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American Family Christmas Traditions

Christmas at my house is one of the best times of the year. It’s a time for family gatherings, gift-giving festivities, bright decorations, and delicious food. The Christmas season brings with it numerous traditions that have stayed within my family for decades (since before I was born, in fact). So, without further ado, here are some of my favorite family Christmas traditions –– and how we celebrate them.

Decorating the Christmas tree

Of all the Christmas traditions in the United States, decorating the Christmas tree is perhaps the most universal and well-known. Most families I know who celebrate Christmas have a tree placed somewhere in their home. It can be a natural or an artificial one. My family always picks out a Christmas tree from a local tree supplier –– we travel to the outdoor shop, find an acceptable tree, tie it to the roof of our car, and wrangle it inside our living room to await decoration. We have many types of ornaments that we hang on the tree. My brothers and I made some of them in elementary or middle school, and my parents received other Christmas tree ornaments as gifts or purchased them to remember certain events. When it’s time to decorate the tree, we turn on some Christmas music and put our ornaments on the tree. The end result is a beautiful Christmas creation.

Cookies for Santa Claus

Every year I wonder why we choose to bake cookies for a fictional man, and every year I remember that our family cookie tradition is an extension of gift-giving. In my house, we bake a dozen chocolate chip cookies, put them on a big fancy plate, pour a glass of milk, and set everything down on the edge of the fireplace. When I was a kid, I would wake up the next morning to find out that the cookies and milk were gone, seemingly eaten by Santa Claus himself. Only the cookie crumbs were left, making the story even more realistic. In more recent years, even though none of us are kids any more, we still bake cookies and finish them off before the morning festivities. Baking cookies together brings back childhood memories and helps us remember all the fun we’ve experienced at Christmas time.

Christmas Lights

Christmas lights are everywhere starting in December. One of the most enjoyable things to do is drive around the city to look at them, which sometimes take days to set up. Christmas lights are often placed on the roofs of homes, but they can also be displayed outside store windows and other buildings. Christmas lights seem to embody the Christmas spirit, in which laughter, family, and friends are represented by the festive nature of stringing lights around a house. Sometimes, lights are simple, with a single band of lighting encircling the house. Other houses are much more complex, with light shows timed to music and large statues with lights and ornaments placed in the yard. My family sets up simple Christmas lights every year as a way to embrace this wonderful time of year.


Eating delicious food is often one of the most highly anticipated parts of any big holiday, and Christmas is no exception. A few days before Christmas each year, my family buys a large ham, various side dishes, cinnamon rolls, and enough apple pie to feed a whole town. The cinnamon rolls are our personal tradition –– every Christmas we bake the rolls in the oven during breakfast time, a perfect way to start the day strong before we exchange gifts. We usually eat our big meal around mid-afternoon. We prepare the food, set our dining room table, and gather around for a hearty (but not so healthy) meal. There’s no Christmas without food.

Also families love taking family photos every year. And these are few my family took since 2012.

Of course, there are lots of other Christmas traditions that my family doesn’t partake in. Many families I know have a gift-opening event on Christmas Eve –– they either open one or two presents per person and save the rest for Christmas day, or open all of them at once. Other families take an annual ski trip, or throw a party with eggnog and other Christmas classics. Christmas traditions are unique to everyone, which is why this holiday is so special.  



Nick Irvin is a 3rd year undergraduate studying at UC Davis. He enjoys reading, writing, and golfing.

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