The Most Iconic Christmas Traditions in Every State
From fish feasts to rock-climbing Santas, you'll be amazed at all the wonderful ways Americans celebrate the season.
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Christmas in the U.S.A.
From beachside celebrations to snow-covered towns, these are the iconic holiday celebrations you won’t want to miss across the United States. Create a tradition of your own with a movie night, a big bowl of popcorn, and one of these 40 best Christmas movies.
Fun fact: Alabama was the first state to recognize Christmas as an official holiday, so it only makes sense that these Southerners go all out with their traditions. For instance, every year the Alabama Theatre in Birmingham hosts a Classic Christmas movie marathon and an old-fashioned Wurlitzer sing-along. Food traditions are just as important, and in Alabama, those include pecan pie and divinity from Priester’s Pecans gourmet candy store in Fort Deposit. Do you know how Alabama (and every other state) got its name?
For the ultimate Christmas tradition, it doesn’t get any better than a visit to the actual North Pole in (where else?) North Pole City. You can visit Santa Claus’s house, buy gifts for everyone on your list, and send Christmas letters specially postmarked from the North Pole. Alaskans can warm up at the Chena Hot Springs while watching the aurora borealis (nature’s festive light display) or tour the Ice Museum. Santa would be proud: North Pole is the nicest place in the state.
Las Noches De Las Luminarias (the nights of lights) at the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix prove you don’t need snow to get into the Christmas spirit. The pathways lined with specially designed luminaria bags, twinkling lights, and live music make it a yearly tradition for many Arizonans. Another tradition takes advantage of their awe-inspiring natural landscape with a ride on the Polar Express Grand Canyon train in Williams.
Arkansians celebrate the season in the beauty of the Ozark mountains with the Lights of the Ozarks in Fayetteville. There’s a parade and nightly activities along with the 400,000 lights strung around the main square. Families with kids flock to all the holiday activities at the Little Rock Zoo, including a Santa meet-and-greet and a special dinner.
In a state with as many people from as many different places as California, it makes sense that there are many iconic traditions, including the Christmas tree in Union Square in San Francisco, seeing the lights from the Pacific Coast Highway, and Candy Cane Lane in Los Angeles. But there are plenty of lesser-known traditions that are just as fun, including the holiday model train show in Mendocino. Hobbyists come from all over the country to display intricate and festive trains while kids can get a ride on the Skunk Train.
NORAD, the North American Aerospace Defense Command center, is located in Colorado Springs and is home to one of the country’s, and even the world’s, most iconic Christmas traditions: the NORAD Santa Tracker. Each year on Christmas Eve they use their state-of-the-art military equipment to track the jolly old elf’s progress around the world and post it online. Another magical Christmas moment for Coloradans is a wintry ride through the Rocky Mountains on the Georgetown Christmas Train, complete with hot chocolate and a visit from Santa.
Christmas season officially starts with the Holiday Light Fantasia in Hartford on Thanksgiving Day and Mystic’s Holiday Lighted Boat Parade the following Saturday, which are both popular traditions for people throughout the state. But if you’re looking for the picture-perfect Christmas tree, head to Easton, the “Christmas Tree Capital of Connecticut.” Locals swear by the Maple Row Tree Farm, where you can cut down your own perfect tree—they provide the saws, you bring the Christmas cheer. Bring along the hot cocoa and blankets and enjoy your own holiday tailgate party in the parking lot. Find out the 12 secrets your Christmas tree wishes you knew.
As the site of some of the first cities established in America, many of Delaware’s traditions center around historic Christmas celebrations. The Yuletide Tour at Winterthur lets people experience what Christmas was like in the 1800s. Similarly, people flock to Odessa every December to see the decked-out Colonial-era homes and take a self-guided tour that shares the history of the town. A favorite is the Historic Odessa’s annual Holiday Celebration, where scenes from classic literature are recreated. Get a glimpse at these vintage photos of what Christmas used to look like.
How else would you expect people to celebrate the holidays in Florida other than on the water? A big Christmas tradition for many Floridians is participating in one of the many intracoastal boat parades. Lavishly decorated boats float by while people enjoy music and seasonal treats. Local favorites include the parade in Boca Raton and the one in Palm Beach. Find out 35 of the best small towns for Christmas lights.
