52 Holiday Traditions You Can Start Right Now With Family, Friends, and Loved Ones

published Nov 23, 2021
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For many families, the traditions they keep and pass on year after year are as unique as the people who make up those groups. Me? I can’t imagine a holiday season without a movie marathon that includes “This Christmas” and “The Family Man,” while eating a heaping plate of my mom’s dressing. Since being married, I’ve been introduced to the Clarks’ tradition of Christmas Eve egg rolls and Christmas Day sticky buns to my own two-person home. 

While some people have and cherish multi-generation traditions, others may be looking to cultivate new memories. And still others may feel the pang from knowing that they didn’t grow up in a family that was big on traditions. But the good news is that it’s never too late to start!

No matter if your family dynamic is you and your beloved pup or a house full of cousins, kiddos, and grandparents, everyone deserves an added dose of holiday cheer this season. Here are more than 50 traditions you can start this year with your chosen family, significant others, and loved ones.

Traditions with Loved Ones & Chosen Family  

1. Have a Book Exchange 

Between the Internet era and living through a global pandemic, virtual book clubs have seen a dramatic spike in participation over the last few years. For the winter season, bring back a touch of nostalgia with a physical book exchange. The rules can be simple; each participant draws the name of someone in the group and sends them their favorite book to read around the holiday season. If you’re looking to get extra sentimental, a handwritten note explaining why it’s your favorite book will tug on the recipient’s heartstrings.

Credit: Getty Images/ nd3000

2. Curate a List of “Classics” to Watch — and Rank the Movies 

Doesn’t it seem like there’s always that one movie you “can’t believe” someone hasn’t seen yet, and it becomes your mission to expose them to such art? (Confession: I didn’t watch “Elf until 2019, when my husband demanded I watch it. Now my life is complete.) There is a specific kind of intimacy that can only be experienced when watching someone’s favorite movie for the first time. Added bonus: rank the movies you watch over the course of a season and dub one of them that year’s best. It’s like the Oscars for your friend group.

Credit: Getty Images/ Thomas Barwick

3. Host a Themed Potluck Dinner or Friendsgiving

Friendsgiving is a coveted tradition among many circles, and there are plenty of ways to make it all the more magical. One idea? Select a theme inspired by a favorite show, a moment in pop culture, or part of the globe, and 4. Host a “Movie vs. The Book” Club

I am of the firm belief that the movie is rarely better than the book, but ‘tis the season for healthy debates and curling up in front of a screen. This tradition can be taken in a few different directions, but one idea is to have participants both read the book and schedule a time to watch the movie (either together or separately), before coming together to determine if the movie or the book was better. 

5. Challenge Each Other to a Great Friendship Bake-Off 

What is the winter season without sugar and over-the-top sweets? Ripping a page from “The Great British Bake-Off,” invite your loved ones to a healthy competition of technical challenges and show-stoppers. If you’re really feeling generous, the winner could take home a trophy — and everyone can eat the end results. 

6. Recreate or Perfect a Family Recipe 

Many people have that one go-to recipe that is the epitome of comfort food. (Personally, few things make me feel as hopeful as a bowl of chicken noodle soup.) Build upon a classic by introducing new spices, appliances, and techniques, or skip the fuss and perfect the recipe you’ve come to love after all these years. 

7. Host a White Elephant Gift Exchange 

An oldie but a goodie. The best part of a white elephant exchange is two-fold; first, the obligatory heated debate regarding the rules themselves, and second, the ruthlessness that comes out when a Starbucks gift card is at stake. 

8. Leave a Generous Tip at a Local Diner 

Some local communities have established traditions aimed to spread local cheer in the form of money, like Denver’s Shock And Claus initiative or Atlanta’s “tip the bill” challenge. If you’re able and believe in the idea, leaving a generous tip at a local diner or dining establishment can be a tradition with friends or chosen family during the holiday season. 

9. Host a ‘Winter Wonderland’ Karaoke Night 

Cue up Mariah and make sure Bublé is on the winter karaoke playlist because history has taught countless friend groups if you get a group of people together — and throw a microphone into the mix — memories will be made.  

10. Coordinate an Ugly Sweater Bar (or Barre) Crawl

Get the group together and map out a bar crawl for a night out. Request that everyone wear an ugly sweater for added laughs. If you’re really in the spirit, you can put together a scavenger hunt or to-do list, such as “Ask a stranger if they’re on the ‘naughty or nice’ list this year.” Please remember to drink responsibly! 

If your group doesn’t drink or wants an alternative, taking a barre class while wearing your ugly sweaters is bound to elicit some giggles and make for a fun story over the years.

