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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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Christmas Eve TraditionsRawpixel.com/Shutterstock

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 christmas eve traditionsbbernard/Shutterstock

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.

Baked gingerbread christmas tree on wooden background. Close-upLotus_studio/Shutterstock

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.

Christmas. Couple. Home. Togetherness. Man and woman are drinking champagne, hugging and laughing near the Christmas treeJet Cat Studio/Shutterstock

Practice hygge

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.

Christmas Eve traditions take the same photo every yearCourtesy Mackenzie Williams

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 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.

7 fish italian christmas dinnerBrent Hofacker/Shutterstock

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.

buche de noel christmas cakemargouillat photo/Shutterstock

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.

nursing home during christmasHalfpoint/Shutterstock

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.

christmas eve open house party tradition

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.

oplatek polish wafer christmas traditionKamil Macniak

Share oplatek

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.

christmas eve slumber party traditionCourtesy Mackenzie Williams

Have a Christmas slumber party

If the kids never want to go to bed on Christmas Eve, consider starting a tradition of a Christmas Eve slumber party. After watching a Christmas movie, siblings, along with any visiting cousins or friends, can gather their sleeping bags and sleep in one bedroom, a 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. Plus, a slumber party can also help conserve sleeping spots if relatives are staying over and you’re short on space. The kiddos may not actually go to sleep, but at least they’ll be in bed! (Just be extra careful if you’re playing Santa!) Parents can also get in on the fun with a family sleepover in their bedroom. You can’t go wrong with one of these top 15 Christmas movies for kids.

multicultural men presenting christmas gifts to friends while celebrating gifts togetherLightField Studios/Shutterstock

Enjoy a white elephant exchange

Many families open one present on Christmas Eve; others hosting larger groups might do a “secret Santa,” in which each guest draws from a hat the name of another to give one present to. The white elephant combines these traditions with an even more enjoyable twist: Each person brings a wrapped gift with no tag, often a gag gift. Once gathered, everyone draws a number. Going in order, each person selects a gift either from the pile, which is immediately unwrapped, or “steals” another person’s already chosen gift. Just be careful not to start a family feud, as competition for the most desired gifts can be fierce! If you need ideas for a present, check out the most hilarious gifts to give this year.

Christmas CrackerMonkey Business Images/Shutterstock

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 tradition of Christmas crackers. They’re not crackers that you eat, but rather 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: One child takes one end, one the other, and both pull. The cracker makes 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 the hats. The tradition may be making its way to the United States: You can find Christmas crackers at Target as well as Michaels.

Happy senior man and woman reading a book and smiling. Old couple spending time together reading a book sitting on couch at home.Jacob Lund/Shutterstock

Have a book exchange

Another twist on the “one gift on Christmas Eve” idea is Iceland’s Christmas tradition every book lover should steal. Each member of the family receives a new book on Christmas Eve, then 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, each reading their own tale. It’s a quiet, meditative, and mindful take on a holiday that often involves too much hustle and bustle. After a while, everyone can take a break for a mini-book club to discuss each other’s stories and whether or not they like it.

Red mugs with hot chocolate and marshmallows. Christmas conceptovchinnikova_ksenya/Shutterstock

Create a hot chocolate bar

Whether you’re hosting guests or it’s just your immediate family, everyone can 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. Add as many or as few options as you want, such as crushed candy canes, cookies, chocolate chips, whipped cream, even pretzels for a sweet-and-salty combo, and, of course, marshmallows. Include spice shakers of cinnamon and nutmeg; for adults, set up a few liquors as well, such as Irish cream or whiskey, for spiked cocoa. If you’re having a lot of people over, the hot chocolate can be pre-made 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. These hot chocolate hacks will take your brew to the next level.

takeout food containersRawpixel.com/Shutterstock

Order Chinese

Make like Ralphie Parker and his family in A Christmas Story, and skip the fancy dinner in favor of Chinese food. Although in the movie the Parkers went out on Christmas Day, Christmas Eve may be an even better time to stay in with your family and get food delivered instead of bothering with cooking. Interestingly, Chinese food on Christmas also follows the Jewish American tradition of eating the meal on a holiday when most other restaurants are closed. Today, even those who celebrate Christmas appear to have caught on: Chinese restaurants are notoriously busy at Christmas, and Google searches for “Chinese food” also peak at the holiday. After chowing down on lo mein or General Tso’s chicken, read your fortune cookie for the year ahead, and settle down with the family to watch A Christmas Story, one of the best Christmas movies of all time.

Tina Donvito
Tina Donvito is a regular contributor to RD.com’s Culture and Travel sections. She also writes about health and wellness, parenting, and pregnancy. Previously editor-in-chief of Twist magazine, Donvito has also written for Parade Magazine, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Parents Magazine online, among others. Here work was selected by author Elizabeth Gilbert to be included in the anthology Eat Pray Love Made Me Do It: Life Journeys Inspired by the Bestselling Memoir. She earned a BA in English and History from Rutgers University.