Fantasy In Lights, at the Callaway Gardens in Pine Mountain, is a favorite tradition of many Georgians and with good reason: The light show is downright other-worldly, transporting you to a magical forest where you could believe the elves and Mrs. Claus are real. Another must-see for many people is the Atlanta Ballet’s performance of The Nutcracker. Find out the most festive Christmas town in every state.
Christmas in Hawaii may look a lot different, but locals love many of the same traditions—with their own tropical twist, of course. Instead of the usual “Merry Christmas,” the traditional island greeting is “Mele Kalikimaka,” and every schoolchild learns the famous song. Instead of a giant turkey or ham, Hawaiians often celebrate with a Kalua pig cooked in an underground oven called an imu. For people who don’t feel like making their own, Helena’s Hawaiian Food in Honolulu gets rave reviews from locals. Find out some more things people eat for Christmas dinner all around the world.
When you think traditional Christmas music, the tuba and the euphonium probably aren’t the first instruments that come to mind—unless you live in Idaho! Every year Boise hosts TUBAChristmas, a concert dedicated to holiday classics played on brass instruments. Another tradition loved by families is the Winter Carnival in McCall, featuring ice sculptures, snowmobile races, and a parade.
Every Christmas morning, the historic Bishop Hill Cathedral, built in 1848, holds a traditional Swedish “Julotta,” a non-denominational service. Another favorite tradition, especially for families with children, is the Holiday Lights Parade and Festival on Chicago’s iconic Magnificent Mile. Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse kick it off by lighting one million lights along Michigan Avenue and it culminates with a fireworks display. Learn more about the history behind 10 Christmas traditions.
Holidays on the Prairie, in Fishers, is a tradition unique to Indiana by showing what life—and Christmas—was like for the early settlers of that area. And since Indianapolis is home to the Indy 500, it makes sense that another favorite tradition of locals is to see the Lights at the Brickyard at the famous motor speedway. In addition to seeing the two miles of lights, eating S’mores, and a visit from Santa, you can also drive your car around the speedway.
What’s more fun that getting to open a bunch of gifts on Christmas? Getting an extra day of presents! Many Iowans love the tradition of allowing children to open a gift from under the tree on Christmas Eve, as a way to build excitement (and possibly distract the kids so that parents can finish all the last-minute details). Iowans also love to look at festive displays, but instead of walking or driving a car, they do it on their bikes. The Holiday Lights Bike Ride—with locals gearing up in Waukee and Ankeny—is a popular tradition even in the cold. There’s even a fat tire holiday bike ride in Osage. Another favorite is the synchronized lights and music display and live nativity at the Fellowship Community Church in Norwalk.
You’ve heard of St. Nick and Santa Claus, but have you heard of the Kansas Christmas Fairy Princess? In 1935, Kline’s department store invited children to share their wishes with a beautiful princess, a tradition that has been carried on every year since. In addition, every year at Christmastime Kansas City decks out their streetcars with lights and music, offering free rides up and down the Grand Boulevard—perfect for sightseeing or shopping.
For a twist on the usual light shows, head out to the Christmas Lights Under Louisville, the only underground holiday light show in the world. You can take a tram ride through the mega cavern or drive your own car and enjoy the millions of festive lights and decorations. For an interesting twist, some Kentuckians still follow a tradition left over from pioneer days: going outside and firing off their guns on Christmas morning. It’s said to keep evil spirits away. (As always, be sure to follow firearm safety procedures.) You should also be aware of these holiday decorating mistakes that can put you and your family in danger.
Louisianans like to honor their French and Creole roots with their holiday traditions. Children are treated to a reading of the Cajun Night Before Christmas. Then people from all over the state come to the Natchitoches Festival of Lights, a 93-year-old tradition involving lights, fireworks, food, and fun. On Christmas Eve, New Orleanians host a reveillon dinner. Traditionally it starts at 2 a.m. (after Christmas Eve mass ends) and features French dishes, but these days people attend at any time of day between Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Just outside of Baltimore, The Festival of Trees is billed as the East Coast’s largest holiday extravaganza—and with a full-size carousel, Santaland, and more than 800 decorated trees, it certainly lives up to it. It’s become a tradition for many families, not just to celebrate the season but also because proceeds go to help sick children at Kennedy Krieger Institute.