Traditions with Significant Others

11. Keep a Box Filled with Winter Date Ideas  

Plenty of long-term couples can attest that the creativity and spontaneity of dates fade with time. A great way to remain intentional and interested is by having a box or fish bowl filled with date ideas. (A few examples could include ice skating, attending a local fair, going to the movies, doing TikTok dances, baking cookies together, etc.) I recommend each partner write down five different date ideas and set aside a weekly “date night” budget to keep things fair. Pick one day of the week to draw from the box or fish bowl and commit to whatever activity is drawn. 

12. Have a Tech-Free Weekend Together 

Raise your hand if it has ever felt like you’re in a more committed relationship with your phone than your significant other. Hey — it happens! Book a night away with only a board game in tow, or commit yourselves to leaving your cell phones on the nightstand and enjoying each other without the audience of Instagram or Facebook.

13. Do a Comedy Set at an Open Mic Night

For the more adventurous and daring couple, challenge each other to an open mic night at a local comedy club. Up the ante a bit by making a harmless bet; whoever bombs more has to pick up the drink tab or next dinner out.

14. Create a Winter Time Capsule 

Devote time each week toward building a time capsule of winter remnants. The tokens of the season can be small — a leaf from a particularly memorable day, a ticket stub or playbill to a show, a pregnancy test, or a baby’s first glove. These keepsakes can be passed down to future generations and prove to be moments in time that you can return to sans social media.

15. Volunteer at a Local Shelter or Organization Together 

If you and your partner share similar values, there’s a good chance that you have causes you’re both passionate about. Consider spending a weekend volunteering at a local shelter or with an organization dedicated to your value system. 

16. Attend a Minor League Sports Game 

Major league sports games are fun and filled with intense energy, but they can be rather expensive. Save some money and support the minor leagues by attending a local team’s sporting event. Afterward, head to the park for some one-on-one time. 

17. Recreate Each Other’s Favorite Childhood Dessert 

There is something uniquely intimate about experiencing someone through the lens they had as a child. This year, I am attempting my husband’s grandmother’s famous banana cream pie, which is going to be all the more sentimental because she recently passed away from COVID-19. As I’ve gone through the steps to source the right ingredients and best version of her recipe, I’ve been able to learn about the traditions my husband experienced while growing up in the Midwest.

18. Keep a Pressed Flowers or Leaves Book

There’s still time to collect flowers, leaves, and other bits of nature for a pressed flower book for those in a warmer climate. This keepsake can be kept in the family for years to come or be a secret love letter to a season of change and companionship. Plus, you and your love can continue to add to it each year.

19. Record a Song Together 

Channel your inner Zooey Deschanel and Joseph Gordon-Levitt circa “500 Days of Summer” and record yourself and your partner singing a favorite tune. The point of this tradition isn’t to break the internet or catch a judge’s attention on “The Voice” — it’s a sweet moment shared between two lovebirds caught on film.

20. Interview Each Other and Keep the Recording for Future Generations

Do you ever feel like people are documenting their everyday lives for the world to see and follow, but rarely are they making home videos for their own consumption to enjoy in the later years? As a young teenager, I remember watching a particularly moving episode of “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” on which  a mother named Erin Kramp left her daughter a treasure trove of home videos with life advice and well wishes. It struck me because it was a tangible item that connected two people beyond the guard rails of humanity. How sweet and beautiful would it be to have such a keepsake made with your partner?

Traditions with Yourself 

21. Pick Up a New “Winter” Hobby Like Knitting 

When the temperature begins to drop, there’s nothing like staying inside to keep warm and cozy. Keep occupied with a new hobby like knitting, needlepoint, or bullet journaling. No idea where to get started? Apartment Therapy has you covered.

22. Purge and Donate Clothing That Didn’t Serve You This Year 

There is something empowering and compassionate about getting rid of the things that no longer serve you. Take an afternoon to purge your closest and ditch what no longer brings you joy, whether because it no longer fits your body anymore or because your style has shifted since you wore it last. 

23. Treat Yourself to the “Date of the Year”

Solo trips, an expensive lunch out, a day at the spa — it’s easy for people to forget what they enjoyed most once they find themselves busy with work or consumed with a new love. But one of the purest expressions of self-love is solitude. Budget responsibly and treat yourself to whatever you would describe as the “date of the year.” It doesn’t necessarily need to be extravagant; coordinate a day centered around what you love and honor the person you’ve evolved into this year.

24. Develop a Signature Scent 

One unique way to either remember a year that is coming to a close or to set the intention of the year ahead is to develop a signature scent for the upcoming season, or until it’s time to switch to a new one. 

