15 Best Christmas Eve Traditions to Start This Year
Liven up this merry holiday with new customs and fun twists on old favorites.
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Where do Christmas Eve traditions come from?
Whether it’s hanging up stockings or leaving cookies for Santa, our traditions have evolved from various cultures and ancient customs. Once our ancestors came to America, those traditions changed even further, and we also developed new ones. Every family has its own rituals on Christmas Eve, but if you’re looking to start some new traditions—maybe in order to enjoy the holidays as a blended family, or to spice things up, literally—here are some unique ideas we gathered. Start by learning the history of your favorite Christmas traditions.
Hang a pickle ornament
If you’ve ever noticed all the pickle ornaments at holiday shops, here’s why. 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 actually might be a German-American tradition that began with pickle-loving Germans in the Midwest: According to a 2016 YouGov poll, over 90 percent of Germans in Germany have never heard of it. In any case, it’s a fun addition to Christmas Eve celebrations, and a creative way to decorate your tree. You can look for your pickle wherever Christmas ornaments are sold, including Hallmark and Target.
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 the layers of star-shaped cookies—starting out with a big one on the bottom, progressing to the smallest at the top—then after baking, stacking them and decorating the “tree.” The cookie tree can then be placed as a table centerpiece for your Christmas Day feast—if you can stop your crew from digging in the night before. You can find a cookie-cutter set at many stores including Walmart and Kohl’s. Follow these Christmas cookie hacks for the tastiest batch ever.
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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. What’s with the hype over hygge? 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 comfy blankets, light some candles, and drink hot chocolate. But as hygge is above all a feeling, practicing the philosophy most importantly means relaxing, finding contentment, and living in the moment with your family or friends.
Take the same picture every year
Courtesy Mackenzie Williams
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 non-professional photo on Christmas Eve can leave you with a personal and permanent record of how your family (or friends) has changed over the years. Each year, 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 have grown, which can make a lovely collage to hang on the wall—and it’s even more special that you took the photos yourself.
Have a feast of seven fishes
If you always host a family get-together on Christmas Eve, take a cue from 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, fried smelts) are considered traditional, the fishes aren’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. This is one of the Christmas traditions from around the world you’ll want to steal.
Make a Buche de Noel
For Christmas dessert, get inspired by the French with this whimsical cake that looks like a Yule log, enjoyable for the whole family to create on Christmas Eve. After baking the spongy cake, it gets covered in a buttercream concoction. Then, here’s 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 frost with chocolate frosting; score with a fork to look like bark. Then, the quirky cake (or gateaux in French) can be decorated with meringue or marzipan mushrooms, holly, and other woodland treats. Although it can be complicated, look for an easy recipe to simplify things and focus on the fun. The kids will look forward to it every year.
Visit a nursing home
For kids, Christmas can be all about getting stuff, so each Christmas Eve, teach the message that a present doesn’t even need to be a material object: Your time and company are all that’s needed. During Christmas Eve day, start a tradition of gathering family and friends to visit a nursing home or senior care facility, perhaps one where a family member lives. Arrange with the activities director ahead of time to have the residents gathered, or go room-to-room. Then have the kids sing carols, recite a Christmas poem or story, or simply visit with them. 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. Be sure to prepare young children for appropriate behavior (no shouting or running) beforehand. Consider putting one of these beautiful holiday gifts that give back under the tree.
Host an open house
Another way to connect with people on Christmas Eve day is to host a yearly “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; it can also prevent your house from becoming overcrowded as can happen during a traditional party. The flexibility of an open house also makes it easier for friends to find time to come, which may mean you’ll see more of them. Have room-temperature treats set out, along with 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 grownups chat. These tips will help keep your holiday party on budget.
This is a great way to embrace Polish or Eastern European heritage, although everyone can appreciate the message behind it. 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. 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 each other. This is one of the old-fashioned Christmas traditions we should bring back.