30 American Christmas Traditions Even You Didn’t Know About
There's a lot more to the day than decorous trees and piles of presents.
Decorating a cone-shaped fir. Unwrapping a veritable pirate’s bounty of presents. Putting out milk and homemade cookies “for Santa.” Yes, everyone knows the typical crop of Christmas traditions. But in a country as vast and diverse as the United States, it only makes sense that there are approximately 719,482,633 million other ways to bring on the festive feelings. Here, from sea to shining sea, are the most wacky, eccentric, little-known Christmas traditions around.
Ugly Sweater Run
Sweaters might not seem like ideal active wear, but then again, December is not an ideal month for a jog. So it makes a weird kind of sense that cities like Boston have played host to Ugly Sweater Runs, in which participants don the ugliest sweater they can find and run a 5K, accompanied by holiday music as they move. Bonus: they can reward themselves for their effort with a post-race hot chocolate (alcoholic or non).
Celebrating on January 7
Alaska has a robust Russian Orthodox community, and they’ve brought their own Christmas traditions with them, most notably Selaviq—a celebration of the birth of Christ through songs and prayers. It doesn’t sound too different from many Christmas celebrations, but this one takes place on January 7 rather than December 25th. Following a service, churchgoers begin a parade, featuring a large wooden star at the front, and go house to house, singing and spinning the star.
A Christmas ham or turkey might be familiar to most, but Minnesotans of Scandinavian descent are just as likely to whip up an odd seafood dish: Codfish preserved in lye, known as lutfisk. According to Smithsonian, “The lutefisk dinner is an annual fall and winter tradition at scores of Lutheran churches and Nordic fraternal groups throughout the Upper Midwest and Pacific Northwest or anywhere with a large Scandinavian-American population. Strangely, these children of immigrants celebrate a tradition that connects them to their ancestral home, even as many Scandinavians have moved on.”
Another dish that might not usually be thought of as typical Christmas fare is a big bowl of gumbo. But in Cajun country, according to Visit Mississippi, “for quite a few Mississippi families under a Cajun influence, no Christmas Eve is complete without a big pot of gumbo. Made with chicken, sausage and/or seafood, gumbo warms up any holiday gathering.” Shrimp and grits is also a mainstay of the Christmas table.
Clement by Candlelight
The city of St. Charles, Missouri, recognizes Christmas each year with a candlelit reading of the classic Christmas poem, “A Visit From St. Nicholas.” Better known as “Twas the Night Before Christmas,” the poem is read with musical accompaniment in the historic Chauncey Shepard residence, taking visitors back to a simpler time.
No, the “Christmas Bird Count,” doesn’t have anything to do with partridges in pear trees—it’s a long-running (now in its 119th year!) event hosted by the Audubon Society in which participants conduct a census of the birds they see within a 15-mile radius, reporting back their findings to the conservation organization. The idea was launched as a response to the Christmas hunts that were popular during the turn of the 20th century and more than almost 77,000 people participated last year alone.
Bonfires on the Mississippi
Christmas bonfires are a beloved tradition along the Great River Road between New Orleans and Baton Rouge in Louisiana. On Christmas Eve, locals make their way to the banks of the Mississippi River, piling up tinder and fuel to create massive bonfires. It’s said the fire-starters are helping to light the way for Papa Noel (the French-accented term for Santa Claus in this Cajun region).
Up and down the coast of California, visitors will find Santa Claus who skips his sleigh for more aquatic means of getting around. There’s Santa Barbara’s Parade of Lights, the Lighted Boat Parade of Fisherman’s Wharf, and the San Pedro Holiday Afloat Lighted Boat Parade, just to name a few, all featuring boats illuminated with clever Christmas lights, playing music and occasionally ferrying Santa Claus himself.
In Camden, New Jersey, Santa opts to go underwater, going for a dip in full red robe and hat, with scuba gear strapped to his back, waving at kids from inside the Adventure Aquarium‘s 760,000-gallon Ocean Realm tank. Thankfully he leaves his sack of toys outside of the water.
North Carolina’s stunning Chimney Rock is a popular attraction for outdoorsy types—and, apparently, Santa Claus is an outdoorsy type! Every December, he makes his way from the North Pole to scale the 315-foot mountain (making a great photo op) before descending and joining Mrs. Claus and visitors for some live holiday music, hot cocoa, and cookies.
The residents of Mobile, Alabama, skip the Santa outfits and opt to deck themselves out like his workers, with thousands gathering at the Mobile Convention Center for the annual Elfapalooza. Participants sing Christmas Karaoke, watch the Christmas classic Elf, and sip hot chocolate, beer, wine, while aiming to beat the Guinness Book of World’s Record’s challenge for “most Santa’s elves in a single location.”
The Indianapolis Zoo has hosted Christmas at the Zoo for more than 50 years, inviting visitors to walk through a mirror maze and tunnel of lights, drop in to Mrs. Claus’ Kitchen and Santa’s Barn (where actual reindeer graze), and partake in plenty of other more animal-centric attractions.
Who needs jingle bells when you have a tuba? That’s the thinking of the Kansas City Symphony, based in Kansas City, Missouri, which each year hosts TubaChristmas, a massive (sometimes more than 500 instrumentalists) gathering of tuba and euphonium players of all generations and skill levels.
