When your kids are little and believe in Santa, it's easy to have fun family Christmas traditions. You write letters to Santa, and you go to make your kids sit on his lap. He brings presents and, if you're like me, you go out of your way to make the cookies and milk disappear and to leave carrots out for the reindeer.
A couple of years ago, then 7-year-old Allie asked me the big question: did you buy my Christmas gifts? I had to answer honestly and tell her that I had. She was devastated and cried herself to sleep, swearing that I had ruined her life by lying to her all the years before, when she'd thought Santa Claus had brought the gifts. I felt horrible, and truly, she has never really gotten over it.
Following the big, traumatic reveal, we have had to adjust our Christmas traditions to things that don't include Santa. She remains hostile and bitter toward the whole idea of Santa even to this day.
But the thing is that family Christmas traditions don't have to have anything to do with Santa. After all, this is a celebration of the birth of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. HE is the central figure of the season, not a bearded man in a red suit. HE is the gift, not the toys wrapped under the tree. It's about HIM.
We don't go to breakfast with Santa anymore. We don't have pictures taken with him. We don't write letters.
But that's not to say that we have no traditions now that Santa is out of the picture. We have new traditions now, and I want to share them with you. You can start these traditions as a single person, a newlywed, or a family who doesn't do Santa with their young children. Anyone can enjoy these traditions.
Whether Santa is a recent loss for your family or you have teens who learned the truth long ago, the traditions below will bring happy memories without the magic of elves and chimneys.
40 Fun Family Christmas Traditions Without Santa
- Celebrate with Jesse Tree devotions. I wrote this devotional with preschoolers in mind, true, but the content is as appropriate for teens as it is for little ones. It's the story of how God brought Jesus to the world through all the central figures of the Bible. Included are devotions on Isaac and Rahab and King David and many others. There are 28 in all, but you are certainly welcome to pick and choose among them. Each day has a Bible reading, a key Bible verse, a song (which you may want to leave out for the ultra cool teen), and a simple prayer. A Jesse Tree is a beautiful way to bring the holiday season back to the coming Savior.
- Send your kids on a Christmas scavenger hunt. Scavenger hunts with clues and a treasure at the end are fun for kids of all ages. I created this one for my tween to run all over the house and find a puzzle with a message on the back, but you could hide just about any present at the end. Super fun.
- Practice random acts of kindness as a family. This is the perfect time of year to engage in random acts of kindness because everyone is feeling just the least bit more generous than normal. The acts on these cards are all things that kids and teens can do by themselves, but they will mean so much more when done as a family or even as a couple with your spouse.
- Cut down a Christmas tree together. We have an artificial tree because I'm allergic to pine, so this is one family Christmas tradition that my family has never done, but I see others do it and think it sounds like a lot of fun. Go out to a tree farm, select the perfect tree, chop it down, and load it up on your car. Bundle up and bring hot chocolate in a thermos. I imagine the Griswold family from National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation, but I'm sure your tree adventure will be a lot less, um, adventurous.
- Buy a new Christmas ornament. Every year since they were born, we have trekked off to the Hallmark store to find the perfect keepsake ornament for each of our kids. They will leave our home someday with a nice collection of ornaments to put on their own Christmas trees, and that thought makes me smile broadly. Our annual trip to the Hallmark store is as much a tradition as anything we do, and it makes me happy to see my girls look at all the pretty things and select the perfect one. If you don't want to do Hallmark, you could go anywhere for an ornament, even Walmart where you can get one for just a dollar or two. (The nice Hallmark ornaments run me between $15 and $20 each.)
- Make a new Christmas ornament. I love crafts, and there are so many ornaments that you can make. We've done clothespin snowflakes and sequined balls and string art disks, and there are a few more on this page and literally hundreds of pretty ornament crafts on Pinterest if you search.
- Decorate the Christmas tree together. I think this one kind of goes without saying, but I needed to round out the list to 40, so here it is. When you put up the Christmas tree, do it together. Let everyone take her own ornaments and put them wherever she wants (even if she's 9 and puts them all in the same spot). Make hot chocolate and put on Christmas music and have fun decorating your tree.
- Let your kids open one gift on Christmas Eve. We started this family Christmas tradition because we went to my in-laws' house for Christmas Eve. That's when they celebrated, so we took one gift per kid and went along. Typically, it was their biggest gift because Joe and I wanted to get the glory instead of Santa. But now that my mother-in-law will come to us, we are still doing it. Except this year, we are letting each girl pick the gift she wants to open from her pile of presents. They'll also get their presents from Nana on Christmas Eve.