On Cape Cod every year, each town hosts a holiday stroll, with a tree lighting and special events with stores, finished up with a visit from Santa…who traditionally arrives on a fishing boat or fire engine! And you can’t forget the iconic Boston Pops Christmas show put on every year by the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Afterward, locals like to get a drink at The Oak Room.
Thanks to the lingering influence of the state’s Dutch settlers, many Michigan children will get a visit from “Sinterklaas” on December 5th. But while the kids are celebrating with treats and small gifts, the adults head to a Finnish sauna. Fun fact: More Finnish people live in the northwest part of Michigan than anywhere else in the world, outside of Finland. It’s tradition to go to the Second Street Sauna in Marquette, which has been making Michiganites sweat since the early 1920s. Discover the 15 Christmas traditions from around the world you’ll want to make your own.
Bentleyville—America’s largest free walk-through holiday light display—only exists in Duluth for one month out of the year, to celebrate Christmas. Natives say it’s worth braving the freezing weather for. People in the Twin Cities often flock to the Mall of America, one of the biggest shopping malls in the world, to celebrate the season by walking through the life-size gingerbread house, watching a live show, riding a roller coaster in the indoor theme park, or warming up in the indoor waterpark.
Fireworks are a vital part of many Christmas celebrations in Mississippi, a tradition that dates back to the pre-American days when the state was under French rule. One of the favorite ways to watch the fireworks display is over the Mississippi River. Afterward, revelers may return home to a traditional Mississippi holiday feast of shrimp and grits, gumbo, and lime sherbet punch.
Christmas cookies are a tradition in every state but Missourians don’t like to limit themselves to one or two classics. Instead, every year the town of Kimmswick hosts a Christmas Cookie Walk where people can taste a variety of different baked treats and buy a special cookbook at the end. In St. Charles they celebrate for an entire month with their annual Christmas Traditions Festival, which focuses on the town’s 250-year history. Check out the best Christmas cookie recipe from every state!
Who needs those sad parking lot trees? In Montana, many people choose to simply buy a $5 permit from the forest service and head into the backcountry to cut down their own tree. In Bozeman, people show off their extreme wilderness skills at the Bozeman Ice Climbing Festival. Folks who prefer to stay inside love the annual Messiah sing-a-long with the Glacier Symphony and Chorale.
Every year, Nebraskans can catch Santa and his elves scuba diving at the Omaha Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium. Christmas at Union Station is also a favorite tradition, thanks to the art deco–style decorations, giant tree, and carolers. Then there’s the Christmas celebration at the Cody’s, the ranch of the iconic (and infamous) Buffalo Bill in North Platte.
Las Vegas is known for its shows and Christmas is no exception; a favorite local tradition is to see The Nutcracker performed at The Smith Center. Another must is a visit to Ethel M.’s chocolate factory in Henderson to see the lighted cactus garden, take a chocolate tasting tour, and stock up on holiday chocolates. The Las Vegas strip may seem like a strange Christmas destination, but for many families, it’s tradition to see the light shows, ride the rides, and hit up a Christmas buffet at a casino.
The post office in Bethlehem is a popular place come Christmastime, as people love to take their traditional holiday cards to the next level by having them postmarked with a special stamp in a place that shares the name of Jesus’ birthplace. Vintage Christmas in Portsmouth is another iconic tradition, including a stroll, a tree-lighting ceremony, and an elaborate gingerbread house contest. Want to try your hand at the traditional Christmas activity? Use our step-by-step guide to making a gingerbread house.
Little Egg Harbor’s Christmas at Storybook Land is a beloved tradition for New Jersey families due to the beautiful Santa’s Village and nostalgic rides. On the other end, Tropicana in Atlantic City turns into a winter wonderland, with a ceiling that makes it look like it’s snowing indoors, along with light shows and performances.
For most people, “red or green?” is a silly holiday question, but for people in New Mexico, it’s very high-stakes. Why? Because they’re talking about their world-famous chiles, which you are just as likely to find next to the Christmas turkey as cranberry sauce (not to mention hanging like garlands). Another subtle switch is instead of hanging stockings, many families hang a piñata on Christmas Eve, and instead of stringing lights they line pathways with luminarias. Native American traditions are blended with the Christian ones on the New Mexican Pueblos. Here’s how red and green became the “official” colors of Christmas.
