15 Old-Fashioned Christmas Traditions to Bring Back
You might remember these pastimes from your childhood, or maybe you've only seen them in movies. Either way, they're sure to make your holiday season even more festive.
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How do Christmas traditions evolve?
Although we think of Christmas traditions as “the way things have always been,” in reality the activities we do around the holiday have always changed over time. Believe it or not, even Christmas trees didn’t appear in most homes until the late 19th century. Plus, we tend to look back on the past nostalgically with rose-colored glasses. What we “remember” as the quintessential Christmas might even be something we’ve only heard about but haven’t actually experienced ourselves. So, to truly partake in the glories of seasons past, try these classic, but currently little-practiced, old-fashioned Christmas traditions. Then check out these 15 Christmas traditions from around the world that you’ll want to steal.
How many times have you actually seen carolers going door-to-door in real life, not in the movies? Most likely, not often—if ever. Gather family or friends, get bundled up, and surprise your neighbors while belting out classic tunes in the streets. It may be cold, but you’ll be warmed by the spirit of togetherness you create. Carols, which started as folk songs, used to be sung for just this purpose. Plus, caroling is a good excuse to have hot chocolate when you return. But if you really don’t want to venture outside (or don’t have much faith in your singing ability), simply have a family singalong at home. Here’s the surprising history behind your favorite Christmas carols.
Decorate gingerbread houses
Some families still enjoy this old custom, but if yours doesn’t, make it one of the Christmas traditions to start this year. The construction of the house can be left up to a grown-up to prepare ahead of time: This involves making and cutting out the gingerbread dough into house shapes and baking the pieces, then “gluing” them together with frosting. Because this can be time-consuming and frustrating for kids, just do the fun part with them instead. Gather lots of different types of candy and treats, give each kid a bowl of frosting, and let them go to town creating their own unique masterpieces—it’s OK if it’s not picture-perfect.
Everyone knows the famous lyrics from “The Christmas Song” by Mel Tormé: “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire…” But does anyone actually do this? You might not want to attempt the open fire option (to do that, you’ll need to put the pan literally over a fire), but instead, you can actually roast chestnuts easily in the oven. These large nuts just have to be scored with an “X” so they don’t explode, and then when they come out, you can peel the skin from the shell while they’re still warm. The chestnuts end up with a sweet flavor and soft consistency—no additional seasonings necessary. Here are another 20 great Christmas songs to play while you roast those chestnuts.
Make garlands of popcorn and cranberries, or paper rings
Although it may seem strange to decorate Christmas trees with food, many of us have childhood memories of stringing a pattern of popcorn and cranberries with a needle and thread—and snacking on the treats while trying not to poke ourselves. This is a distinctively American tradition. After all, popcorn and cranberries are native to our continent. So, forget the breakable glass and ceramic ornaments, and try this old-time idea with your own kids. If they’re too young to handle a needle, another type of homemade garland can be made with brightly colored construction paper taped into a chain of rings. Either way, it’s a personal touch for your tree—even if it doesn’t last until next year. You can also try these fancier DIY Christmas ornaments you’ll be proud to hang on your tree.
Bake salt dough ornaments
For ornaments that will last for years (or generations) to come, try concocting your own salt dough, a vintage technique for making Christmas keepsakes. It’s one of 20 easy Christmas ornament crafts for kids to make. The dough (just salt, flour, and water) its technically edible, but you won’t want to eat it. Instead, this non-toxic homemade material is perfect for sculpting into shapes or pressing tiny handprints into. Poke a hole at the top for the string to hang on the tree, then bake the ornament in the oven to solidify. When they’ve cooled, your kids can paint or decorate their creations however they like, even adding glitter for a sparkling, festive touch.
Get an advent calendar
Although this countdown to Christmas began in the Christian religious tradition, advent (or the four weeks leading up to the holiday) can be broadly celebrated with fun-to-open advent calendars. The traditional versions for children had little doors for each day of December until Christmas that, when opened, revealed a chocolate inside. But you can modernize the tradition with any type of treat or small gift, and any type of container: Try a stocking advent calendar, with each of 24 socks holding a small toy, candy, or money—or the socks themselves could be the gift. Adults can even get in on the advent action with an advent “calendar” of craft beers or other adult beverages. (You can use a divided box from the liquor store to put them in.) Try these simple DIY advent calendars to count down to Christmas.
Host a cookie exchange
Many families still follow the tradition of baking Christmas cookies, but to get your family and friends involved, and keep the types of cookies you personally need to make to a minimum, host an old-fashioned cookie exchange. Each person brings one type of cookie (even better if they’re homemade) to give to the group. The result? Everyone goes home with a full plate of cookies! It’s also a great excuse to get together, not to mention full of the spirit of gift-giving. Just arrange ahead of time who’s bringing what so not everyone makes the same kind of cookie.