- Bake Christmas cookies. I'm personally not huge on Christmas cookies because I hate having cookies in the house (because I WILL EAT THEM), but my kids love to bake Christmas cookies, so I typically relent once during the season.
- Decorate Christmas cookies. I separated this one out because decorating does not have to go with baking. You could easily buy pre-formed cookies and throw them in the oven, or you could even buy already baked cookies (such as in a kit or in the bakery) and decorate those. I love to get or make fancy colors of icing and buy lots of different sprinkles and goodies to put on them. This is super fun for me and my kids. Hint: use a sheet pan with sides under the cookies to corral the sprinkles and make clean up easier.
- Take a family photo. Every winter, we dress up in coordinating outfits and have a family photo taken by a professional photographer. The pictures are sometimes great and sometimes just okay, but they always capture my brood and their personalities. I use these photos for our Christmas cards, and every year, I get lots of feedback that our friends and family love to receive the photo cards.
- Have special one-on-one dates for shopping. Since they were tiny, I have encouraged my girls to buy their dad and sister a Christmas present. They don't get allowances or any sort of regular income, so they have to shop with my money. (Every year at this time, I lament that fact and wish I'd made them save their own money, but this is not the time to beat myself up on this issue.) Usually, we go out to lunch and do the shopping, and it is a great, peaceful time among the craziness of the Christmas season. Plus, kids thrive on one on one time with their parents, so this is a great way to build up your relationship with your kids individually.
- Go on a sleigh or horse-drawn carriage ride. I got a gift certificate at my wedding for a horse-drawn carriage ride, and you know what? I've never used it. Christmas seems to me to be the perfect time of year to bundle up, bring a blanket, and take a ride around town in a sleigh or carriage. It just sounds fun. Maybe I'll dig up that gift certificate and make the appointment this month. The only question left is should we bring the kids or make it a couples-only event?
- Interview your kids on video. Kid videos are fun. Super fun. You will look back on them in five or ten years, and you will laugh and laugh. Even tweens and teens, if you can convince them to appear on camera, have funny things to say. My 12-year-old sings a song about Santa being a stalker. My 9-year-old is still in that stage where she comes up with the most hilarious phrases. I love capturing them on video. Be prepared with a list of questions beforehand or you will both end up looking at each other and it will be awkward.
- Volunteer at a homeless shelter. The homeless need help all year round, but when you and your family are feeling festive, it is a great time to go as a group and help to hand out socks or serve food at the soup kitchen. You will feel such a sense of gratitude and accomplishment after having helped people when they need it most.
- Volunteer at a food pantry. A couple of years ago, my daughter's Girl Scout troop went to a food bank and helped package food for needy families. The girls had fun doing it, and they got to see that there is joy in doing even small jobs for big reasons. If your kids are on the younger side, and you don't think they're ready for helping out at a shelter, this is a great behind-the-scenes alternative.
- Buy gifts for an angel tree. We have been buying for various angel trees since my girls were tiny. The idea of an angel tree is that someone identifies the gifts that are needed or wanted (either by sponsoring a whole family or a group of people in a shelter or some such), and each gift wish is written onto a paper ornament with some code to identify the individual who made the wish. Then givers select ornaments from the tree, buy the gifts, wrap them, and leave them under the tree anonymously with the ornament attached. This year, we did two different angel trees, one at our church and one at the donut shop. The gifts are typically small things that I wouldn't think twice about buying for myself or my own kids which makes me feel humbled and grateful for what I already have. This year, we purchased several body sprays and lotions from Bath & Body Works for women in a shelter, a pretty sweater for a 10-year-old girl, and a pair of fancy sneakers for an 8-year-old girl. We don't know who will get the gifts except that they are local. You don't have to spend a lot to do this one, but whatever you do spend will be very much appreciated. And also, I got my 9-year-old to relent a little on her Santa hatred by telling her that we were BEING Santa when we purchased gifts for the angel tree. She thought that was a pretty satisfying idea, even though she was sure to tell me that Santa is still a big fake.
- Donate to a toy drive. Toys for Tots is a tremendous organization that gives new toys to kids who wouldn't normally have a very nice Christmas. There are toy donation bins all over this time of year, and you can typically buy whatever gift you want to donate (whereas you are limited to a specific request on an angel tree).
