17 Ways Christmas Is Different Across the U.S.
These American Christmas traditions might just inspire you to try something new this year.
Decorating a cone-shaped fir. Watching Home Alone every night of December. 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 myriad ways to bring on the festive feelings. For a look at some of the more unique customs from coast to coast, we've rounded up 17 wacky American Christmas traditions that might just inspire you to try something new this year.
Camden, New Jersey: Visiting Scuba Santa
In Camden, New Jersey, inside the Adventure Aquarium's Ocean Realm tank, Santa opts to go underwater instead of flying. Every year, he goes for a dip in his red robe and hat. (Thankfully, he leaves his sack of toys outside of the water.) Kids can stop by Santa's tank to snap selfies, write letters, and check out the world's tallest underwater Christmas tree.
Sitka, Alaska: Celebrating on Jan. 7
Alaska has a robust Russian Orthodox community with their own Christmas traditions—most notably Selaviq. It isn't unlike most Christmas celebrations, but this one takes place on Jan. 7 rather than Dec. 25, due to Russians using the old Julian calendar.
Following services in places like Sitka, Alaska, churchgoers form a procession led by a wooden star to symbolize the journey of the Three Kings who followed the Star of Bethlehem to Christ's birthplace. The procession also involves some of the same things that typical U.S. Christmas celebrations do: food, gifts, and hymns.
DeForest, Wisconsin: Eating lutefisk
A Christmas ham or turkey might be familiar to most, but Americans of Scandinavian descent are just as likely to whip up a certain seafood dish for Christmas: codfish preserved in lye, also known as lutefisk. According to Smithsonian magazine, "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." Christ Lutheran Church in DeForest, Wisconsin, for example, hosts an annual lutefisk dinner.
Chimney Rock, North Carolina: Mountain climbing with Santa
We all know Santa Claus loves climbing down chimneys, so it makes sense that he'd be a fan of Chimney Rock. Every December, he makes his way from the North Pole to scale the 315-foot mountain in North Carolina before descending and joining Mrs. Claus and visitors for some live holiday music, hot cocoa, and cookies.
California coastline: Boat parades
Up and down the coast of California, people celebrate Christmas by decking their boats out in lights, inflatables, and other festive décor, all while blasting Christmas music. There's Santa Barbara's Parade of Lights, the Lighted Boat Parade of Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco, and the San Pedro Holiday Afloat Lighted Boat Parade, just to name a few Californian waterfront celebrations.
Crested Butte, Colorado: Skiing as Santa
The Crested Butte Mountain Resort in Crested Butte, Colorado, invites people every December to take part in the Santa Ski and Pub Crawl. You can snowboard, you can snow-blade, you can ski, and you can drink—just don't forget your Santa costume! And if you want to know how Santa's look came to be, check out This Is Why Santa Wears Red.
Kansas City, Missouri: Playing the tuba
Who needs jingle bells when you have a holly jolly tuba? That's the thinking of the Kansas City Symphony, which annually hosts TubaChristmas, a massive gathering of tuba and euphonium players of all generations and skill levels. In the past, this musical celebration has brought together as many as 500 players!
West Palm Beach, Florida: Building Sandi, the sand castle Christmas tree
In warmer parts of the country with less traditional Christmas weather, you have to get creative to get into the holiday spirit. And in West Palm Beach, residents have done just that year after year by building a 35-foot-tall, 700-ton sand sculpture of an evergreen known as Sandi. During the holiday season, music and light shows around the sculpture nightly help usher in the Christmas magic.
Chandler, Arizona: Taking in the tumbleweed tree
Speaking of massive Christmas trees made of unusual materials, since the 1950s, the people of Chandler, Arizona, have built a massive Christmas tree in the center of town out of the area's famed tumbleweeds. Encased in a chicken wire frame, coated in a flame-retardant substance, and illuminated with colorful lights, the tree incorporates an estimated 1,000 dead Russian thistle bushes, according to Atlas Obscura.
Santa Fe, New Mexico: Strolling down Farolito Walk
Every Christmas Eve, Santa Fe's Canyon Road becomes lined with hundreds of farolitos (small, sand-filled paper bags illuminated with votive candles). Known as the Canyon Road Farolito Walk, this festive (and free!) tradition is a fun way for residents to celebrate together.
Medora, North Dakota: Celebrating like cowboys
During Christmastime, Medora, North Dakota, embraces its cowboy roots with its annual Old Fashioned Cowboy Christmas. The festive gathering brings members of the community together for drinks, dancing, and celebrating—though people tend to wear 10-gallon hats rather than the typical Santa caps.
Southern Texas: Eating Christmas tamales
Given its significant Mexican population, it should come as no surprise that southern Texas has embraced tamales as a traditional Christmas dish. As NPR back in 2009, "tamales have been traditional Christmas Eve fare for centuries [in Texas] because they're portable, easy to store, and inexpensive to make for large gatherings."
Mississippi: Eating Christmas gumbo
Another dish that isn't usually thought of as typical Christmas fare is a big bowl of gumbo. But, as the Mississippi Tourism Office notes, "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 many a Christmas table in the South.
Great River Road, Louisiana: Having bonfires on the Mississippi River
Christmas bonfires are a beloved tradition along Louisiana's Great River Road between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. On Christmas Eve, locals make their way to the banks of the Mississippi River, pile up tinder and fuel, and create massive bonfires. It's said the fires help to light the way for Papa Noël (the French term for Santa Claus that's also used in this Cajun region).
Mobile, Alabama: Dressing like elves for Elfapalooza
Every Christmas, the residents of Mobile, Alabama, skip the Santa outfits and dress like his workers instead for Elfapalooza. Participants sing Christmas karaoke, watch the Christmas classic Elf, and sip hot chocolate, beer, wine, while aiming to beat the Guinness world record for "most Santa's elves in a single location" (which is currently held by Bangkok, Thailand).
Bozeman, Montana: Ice climbing
It probably isn't a surprise that an outdoorsy state like Montana would embrace the cold weather of the season as Christmas approaches. And the town of Bozeman specifically plays host to the annual Bozeman Ice Festival, during which visitors take part in ice climbs, watch films about climbing, and celebrate the holidays in all kinds of active ways.
Nationwide: Counting birds
No, the "Christmas Bird Count" doesn't have anything to do with partridges in pear trees. It's a long-running event (2019 marks its 120th year) hosted by the Audubon Society during which participants around the country conduct a census of the birds they see within a 15-mile radius and report 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 it's become a pretty popular Christmas tradition in America: Nearly 80,000 people joined in in 2018!