Share on Facebook

A Trusted Friend in a Complicated World

30 Christmas Eve Traditions That Create Merry Memories

Liven up this merry holiday with new customs and fun twists on old favorites.

Every editorial product is independently selected, though we may be compensated or receive an affiliate commission if you buy something through our links. Ratings and prices are accurate and items are in stock as of time of publication.

family having fun making christmas cookiesAleksandarNakic/Getty Images

You’ll love these Christmas Eve traditions

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 Christmas activities to your holiday tradition before the big guy in red makes an appearance? We’ve gathered some unique ideas to help you add to your celebration, honor age-old Christmas symbols, and give your kids a memorable December 24.

This is just one of our editors’ favorite ways to bring joy home this holiday season. Learn more.

Christmas presents under Christmas Tree at homeChristina Reichl Photography/Getty Images

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 (perhaps Christmasy pajamas) or just pick from under the tree. Read on for more specific ways to make the “one gift on Christmas Eve” tradition your own.

father and son reading a story book during christmas timeLarry Williams/Getty Images

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 December 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.

Shop The Night Before Christmas

pickle christmas ornament hanging from christmas treepicture alliance/Getty Images

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.

Shop Pickle Ornament

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 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 table centerpiece for your Christmas Day feast—if you can stop your crew from digging in the night before. Check out these other great Christmas cookie recipes.

Shop Cookie Cutters

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. 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.

Edible Glitter full framevia walmart.com

Make Santa dust

Can you imagine if Santa missed your house? Devastation! Ensure that 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 Father Christmas’ eye—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.

Shop Edible Glitter

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 nonprofessional photo on Christmas Eve can leave you with a personal and permanent record of how your family has changed over the years. Each December 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 have grown, which can make a lovely collage to hang on the wall. Once you’ve got your photos, have these Christmas captions ready.

Video call with family on Christmas dayAnchiy/Getty Images

Zoom with the family

Christmas Day might be for celebrating with your close or immediate family (especially now that COVID-19 has altered and shrunk our holiday celebrations). 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 December 25.

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 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 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.

Chocolate yule log cakeetorres69/Getty Images

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.

Shop Baking Cocoa

nursing home during christmasHalfpoint/Shutterstock

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.

Little girl making homemade Christmas cardsMartenBG/Getty Images

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 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.

Shop Christmas Stickers

christmas eve open house party tradition

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; it can also 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. One caveat: This Christmas Eve tradition may be less than advisable during the COVID-19 pandemic. Here are more great Christmas party themes for a fun celebration.

Shop Slow Cooker

oplatek polish wafer christmas traditionKamil Macniak/Shutterstock

Share oplatek

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.

Shop Oplatek

Christmas lights on houses in the neighborhoodArtBoyMB/Getty Images

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. Get ready for oohs and aahs. Chances are, those light displays use lots of red and green. Find out what the Christmas colors actually mean.

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 Christmas Eve slumber party tradition. After watching a Christmas movie, siblings, along with any 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!)

Shop Indoor Tent

Catholic worshipers attending the New Year's Eve Mass in New York's Saint Patrick's CathedralCopyright Artem Vorobiev/Getty Images

Attend Mass

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.

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

Enjoy a white elephant exchange

Some families open a present on Christmas Eve; 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 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!

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 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. While you’re all cackling with laughter, check out these Christmas memes you’ll want to share.

Shop Christmas Crackers

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 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 too much hustle and bustle. After a while, everyone can take a break for a mini book club to discuss one another’s stories and whether or not they like them. Start with the best Christmas books.

Mother And Her Daughter Assembling Gingerbread Housefilmstudio/Getty Images

Make a gingerbread house

Here’s another beloved holiday tradition that’s perfect for drumming up the excitement before the big day. Play 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.

Shop Gingerbread House Kit

three sisters wearing matching christmas pajamasFly View Productions/Getty Images

Try on new Christmas jammies

There are lots of variations on “one present on Christmas Eve” traditions. Another 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. Leave those PJs on for your annual Christmas Eve family photo!

Shop Christmas Pajamas

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

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 liquors, such as 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.

Shop Hot Chocolate

takeout food containersRawpixel.com/Shutterstock

Order takeout

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 meal 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. Bonus points if you support a local small business!

kids playing reindeer antler ring toss game on christmas eveSolStock/Getty Images

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.

Shop Santa Claus Game

woman holding a christmas stockingMint Images/Getty Images

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 those 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.

Shop Christmas Stockings

plain white envelope on red backgroundPhotoevent/Getty Images

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 donated a bunch of kids’ sporting goods, anonymously, to the local church. Her husband was incredibly moved—and her readers were, too, popularizing the tradition of giving back 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’d like.

Shop Envelopes

Cheese plate on a table at home during christmas timeCarlina Teteris/Getty Images

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.

ugly christmas sweater decorated with ornamentsZoltan Tarlacz/Getty Images

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-pic-every-year” tradition too!

Shop Ugly Sweaters

grandfather and grandson following santa tracker on computer on christmas eveAnchiy/Getty Images

Follow Santa

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 whereabouts 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. (The possible downside of this is that it’s inadvisable to stay up close to 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.

Next, read up on how to celebrate the holidays, based on your zodiac sign.

Sources:

  • The 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?”

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.
Meghan Jones
Meghan Jones is a word nerd who has been writing for RD.com since 2017. You can find her byline on pieces about grammar, fun facts, the meanings of various head-scratching words and phrases, and more. Meghan graduated from Marist College with a Bachelor of Arts in English in 2017; her creative nonfiction piece “Anticipation” was published in the Spring 2017 issue of Angles literary magazine.