My grandpa used to take my mom to New York City to kick off the Christmas season, and she continued this tradition into my childhood.
My family used to head into Manhattan the day after Thanksgiving to look at the dazzling lights and festive window displays. It was usually cold and snowy so we’d get hot pretzels and roasted chestnuts to keep warm. We’d always stop by the Rockefeller Center to see the tree before trying our hand at ice skating. Once we’d exhausted ourselves on the ice, we’d warm up over hot cocoa and finish the day with dinner in Chinatown. When I think of Christmas, I can’t help but think of this foolproof, festive routine and the sight of the bright city lights.
Each November, just before the Christmas season began, my family would head into the woods with our dog to hunt for chestnuts.
Years of practice meant we always knew which would be the best: the biggest, shiniest nuts that had already fallen from the trees. We didn’t have an electric oven back then, so we roasted them in an iron stove instead. To stop the chestnuts exploding, you had to remember to pierce a hole in them — some people would use a knife, but I preferred using my teeth. The chestnuts looked fully cremated after roasting, but they tasted delicious. I remember sitting and fidgeting impatiently while they cooled and they were always well worth the wait.
Every year my mom, sister and I would squeeze into my dad’s pick-up truck and head off in the snow to chop down our own Christmas tree.
By November in North Dakota there’s usually about two feet of snow, which when I was really young, was enough to come up past my knees. Decked in heavy snow gear, we’d stop at a local farm and trek deep into the woods in search of a perfectly round tree. My Dad would do the hard graft while my Mom stayed warm in the car. My sister and I liked to try to help but mostly we just marveled at the landscape of snow and trees as far as the eye could see. I can remember the sound of the saw, the smell of the pine and the crisp breeze on my face like it was yesterday.
My parents, sister, and I go shopping for a new Christmas pickle decoration, which symbolizes new beginnings and growth.
Each year, a different family member has to hide the pickle in the tree and whoever finds it first gets an extra gift or stocking stuffer. Although it’s hard to find the pickle within the needles and branches of the tree, the challenge is fun and the promise of an extra gift is a nice reward for the winner. We’ve done this for as long as I can remember and it’s our only tradition. Christmas really wouldn’t be the same without it. We now play this game with my children and I always enjoy seeing their faces light up once they discover its hiding place.
Christmas Eve has the magical ability to make everything feel new and exciting again — even a years-old family tradition.
While chatting eagerly about what Father Christmas might bring, our mom would disappear and return with our first wrapped Christmas presents. 'New pajamas!’ we'd exclaim in delight. Even our pup received a matching set. We’d all race upstairs to put them on and get ready for bed as we knew that the sooner we got to sleep, the sooner we'd wake up to Christmas morning. They symbolized a brand new Christmas and a brand new set of memories. Even after Christmas was over, the pajamas reminded us of all the fun we had together, and the excitement we had to look forward to again the following year.
Just before bedtime on Christmas Eve, we’d put out cookies and milk for Santa and some carrots for the reindeer.
My parents would sit with us at the kitchen table while my brother and I wrote letters to leave with their snacks. I’ll never forget the sheer excitement of finding cookie and carrot crumbs and an empty glass of milk in the morning. Although Santa was a bit messy, he was always very polite and would even leave us a ‘thank you’ note. I recently started this tradition with my own daughter and it feels just as magical now as it did when I was a kid.
To save money at Christmas, my family used to make some of our decorations. One of my favorites was cooking thinly sliced oranges and hanging them above the fireplace.
We’d grill them on a low heat before leaving them to cool, which made the house smell deliciously festive. I was always too impatient to wait long enough and to this day they’re still a bit sticky. We started doing this when I was a child and I still hang them with my family every year. If the oranges are hanging near a light, the translucent center illuminates, giving off a warm, cozy glow. I love how old-fashioned and timeless this feels, as it reminds me that even the simplest traditions can be meaningful.
My sister and I used to go sledding as soon as even the lightest dusting of snow had fallen.
The hilly field across the road from us was our regular sledding spot, and it was rumored that the large crater had been formed by a bomb during World War II. We’d clamber into the sledge at the very top of the hill before racing down past the trees at top speed. More often than not we’d fall off after hitting a rock, but it was exhilarating. Once we were frozen stiff, we’d head home to warm up by the fire. I’ve since moved away, but I can’t help but gaze out of my window in frosty weather and remember those days spent playing in the snow.
For as long as I can remember, my Aunt Jane has been in charge of our family’s favorite Christmas tradition: making and decorating gingerbread houses.
She’d stop by three or four stores to make sure we had every type of candy imaginable before laying it all out in paper bowls on the kitchen table. After the gingerbread had been baked and assembled, my sister and I would get to work with the decorations. We must have spent hours carefully shingling roofs with Necco Wafers and embellishing doors with gumdrops. Aunt Jane has continued this tradition with younger family members and although I no longer take part, I’ve been a spectator for a few years now. It wouldn’t be Christmas without it, and watching always makes me feel a little teary-eyed and nostalgic... not to mention hungry!
Although pulling the wishbone is a long-established tradition, in my family it had to be done in quite an unusual way: around the leg of the dining table.
After we’d finished Christmas dinner, we’d sift through the remains of the turkey to find the wishbone. My grandma and grandad would then take the wishbone and crouch on the floor, wrapping their arms around the dining table leg. They’d each hold one end of the wishbone and pull. Once it snapped, whoever had the largest part would close their eyes and make a wish. When I remember this tradition, I remember all of the fun times we had sitting around that dining room table, eating, chatting, and laughing with my family.
At Christmas, my immediate family and I always visit the rest of our extended family at one of their homes.
Our family is enormous, so it’s an exciting opportunity for us to get together. We all catch up over a big meal, often shouting over each other to be heard. Then the carol sheets are passed around and we step outside into the cold to go singing from door to door. None of us are particularly talented singers, but the neighbors don’t seem to mind — sometimes they even join in! We take a bucket to collect money for a good cause. It’s nice to know we’re doing something charitable while having fun.
Growing up in Florida, my parents would go all-out with our Christmas decorations.
We’d spend a full day bonding while we decorated the house — not just with lights and plastic candy canes, but with a life-size Santa sitting in a sleigh and wooden reindeer set, too. My dad once even propped the sleigh on the front yard and somehow positioned the reindeer mid-air so they appeared to be landing on our roof. Ours was the most spirited house on the block and I’d always beam with pride when people drove by just to marvel at our handiwork. I’ll never forget the lengths my parents went to to make Christmas as magical and memorable as possible.