Cut down your own Christmas tree
Sure, it’s easier to go to a Christmas-tree lot or garden store for a fresh tree—or (gasp!) buy a fake one. But if you’re looking to make decking your halls a little more of a special tradition with your family, head to a local Christmas tree farm to cut down your own as people did in the “olden days.” Many farms provide saws, and it only takes a few minutes to down a six- to eight-foot tree. Some farms even give tractor rides to help you bring your tree back (or you can also bring your own wagon, or carry it); they may also offer a fire to relax by and have hot cocoa. If you’re concerned about sustainability, ask your local farmer, but felled trees are generally replaced with more for future seasons; plus, they provide environmental benefits while they’re growing. And once you have your tree home, here’s how to keep it fresh for as long as possible.
Add colored lights to your tree
Once you’ve got your tree home, dress it up with this blast-from-the-past decoration. Although white lights are more popular these days, multicolored lights with big bulbs remind many of us of our childhood in front of a gloriously gaudy tree. We were also going to recommend tinsel as another throw-back tree adornment, but it’s not environmentally friendly (unless you painstakingly remove and reuse it each year) and it can be dangerous if pets eat it. If you really like the look of the tinsel, though, try sustainable raffia, a plant-based material, as a natural (if non-traditional) alternative.
Set up a toy train around your tree
Another way to make your tree look like it’s right out of the past is to encircle it with a toy train track. First made in the late 1800s by toy train company Lionel, electric trains soon became a popular Christmas gift, and the tracks were a natural fit around the base of the family tree. Young children today still love trains, so surprise them on Christmas morning with a working train gliding through the wrapped presents under the tree. To get your little ones excited about their upcoming present, take them on one of the most magical Christmas train rides in America. Or, you can use your model train as part of your regular holiday decorations and keep it moving around and around all season long.
“Wassail” isn’t just a verb, as in, “Here we come a-wassailing among the leaves so green.” It’s also an actual drink consumed when partaking in the action of wassailing, which traditionally meant toasting, visiting friends’ houses, and generally making merry. But wassail itself is something you can make: a hot, spiced cider that may or may not contain alcohol. It can also be made in a slow cooker to keep warm during parties and get-togethers. If you’re not a cider fan but still want to include a traditional warm beverage, consider mulled wine, which is heated red wine with fruit and spices mixed in. Or, try these other holiday drinks recipes.
Drink some eggnog
If you prefer your drinks chilled, try eggnog, which everyone has heard of but many people haven’t actually tried. It’s thick, rich, sweet, and creamy, and could replace your Christmas dessert! But be warned: The homemade, traditional version usually contains raw eggs, which could be a concern for salmonella poisoning. Heating the eggs in water on a low temperature (140 degrees Fahrenheit) for a few minutes before you use them should make them safe; store-bought eggnog is already pasteurized, so no worries there. Garnish mugs of eggnog with nutmeg and a cinnamon stick for an old-fashioned indulgence. Grown-ups can also add rum, bourbon, Irish cream, or a liquor of their choice. Another way to use eggnog? In a delicious French toast, paired with these other Christmas brunch recipes your guests will love.
Cook a Christmas goose
Most Americans today have turkey on Christmas—even though they just had one on Thanksgiving. But if you want to switch up your Yuletide feast and hark back to the Dickensian holidays of yore, try a goose instead. Traditionally stuffed with fruits and spices, a goose may be smaller than a turkey, so depending on how many people you’re serving, you may also want to cook another main course, such as ham. Although you may think a goose will be hard to find (and they can be more expensive than turkey), try your local butcher or meat market; you may even find one at the grocery store. In case you were wondering, here’s what happened to the once-popular Christmas goose dinner.
Go on a sleigh ride
We all know the holiday joy of the sound of sleigh bells tinkling, but how often do we hear them on an actual sleigh? If you’re lucky enough to be in one of the ultimate destinations where you’re guaranteed to have a white Christmas, pretend you’re in a “picture print by Currier and Ives,” as the “Sleigh Ride” song goes, and take the family on a jaunt of your own. Check local horse farms to see if they offer sleigh rides when it snows. If it’s cold but there’s sadly no snow on the ground, you can still enjoy another old-fashioned wintry activity: ice-skating on a local pond. Just make sure the ice is completely frozen.
Attend “midnight” mass
If you’re religious, consider going to church on Christmas Eve rather than (or in addition to) Christmas Day. Traditionally, midnight mass celebrates the vigil, or devotional waiting, as soon as the clock strikes 12 on December 25. Today, services may be held at 9 or 10 p.m., or even earlier to accommodate families with children. Although church on Christmas Day can be a joyous time, full of sunlight and ringing bells, Christmas Eve services offer a more subdued experience of candlelight, choir singing, and hushed reflection. Plus, depending on how you observe the holiday—if one service is all you’ll be going to—attending midnight mass allows you to take your time opening presents on Christmas morning without rushing to church. Next, check out these fascinating photos that show what Christmas looked like 100 years ago.