- Donate to a thrift store. Every December, we go through our kids' toys and donate the unwanted and unplayed with so that families who have less can go to the thrift store and get nice toys for their own kids' Christmas. It makes my kids feel good to know that they are helping someone else to have a nicer Christmas, just by giving away things that they don't really want anymore.
- Go on a Christmas lights tour. This might be my favorite family Christmas tradition. There are several different ways you can do this, and my family does all three. There are walking Christmas lights displays all over the country. Here in York County, PA, we have Christmas Magic which is a nearly ¾ mile trail that you walk through. We just went this week, and my family complained most of the way because they were cold. But I loved it, and it is a beautiful tradition in my mind. The next option is a drive-through Christmas lights display. There is one of those, called Hershey Sweet Lights, in Hershey, PA which is also close by. You have to pay for both of those, but of course, there's the free option as well: ask on Facebook and scope out the best lights displays in your area, and drive around to look at them. It's as simple as that.
- Go on a Christmas lights scavenger hunt. There are tons of different Christmas lights scavenger hunts on Pinterest. Select one that's appropriate for your kids' ages, and head out to drive around the neighborhood looking at lights. I especially like the bingo-style hunts where your family can compete to see who gets bingo first.
- Enjoy a hot cocoa bar. A couple of years ago, Hershey Entertainment hosted me for a weekend at the Hershey Lodge. It was an all expenses paid, super luxurious trip, and one of the things they did was to provide us with a hot cocoa bar. I took that idea and ran with it, doing the same thing at home every year since. We make a big carafe full of rich hot chocolate and set out small bowls of real whipped cream, mini marshmallows, sprinkles, chocolate chips, and candy canes. The kids can pour their cocoa and decorate it however they want. It's fun and easy, and it delights people of all ages.
- Have a family Christmas movie marathon. There are so many wonderful Christmas movies from the original Boris Karloff Grinch to Elf to National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation. Some are more appropriate for younger kids and some are best left for teens and adults, but choose a selection appropriate to your group, make some popcorn and hot chocolate, and set up on the living room floor for a movie marathon late into the night.
- Attend a Christmas tree lighting or Christmas parade. I don't know of any tree lightings in my area, but Harrisburg does have a very nice Christmas parade right after Thanksgiving every year. I wouldn't say it's a tradition for us, but we've gone several times and always had a lot of fun. Remember to bundle up.
- Unwrap family pajamas on Christmas Eve. Now that both of my girls wear ladies' sizes, it's a lot easier for me to manage matching Christmas pajamas. When they were smaller, I would buy them jammies that matched each other, but not me and their dad. Now, we have full family ensembles, and I'm in heaven. Anyway, everyone will unwrap their pjs on Christmas Eve so that they can wear them to bed and wake up ready for all the photo opps on Christmas morning.
- Build a snowman and dress him up for Christmas. I can only remember one white Christmas in the last 15 years where I live, but if you live in a snowy area, you could easily make a tradition out of building a Christmas snowman. You could use food color and water to paint him or wrap him up in a special red and green scarf.
- Listen to Christmas music. We listen to audiobooks practically 24/7, so it is sometimes tough for me to squeeze in Christmas music, but I love Christmas music and make an effort. I usually turn it on Alexa ("family Christmas favorites" is a great playlist if you have Alexa too) and let it play while we're just milling around the house. But if your kids are on the younger side, you could put on some upbeat Christmas music and have a dance party. I know my 9-year-old would be all over that.
- Build a gingerbread house. We make gingerbread houses every single year, and I'm pretty sure it's Allie's favorite family Christmas tradition. My favorite way to make them is to use graham crackers for the base and use all those sprinkles and decorations I mentioned for cookies to add on. Graham crackers are so cheap and easy. And also, I have a big, fool proof secret for making the houses stay together: HOT GLUE. You heard me right. No one eats gingerbread houses anyway, so hot glue those walls and roofs together and let the kids go to town decorating to their hearts' content with icing to hold on the decorations.
- Prepare a simple Christmas Eve dinner. This is the first time we're ever going to host a Christmas Eve dinner, and we aren't really sure what we're going to make yet. We've talked about homemade crab cakes, kugeli which is a Lithuanian potato casserole (a traditional family recipe of my husband's parents and grandparents), and buffalo chicken dip, but I don't know what we'll settle on. But one thing is certain: we aren't going all out and making a huge spread. We have the ability to choose our own new traditions this year, and we're going to start with a few favorites that we can come back to year after year.