Festival of Trees
Christmas is a time of giving and the people of Boise’s Treasure Valley take that to heart with their annual Saint Alphonsus Festival of Trees, which invites organizations and individuals to purchase and decorate a tree (with all proceeds going to community health care). The flashy flora is then displayed as part of a VIP black-tie gala where guests can compare who’s tree wore their decorations better. And for some trivia about the firs themselves, here are 27 Amazing Facts About Christmas Trees.
Christmas in Florida
The city of Christmas, Florida, tries to live up to its name (despite the year-round warm temperatures) with palm trees lit up year-round and a post office that postmarks letters with a special stamp featuring jolly St. Nick himself.
The Crested Butte Mountain Resort in the city of Crested Butte, Colorado, each December invites hundreds of people clad in Santa suits to take part in the Santa Ski and Crawl, snowboarding, snow-blading, and, of course, skiing down the mountain—all in an effort to beat their own record from the previous year.
Farolitos Light the Way
Along Santa Fe’s Canyon Road, lined with historic adobe houses, every Christmas Eve, hundreds of farolitos (small, sand-filled paper bags illuminated with votive candles) line the streets, creating an inviting stroll for visitors.
Medora, North Dakota, embraces its cowboy roots in its Christmas traditions, with the annual Old Fashioned Cowboy Christmas, bringing members of the community together for drinks, dancing and celebrating—wearing 10-gallon hats rather than Santa Claus caps.
During the holidays each year, the state capitol building in Pierre, South Dakota, becomes the site of Pie Day, where visitors can come by for a free slice (sometimes accompanied by a scoop of ice cream).
With its significant Mexican population, it probably should not be a surprise that southern Texas has embraced tamales as a traditional Christmas dish. As NPR reports, “Rhett Rushing, folklorist at San Antonio’s Institute of Texan Cultures, said tamales have been traditional Christmas Eve fare for centuries because they’re portable, easy to store and inexpensive to make for large gatherings.”
Elvis has sung some iconic Christmas tunes, so it makes sense that his estate at Graceland would go all out during the holidays. It lights up the driveway with Christmas trees and blue lights (possibly in honor of “Blue Christmas”), sets up a life-sized nativity scene and sets out some of the Presley family’s many Christmas artifacts.
In a state as obsessed with craft beer as Oregon, it makes sense that one of its traditions would be a Holiday Ale Festival, bringing together more than 50 beers for several days of drinking and merrymaking.
Each year, the city of Reno, Nevada, invites architects of sweets to take part in an annual gingerbread house competition, submitting houses made of edible material, 75 percent of which is gingerbread (though battery-powered lights are acceptable).
It probably shouldn’t be a surprise that an outdoorsy place like Montana would embrace the cold weather of the season as Christmas approaches. Hence it plays host to the annual Bozeman Ice Festival, where visitors can take part in ice climbs, watch films about climbing, and celebrate the holidays in similarly active ways.
Drinking milk at Christmas is not just for Santa Claus. In the city of Wilmington, Delaware, the local population with Swedish descent celebrate their heritage by attending Holy Trinity (Old Swedes) Church, sampling Swedish ginger cookies, and sipping milk (the official state beverage). It usually includes a holiday pageant, with kids dressed in cone hats, the impish “tomtar,” and other odd characters.
Visitors to Atlanta can check out Christmas trees—and Christmas vines and Christmas plants and Christmas, well, everything—at the Atlanta Botanical Garden’s annual “Garden Lights, Holiday Nights.” The garden’s vegetation is illuminated with colorful Christmas lights, and plenty of other attractions are on offer, including stunning sculptures and the effervescent Skylights Lounge.
Dickens at Ford’s
Though it may be best known as the theater where President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, the historic Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C., attracts crowds during the holidays for a very different reason: It’s annual performance of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. A Christmas classic for more than a century and a half, this play is especially memorable when performed in a theater that is almost as old as Dickens’ story itself. And for more from the annals of our country’s past, here are The 40 Most Enduring Myths in American History.
Sandi The Christmas Tree
Snow and frightful weather might be conditions we traditionally associate with the holidays, but in warmer parts of the country with less traditionally “Christmasy” weather, less traditional holiday icons are required. That’s the case of West Palm Beach, which for years has welcomed to its waterfront the 35-foot-tall, 700-ton sand sculpture of an evergreen known as Sandi. It features music and light shows nightly and the backdrop for many beachgoer selfies by day. And for more amazing celebratory Christmas centerpieces, check out The Best Christmas Tree in Every State.
Speaking of massive Christmas trees made of unusual materials, since 1957, the people of Chandler, Arizona, have built a massive Christmas tree in the center of town, made of the area’s famed tumbleweeds. Encased in a chicken wire frame, coated in white (a flame retardant substance to keep this dry vegetation from going up in flames) and illuminated with colorful lights, the tree incorporates an estimated 1,000 dead Russian thistle bushes.
Just because it’s Christmas time doesn’t mean you can’t find a good luau in Hawaii. Christmas luaus, complete with carols, roast pig and “Mele Kalikimaka” on ukulele are a popular tradition here. And if you want to see which corner of the country is the most festive, check out This Is the U.S. State with the Most Christmas Spirit.
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