log in chocolate frosting. Score it with a fork to get a bark-like texture. From there, you can decorate the quirky gâteau with meringue or marzipan mushrooms, holly and other woodland treats.
It may sound complicated, but there are easy recipes that simplify things and focus on the fun. The kids will look forward to it every year. Don’t forget the baking cocoa!
Visit a nursing home
For kids, Christmas can be all about getting stuff, so each Christmas Eve, teach the lesson that a present doesn’t need to be a material object: Your time and company are all that are needed. Start a tradition of gathering family and friends on Christmas Eve day to visit a nursing home or senior care facility, perhaps one where a family member lives. Have the kids sing carols, recite a Christmas poem or story or simply chat. Arrange with the activities director ahead of time to have the residents gathered, or go room to room. The older people, especially those alone on the holiday, will appreciate seeing the little ones; the children will feel the spirit of Christmas by making a difference in someone’s life. Check out more beautiful holiday gifts that give back.
Make Christmas cards
Seeing the fam on Christmas Day and not in the habit of giving store-bought cards? Have a card-making session the night before. Make sure you have construction paper, markers, glue, Christmas stickers and more ready to go, and get crafty. Your relatives and friends will love getting homemade holiday cards. For more Christmas crafts, try out these DIY Christmas decorations to give to loved ones—or just display with pride.
Host an open house
Another way to connect with people on Christmas Eve day is to host an “open house,” a more relaxed form of a party, where guests are encouraged to stop by anytime during the extended open house period. This can ensure you have enough time to talk with each guest and prevent your house from becoming overcrowded, which can happen during a traditional party. The flexibility of an open house also makes it easier for friends to find time to come, so you may see more of them. Set out room-temperature treats, coffee and mulled wine or cider kept hot on the stove or in a slow cooker. Easy holiday crafts can keep the kids occupied while grown-ups chat.
An oplatek is a thin wafer with a nativity scene pressed into it, but the cracker itself really isn’t the point. The Christmas Eve ritual begins with one family member breaking off a piece of the cracker while wishing everyone well for the new year. Then everyone else takes a turn, giving their thanks and hopes and breaking off a little bit of the wafer. Sharing the oplatek becomes a great way to bring the family together to talk about what’s important to them and how much they cherish one another.
Go on a tour of the neighborhood
On Christmas Eve, gather up the fam and take a ride around the neighborhood, keeping an eye out for the coolest holiday decorations. If there’s a great Christmas light show display nearby, make that a stop on your tour, and get ready for oohs and aahs. Chances are, those light displays use lots of Christmas colors like red and green.
Have a Christmas slumber party
If the kids never want to go to bed on Christmas Eve, consider starting a Christmas Eve slumber party tradition. After watching a kids Christmas movie, all the siblings, along with visiting cousins or friends, can gather their sleeping bags and sleep in a single bedroom, playroom or even in front of the Christmas tree. An indoor tent with fluffy pillows, blankets and Christmas lights makes for another fun sleeping space. The kiddos may not actually go to sleep, but at least they’ll be in bed. (Just be careful to be super quiet if you’re playing Santa!)
Even if your family is very religious, it can be easy to let the reason for the season fall by the wayside as you deal with shopping and creating over-the-top Christmas decorations. Block out time on Christmas Eve to attend a church service for a moment of reverence and peace. If you’re going to be up all hours anyway, consider attending Christmas Eve Midnight Mass (something of a rite of passage for Christmas celebrants). It’s a beautiful way to welcome the holiday.
Enjoy a white elephant exchange
Some families open a present on Christmas Eve, and others host a Secret Santa celebration for a larger group. The white elephant exchange combines these traditions with an even more enjoyable twist: Each person brings a wrapped white elephant gift—often a quirky item or gag gift—with no tag. Once gathered, everyone draws a number. Going in order, each person either selects a gift from the pile and immediately unwraps it, or “steals” another person’s already opened gift. Just be careful not to start a family feud, as competition for the most desired gifts can be fierce!
Open Christmas crackers
If you’re wondering why British Christmas movies always include someone wearing a paper crown, it’s because of the popular English Christmas cracker tradition. They’re not crackers that you eat, though. These are wrapped cylinders that hold a toy prize, a paper hat and a family-friendly joke. They’re quite silly but really fun for kids to open on Christmas Eve. Two children can open one together, each taking a side and pulling. The cracker will make a loud pop, and whoever’s left with the bigger half gets to read the joke or win the prize. Then everyone in the family, even your grouchy uncle, has to wear a hat.
Have a book exchange
Another twist on the “one gift on Christmas Eve” idea is the Jolabokaflod, or “Christmas Book Flood,” a Christmas Eve tradition popular in Iceland. Each member of the family receives a new book on Christmas Eve and can spend the evening engrossed in reading. Although that might sound like a solitary pursuit on such a family-focused holiday, it can be a bonding experience to gather around the fire or the Christmas tree and snuggle together, everyone reading their own tale. It’s a quiet, meditative take on a holiday that often involves a lot of hustle and bustle. After a while, everyone can take a break for a mini book club to discuss one another’s stories and whether they like them. To get ideas, start with the best Christmas books.
Make a gingerbread house
Here’s another beloved holiday tradition that’s perfect for drumming up excitement before the big day. Put on some Christmas music and gather around a gingerbread house that’ll be the envy of the neighborhood. Here are our favorite gingerbread house ideas for some inspiration.