The tree lighting at Rockefeller Center may be THE most iconic Christmas tradition in the entire country. Everyone knows about the lights, the celebrity singers, the ice skating rink, and the dancing Rockettes—in fact, New York City was named one of the best cities to experience Christmas, in the world. But there are a lot more holiday traditions that New Yorkers love. The Christmas market at Bryant Park and the themed windows along Fifth Avenue are classics. And for the less traditional, well, there’s always the beer keg tree upstate in Rochester.
Asheville is the home of the yearly National Gingerbread House Competition, and these confectionary sculptures are mind-blowing for their creativity and attention to detail. After the competition is over, the houses stay on display throughout the holiday season, attracting thousands of visitors. While you’re there you can see Santa Claus climb 1,096 feet up the ultimate “chimney”: Chimney Rock.
Starting in November, the town of Garrison transforms itself into a historic English hamlet straight out of a novel for the annual Dickens Festival. Also, since the state shares a border with Canada, many North Dakotans get a special visit from the Canadian Pacific Holiday Train. The train brings live performers and lights while collecting donations for food banks across North America. Do you know these 50 facts about the 50 states in America?
It’s only fitting that the number one favorite Christmas cookie of The Buckeye State are “buckeyes”—peanut butter ball cookies dipped in chocolate. You’re sure to find them on the plates of goodies traditionally handed out to friends and neighbors. The Christmas Ranch in Morrow is also a favorite tradition, offering sleigh rides, a light show, Santa visits, and bonfires.
Many Oklahomans like to celebrate the holidays with a blast from the past (literally) with the Fort Reno Christmas Guns event. There are traditional stories and hot chocolate before the Fort fires its guns and cannons, a nod to the old superstition that firing weapons will dispel evil spirits in preparation for the upcoming holiday. Another favorite tradition is to take a spin on one of the many outdoor ice skating rinks that pop up for the season, including the one at Winterfest in Tulsa.
Where else but Portland would you find Hipster Santa? With his tattoos, chunky glasses, and voluminous beard, he is hipsterism at its finest, attracting people from all over the state (we’re sure some are only doing it ironically). Other local favorites include The Great Figgy Pudding Caroling Competition, the live Singing Christmas Tree, and watching the Christmas Ships on the Willamette. By the way, learn what figgy pudding is and why we sing about it in the first place.
The Macy’s Christmas Light Show is a must-do for many people, not just from Philadelphia, but even from surrounding states. Why? It’s an animated light show four stories high, along with an organ concert. Pennsylvanians also sing the praises of the Longwood Gardens, in Kennett Square, which recreate the traditional French gardens at Versailles, complete with ornate Christmas trees outside and a decorated grand ballroom inside.
The Big Blue Bug is an iconic landmark of Providence and he is not forgotten during the holidays. Every year, people go to see him gussied up in lights, a red nose, and antlers. Rhode Island can also lay claim to the real Polar Express train, as Chris Van Allsburg wrote the famous book that’s become a tradition for millions of children while living in Providence. Perhaps the most iconic Christmas train in the world, the Polar Express offers rides all season at the Blackstone Valley Train Depot. It’s no surprise that it was named one of the most magical Christmas train rides in the country.
Beaches aren’t usually the first thing people think of when they hear Christmas, but in South Carolina, it’s a time-honored tradition to take at least one stroll during the holidays on one of the famous beaches. The mild weather has inspired another favorite SC holiday tradition: playing golf. In fact, many golf courses in Myrtle Beach offer free play on Christmas Day. Here are some more of our favorite non-Christmas-y things to do on Christmas Day.
Snow is known as “the white gold of the Black Hills,” and many folks here make a tradition of skiing or snowboarding over the holidays, with resorts offering special deals. The wilderness is the home of another tradition—hunting for a pheasant for the Christmas table. Nothing says happy holidays like eating the state bird! Here are some ski resorts we think you need to visit in 2020.
