14 ideas for winter holiday traditions that go beyond food

Joyful holiday customs help keep us connected, and the season’s magic doesn't stop at amazing meals. Check out these creative ideas for celebrating with stories, music, and more.

First things first: No one’s suggesting you skip the eggnog, gingerbread, or fried latkes. (As if!) This is about bringing even more joy to your holiday season with celebratory traditions that go beyond the big feast.

Given that the COVID-19 pandemic is still deeply affecting daily life as the calendar flips to 2021, many folks are renegotiating how they celebrate this year. The upside of that challenge is that you may find yourself discovering some joyful new practices to try now and carry forward.

“Holiday traditions are important because they connect us to the past, are a bridge to the future, and create strong family bonds,” says lifestyle expert Kierste Wade, author of Simple Tradition: 70 Fun & Easy Holiday Ideas for Families. If you’re looking for festive traditions to try this year, read on for inspiration. All are suitable for social distancing—and simple to adapt for in-person gatherings in years to come.

1. Storytelling

Who said reading has to be a solitary activity? Gather your loved ones 'round the fire (or Zoom link) and bring holiday stories to life by reciting them in turn. For ideas, check out the D.C. Public Library’s collection of family-friendly winter folktales from around the world. Prefer stories in stanza form? Browse the Poetry Foundation’s collection of winter poems from greats like Mary Oliver. And for Yuletide classicists, there’s always The Night Before Christmas—as well as Dr. Seuss’s Grinch.

2. Giving back

The past year was difficult for many people. If you’re in a position to do so, now would be an excellent time to start a tradition of giving back on a grassroots level. One simple idea: Appoint yourself to gather nonperishable food donations from your friends and family, then drop off the collective bounty with a local organization in need. You’ll make a positive difference for others and strengthen your community connections—a win-win. For more opportunities in your area, enter your zip code at Volunteer Match.

3. Neighborhood light stroll

With so many people spending extra time at home in 2020, holiday displays in many neighborhoods are bigger and better than ever. Venture out for a neighborhood ramble with your pod and check out the twinkling sights. For an extra dose of fun, turn the outing into a bingo-style game, with points for spotting rooftop reindeer, icicle lights, jumbo inflatable snowmen, and other festive wonders.

4. Cumulative keepsake

A DIY project that builds with each successive holiday season can be a sweet way to mark the passing years. For some, it’s about growing a collection—say, by crafting a Christmas tree ornament every December and inscribing the year on the back. For others, it’s about adding to an existing work—for example, by having holiday guests sign a cherished memory tablecloth before every big feast.

5. Next-level gifting

Sure, there’s an art to choosing the perfect gift. But there’s equal magic to be found in presenting gifts. In lieu of basic wrapping, some fun new traditions might include staging a scavenger hunt that leads to a gift, or anonymously dropping off holiday treasures on your friends’ doorsteps for a true Secret Santa experience. Who knows? You might find yourself on the receiving end of creative gifting yourself as your loved ones up the ante.

6. Road rally

Got a car, motorcycle, or truck? Pick a day with pals to decorate your vehicles with festive add-ons like reindeer antlers, battery-powered blinking lights, and tinsel, then start your engines together and form a convoy through local streets. Your cheery parade will put a smile on people’s faces—and give you the perfect excuse to blast that Mariah Carey song on repeat.

7. Socially distanced singalong

Outdoor caroling is a quirky musical activity; so is karaoke. Why not merge the two? On YouTube, you can find karaoke tracks for pretty much any holiday song under the sun—everything from Ella Fitzgerald’s classic “Sleigh Ride” to Ariana Grande’s “Santa Tell Me.” Save your faves in a playlist, charge up a portable bluetooth speaker, and join voices with your crew in a performance (even if you’re totally off-key).

8. PJ day

OK, granted: Maybe you weren’t planning to leave the house anyway. Consider this the coziest way to shelter in place. Have everyone in your household dress up in matching holiday pajamas—bonus points for red jumpsuit jammies—and spend a special day lounging and taking adorable/ridiculous group photos.

9. Outdoor adventure

A holiday tradition that gets you moving in fresh air—either solo or with your nearest and dearest—is a healthy one to have on your list. Maybe it’s an annual ice skating day with your cousins at the lake, a household pilgrimage to chop down a Christmas tree, or a solo birding hike on New Year’s Day. Whatever your activity of choice, creating a sense of occasion in nature can be a restorative way to appreciate the season.

10. Movie week

Many film buffs agree: There are way too many irresistible holiday flicks to stream in one sitting. Instead, consider planning out a solid week of festive programming. Are you feeling classics like It’s a Wonderful Life this year? Zany comedies such as Elf or Home Alone? Dramas like Carol or Little Women? Does Die Hard count as a Christmas movie? Pad your queue in accordance with your standards, then kick back for consecutive nights of enjoyment.

11. Talent show

Speaking of comedy and drama, this idea could yield both. In advance of your family gathering—on Zoom or otherwise—tell the group you’re hosting an open mic showcase and encourage everyone to come ready with a skill to show off. The wackier the talents, the better: Your nephew juggling toilet paper rolls and your sister-in-law’s weird ability to speak backwards will become instant family lore.

12. Messages of hope

Sending holiday cards is a small, simple way to help others understand they’re not alone. Many organizations run card-writing campaigns during the holidays to uplift the spirits of those experiencing hardship and loneliness. Grab your favorite pen, then seek out a group you care about. People in need of heartfelt holiday messages include children facing long hospital stays, seniors experiencing isolation, survivors of prison violence, military veterans, and more.

13. Family video vault

Before everyone started hoarding thousands of pics on their smartphones, many of us used old-fashioned film to capture family memories. If you’re sitting on a time capsule of VHS cassettes or photo prints, the holidays can be a nice time to excavate them and look back. Options include digitizing your old footage for a special screening night, or collaborating with your fam on a slideshow of everyone’s snaps from a specific year (throwback to 1995!). Don’t worry if your old hairstyle makes you cringe—that’s part of the magic.

14. Mistletoe gratitude activity

The mistletoe tradition usually plays out as sweethearts stealing a kiss. But this holiday symbol of love and affection can also be used as a way to show appreciation for all the wonderful people in your life. Hang a sprig of real or faux mistletoe from an overhead spot and pull names from a bucket. Each person selected stands under the greenery for two minutes and gets showered with thankful compliments from the group.

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Danielle Braff is a freelance health and lifestyle journalist in Chicago. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Prevention, Health, Self, and many other outlets.

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