- Unwrap 25 books of Christmas. This is more appropriate for younger kids, but don't let the older ones fool you: they still love it when you read to them. I taught high school science for ten years, and even those kids enjoyed it when I read to them. (I used to read Jurassic Park to my ninth graders every year - it's full of great science!) The idea of this tradition is that you wrap 25 different picture books during the last week of November, and your kids get to open one every day of Advent. You read to them whatever they unwrap, and you have a little cuddle time to boot.
- Read the book of Luke during December. The book of Luke has 24 chapters which makes it perfect for Advent. The first part of Luke 2 is the birth of Jesus that we consider the Christmas story, and the rest of the book is about His life and ministry. If you and your family read one chapter every night after dinner, you could get the whole way through the book by Christmas morning.
- Set up a Nativity. A nativity is a scene depicting the birth of baby Jesus. It usually has Mary and Joseph and the three kings and some animals. We have used our Little People nativity every year since Grace was 6 months old. We love that nativity, and it has seen a lot of action and play over the years. Somehow, it didn't get pulled out when we decorated this November, and I missed it. Allie missed it too and went down into the basement just a few days ago to dig it out and play with it. (If you follow me on Instagram, you may have seen Snow White worshipping the newborn Savior.) I bought myself the Williow Tree nativity set this year after pining for it for the last several, and I am excited because it has tons of pieces that I can ask for for Christmas over the next few years. Whether you use a toy nativity, bears, porcelain figures, or something else all together, setting up and decorating a nativity is a wonderful holiday tradition.
- Exchange names for a secret Santa. Allie asked me to do a Secret Santa this year, and it may have worked if she had not told everyone who all the "secret" gift givers were. We are still buying gifts for each other with a small dollar limit and pretending we don't know who has who. I'm hoping next year will go a little smoother.
- Attend a Christmas concert. This time of year, every musical ensemble gives a concert. Joe is in the Keystone Concert Band, and they have had three separate concerts this season. Orchestras, choirs, ensembles... they all do Christmas concerts. Dress up in your finest and go see one together.
- See the Nutcracker ballet. I do not enjoy the ballet. At all. But when Allie was into it, we went to see The Nutcracker every single December. I always thought it was long and drawn out, but Allie thought it was amazing. If you or your kids like it, make a tradition out of dressing up and seeing the show.
- Hide a pickle ornament in the Christmas tree. We have this pickle ornament, and it another of our big family Christmas traditions. Every Christmas Eve, Joe hides the pickle in the Christmas tree. Whomever finds the pickle on Christmas morning gets a special prize (which is usually either a candy bar or a scratch off lottery ticket), and the year we forgot to hide it, we heard about it. The kids love this tradition. Even though they already get a mound of awesome presents, the fact that one of them gets an extra dollar's worth of goodies makes a difference to them.
- Have a family game night. Family game night is always a good idea, and doing one or two during the Christmas season is even better. Game night will give you an excuse to sit down together at the table, slow down, and do nothing except for have fun and make memories together. Check out this list of family game night games for some suggestions.
- Make a fondue dinner. Our favorite restaurant is a fondue restaurant. Fondue is a slow way to eat, and it is fun, and it makes for a super interesting conversation when you have kids old enough to appreciate it. Plan a cheese course, a main course, and a chocolate course, but you'll need a couple of fondue pots to make that happen. The one I linked is a really big one, so you should definitely get a smaller version for the cheese and chocolate courses.
- Bake a birthday cake for Jesus. My kids love to bake, and making and serving a birthday cake during Christmas week is a given being that we have birthdays on December 23 and December 28. If you aren't blessed with a handful of late December birthdays, a birthday cake might be just the thing your kids need to remember the reason we celebrate Christmas to begin with. (Head over here for tips on celebrating December birthdays.)
- Attend a Christmas Eve church service. Christmas is about Jesus, and Christmas Eve church is about Jesus. Whether you go to midnight mass or an earlier service, I think it's super important to spend time as a family in the house of the Lord on Christmas. Full dislosure: my husband's parents always wanted us to come to their house on Christmas Eve, so this year will be our first attending Christmas church. I'm excited about the opportunity for a new family Christmas tradition.
No matter what traditions you decide to start this year, as long as you are all together as a family and build something into your celebration, you will be making magical memories that have nothing at all to do with Santa.
I know some families skip Santa all together (and I sort of wish we had), but these traditions are so beautiful and so classic that you can do them alongside Santa, in place of Santa, or even without kids. They will still work for you and lead to many wonderful and warm memories with your people.
I can't wait to hear about your favorite family Christmas traditions in the comments below.