For tourists in Memphis, Christmas at Graceland is a must-see, especially since you can celebrate Christmas along with Elvis’s birthday (January 8th). But if you have an extra evening in Memphis, a local tradition is to skate at the “ice” rink at Starry Nights in Shelby Farms Park. Tennesseans on the other side of the state honor the other big singer with a visit to Dolly Parton’s Dollywood in Knoxville for a real Smoky Mountain Christmas celebration. Dollywood is one of the 14 theme parks that go all out for the holidays.
Unlike many northern states, snow and ice isn’t the norm in Texas, so it makes sense that one of the state’s most beloved holiday traditions centers around bringing the cold. ICE! is an indoor winter wonderland in the Gaylord Texan Resort in Grapevine that boasts over two million pounds of colorful, hand-carved ice sculptures, along with a life-size gingerbread house and other goodies—all kept at a frigid nine degrees Fahrenheit. Then take a visit to Old Town Helotes, one of the best-kept secret cities in the United States.
Christmas in Utah isn’t complete without the traditional visit to the iconic Temple Square in Salt Lake City. The historic building and grounds are decorated with millions of lights and a live nativity, and have different festive activities like sing-alongs and concerts—including from the famed Mormon Tabernacle Choir—scheduled throughout the season. Another fun option is to take a Polar Express ride on the Heber Creeper in Cedar City.
In Manchester, the people of Vermont celebrate a more rustic tradition with the Holiday Tractor Parade. Farm equipment of all kinds is decorated for the occasion and paraded down the main street, followed by a visit from Santa and treats for the kids. While you’re in town, stop by the Kimpton Taconic, which hosts a daily après-ski afternoon (from now until January 31) by its fire pit. You can snuggle under a blankie and sip a spiked hot chocolate while the kids toast S’mores. A fun tradition in Middlebury is the annual game of Christmas “I Spy” where artisans hide different items—this year it’s baby bear ornaments—in store windows and the first person to find all ten wins local gift cards. Find out the best winter destination in every state.
The traditional Santa suit gets a run for its money in Virginia Beach’s Surf-n-Santa five-mile race, the largest Santa run in the United States—in 2016 it officially broke the Guinness World Record. And then there’s the camel. In 1777, George Washington brought a camel to Mount Vernon. So now having a camel, currently one named Aladdin, has become a state tradition. Apparently he’s quite photogenic and loves to be in selfies.
Leavenworth, a quaint Bavarian village, is beautiful year round, but it’s straight out of a Victorian postcard come Christmastime, as the city is decked out in thousands of twinkling lights. Locals enjoy traditional Bavarian pastries while sledding, listening to live music, or simply walking the picturesque Main Street. Dogs (and their loving owners) also get in on the holiday fun with the annual Pioneer Square Howlidays in Seattle. Pooches arrive in their best Christmas costumes and everyone celebrates with music, games, and plenty of cookies—including those of the doggie variety. Leavenworth is one of the most European cities in America.
Italians largely settled Marion County, and their holiday traditions still live on there, particularly in the Feast of The Seven Fishes Festival. This festival combines traditions from Catholicism and Sicily, and every year West Virginians come together to eat a wide variety of seafood dishes. Fort Randolph was established in 1776 (yeah, that year) as the westernmost outpost of the 13 colonies, and today people still honor the vital role the fort played in the Revolution by celebrating a traditional frontier Christmas.
Starting in 1933, every year the Wisconsin Energy utility company released a new WE Christmas Cookie Book, a tradition that continues today. The cookbook provides recipes and preserves traditional cookies from the state’s Scandinavian settlers. In Milwaukee, people love to both watch and participate in the annual Santa Cycle Rampage. Santas of all kinds ride their bikes down North (Pole?) Avenue, ending at another famous Milwaukee tradition: a brewery. Don’t miss these 16 old-fashioned Christmas towns you should totally visit.
So far we’ve had cycling, running, ice climbing, and rock climbing Santas, but in Wyoming you’ll find the big red guy hitting the slopes in the annual Ski with Santa at Jackson Hole. For a more traditional “cowboy state” holiday celebration, locals head to Sheridan, where the little town is transformed each year into a Christmas wonderland for their holiday stroll. There are lights, shopping, sled rides, and even a fireworks show. Next, find out the absolute best gift to give from every state.