Try on new Christmas jammies
There are lots of variations on the “one present on Christmas Eve” tradition. One is to gift a new pair of festive Christmas pajamas every year, especially when your kids are young and outgrow their current pajamas in a year anyway. Wear those new threads to bed and wake up nice and cozy in them on Christmas morning. Be sure to leave the PJs on for your annual Christmas Eve family photo!
Create a hot chocolate bar
Get together to enjoy a cup of Christmas Eve cocoa before bedtime. To take the ritual to the next level, set up a hot chocolate station so kids (and adults) can add their own toppings, such as crushed candy canes, pretzels for a sweet-and-salty touch, chocolate chips, whipped cream and, of course, marshmallows. Include spice shakers of cinnamon and nutmeg. And set up a few grown-up options too, like Irish cream or whiskey, so adults can make spiked cocoa.
If you’re having people over, the hot chocolate can be premade in a slow cooker; if it’s just the family, give each kid a cup and let them go to town for a Christmas Eve dessert fit for Santa. You can also play these Christmas party games at your holiday bash.
Skip the fancy dinner in favor of Chinese food or your favorite takeout. Interestingly, Chinese food on Christmas also follows the Jewish American tradition of eating the cuisine on a holiday when most other restaurants are closed. Today, Chinese restaurants are notoriously busy at Christmastime, and Google searches for “Chinese food” also peak during the holiday.
Play Christmas games
There’s no shortage of fun Christmas games to play as you celebrate the holiday. There are board games, DIY activities, Christmas trivia games, the reindeer antler ring toss and more. If you want something more interactive than a book or movie night, games are the way to go. Plus, a high-energy game can help tire out the kiddos.
Play the stocking guessing game
Here’s a twist on the beloved Christmas stocking tradition: Put a small object into each Christmas stocking (avoid sharp items and anything that’ll damage the stocking). Have the rest of the family try to guess what each object is, simply by feeling through the stocking and/or shaking for noise. This can also be a “one gift before Christmas” tradition—the objects in the stockings can be little gifts rather than random household objects.
Open white envelopes
This tradition began as an article in a 1982 issue of Woman’s Day magazine. In response to her husband’s disillusionment with the over-commercialization of Christmas, author Nancy Gavin put a plain white envelope, free of any writing or decoration, on her Christmas tree. Nancy’s husband had a passion for helping kids, and in the envelope was a note Nancy had written, saying that she’d anonymously donated a bunch of sporting goods for kids to the local church.
Her husband was incredibly moved—and her readers were too, popularizing the tradition of giving to a cause a loved one is passionate about and commemorating it with an unadorned envelope. Check out The White Envelope Project to learn more about this tradition. You can certainly do this on Christmas Day rather than the night before, if you like.
Eat finger foods
Chances are, you’ll be cooking up a big feast on Christmas Day, so have a laid-back meal the night before. Whether that’s takeout or your own little snack plate, you can relax by the fire and tree while you munch. Finger foods are easy and fun to eat; build a platter of cheese and crackers, chips and dip, fruits and veggies, shrimp cocktail and more. It’s a great way to make dinner a low-key affair.
Rock ugly sweaters
Forget Christmas pajamas. Wear those so-ugly-they’re-hot holiday eyesores! Turn Christmas Eve into an ugly sweater party and give a prize for the most cringe-inducing garment. Ugly Christmas sweaters can provide a funny twist on that “take a picture every year” tradition too!
Ah, the digital age. Kiddos will be fascinated by NORAD, the North American Aerospace Defense Command, which sets up a real-time Santa tracker every December. You can see where in the world Santa is delivering presents with an assist from satellite data. It’s a great way to introduce the really young ones to time zones too, as their data shows the places Mr. Claus has already hit throughout the hours leading up to Christmas in your area. (Possible downside: It’s inadvisable to stay up till the time Santa is approaching your area.) Of course, you can always stick to watching one (or more) of the best Christmas movies before the big day.
Host a Christmas movie trivia night
Speaking of Christmas movies, you can bring some friendly competition to Christmas Eve by hosting a Christmas movie trivia night. Ask questions about the most popular Christmas flicks and test everyone’s knowledge—winner gets a plate of Christmas cookies!
Set up Christmas karaoke
Go on a Christmas Eve hike
If the weather’s good on Christmas Eve, grab your winter boots and take the whole family for a special holiday hike. It will help the kids burn off some energy, and you can embrace the serenity of Christmas Eve surrounded by nature.
Write a Christmas letter to your future self
Take some time on Christmas Eve to write your future self a letter you’ll open next Christmas Eve. You can reflect on the previous year, express what you hope to achieve by next Christmas or simply write yourself a sweet Christmas wish.
Have a Christmas movie marathon
This is one of the simplest, but most fun, Christmas Eve traditions. Queue up your favorite Christmas movies, make yourself snug as a bug on the sofa and watch these festive stories comes to life on screen.
Next, read up on how to celebrate the holidays, based on your zodiac sign.
Additional reporting by Meghan Jones and Kelly Kuehn.
- New York Times: “The Christmas Pickle: A Tradition Taken with a Pinch of Salt”
- Cook’n: “Question for Santa: What do your reindeer eat?”
- Saveur: “An Eye-Opening Look at the Feast of the Seven Fishes”
- The Atlantic: “Why American Jews Eat Chinese Food on Christmas”
- Slate: “Is Chinese Takeout Really More Popular on Christmas?”