25. Challenge Yourself to 25 Days of Journaling 

Introspection and reflection can be one of the greatest acts of self-care. It’s not always as fun as treating yourself to a nice self-date, but it might help you heal parts of yourself that you didn’t even realize you have been repressing. Consider writing about how the past year has treated you; what would you do again? What regrets do you have? How did this year live up to your expectations? 

26. Make a Grown-up Christmas List 

If there was ever a time to be Hallmark hokey, it’s during the holiday season. Plus, I think this counts as manifesting, right? 

27. Learn 10 New Phrases in American Sign Language 

I’ve been learning new phrases in ASL to communicate with loved ones. While I know very few signs, it’s been fun to learn new words based on the time of year we’re in. You can learn 25 holiday signs here!

28. Make a Tangible Photo Album From the Past Year 

Yes, nearly everyone has a phone, but it’s a great time to slow down and fill a photo album with the past year’s memories. If you have a little extra time on your hands, write down sense memories related to some of the pictures. For example, a photo you took while apple picking with a loved one or friend could be captioned with, “Our hands smelled like maple and honey for the rest of the weekend.” 

29. Adopt a New House Plant 

For some, houseplants are the house pets. Take a new plant this season and give them a seasonal name and decorated planter.

30. Make a List of Friends You’ve “Been Meaning to Call” and FaceTime Them

It’s super easy to get “too busy” these days — and especially during the holidays. Hey, it happens! Carve out a few hours or days to make hot chocolate and catch up with old friends you haven’t talked to in a few months. 

Traditions with Your Pets 

31. Get Paw-fessional Photos Taken with Your Pet

Do humans deserve animals? Not really. But can humans honor the relationship they have with their pets by getting cheesy glamour shots taken at a nearby shopping mall? Absolutely. Plus, the photos can make for a memorable holiday greeting card. 

32. Bake Homemade, Pet-Friendly Treats 

Help your furry friend enjoy the winter season with homemade treats. Not only is homemade pet food easy and fairly accessible, but it’s also a fun way to get some quality time with your best friend.

33. Host a Gift Exchange with All The Pets 

If you have a relationship with your neighbors and are looking for a new way to connect, host a gift exchange with your four-legged friends. You’ll want to avoid any encouragement of resource-guarding, which is when one or more dogs becomes protective over their food and toys. To that end, make sure that there are enough toys and treats to go around — you can either DIY these goodies, or buy them from your local pet supply store.

34. Go on A Walk In a Fun, Brightly-Lit Neighborhood 

Taking time to admire the lights around the city is an age-old tradition for many families. Enjoy the scenes and wander with your best friend in tow. Depending on your pet, the lights are a new ‘shiny ball’ (quite literally) for their minds. Just be sure to take safety precautions if you’re planning on seeing crowds, and make sure your dog’s harness and leash are securely attached.

35. Volunteer At a Local Animal Shelter

Spend time volunteering at a local animal shelter this season or gather supplies for a local organization. Most shelters could use additional help sourcing wet and dry food, treats, gently used blankets, towers, and kitty litter during the winter season.

Traditions with Your Children and Little Ones

36. Create Homemade Holiday Cards 

It’s not too late to get your holiday cards in the mail! Take time with your little one to learn what highlights from the year they would pick for a season’s greeting card and support them as they create a heartfelt holiday card for people on their list. 

37. Have a “Yes” Day

The holidays aren’t always cheery for a lot of people, some of whom may be processing  ha the neglect they felt or resources they were deprived of as children. See what a “yes” day — or a day where the child gets to play lead conductor and determine how the day is enjoyed — could look like in your family. (This can also  be healing for adults who cultivated anxious or fearful attachment styles as children.)

38. Have a Chocolate and Fondue Night 

Break out the melting pots, cheese, and chocolate — it’s a fondue night! Bond with your little ones as you prep the ingredients, select the best cheese and bread pairing and introduce them to new utensils in the kitchen. It’s one of the simplest ways to feel grown up as a kid — plus, the clean-up is manageable and quick.

39. Make “Puppy Chow” And Drink Hot Chocolate 

Is there a chance you could regret giving your nieces and nephews powdered sugar before bedroom? Definitely, but there are few treats that are as indisputably delicious as puppy chow. Cultivate your own tradition by making a recipe or batch unique to your family’s palette.

40. Play a Special Kind of Hide And Seek

Yes, you’ve likely heard of the elf on the shelf, but did you or any of your friends grow up with the “Christmas pickle” game? Simply, an ornament is hidden, and the finder gets a reward and bragging rights. Put a unique spin on the game — allow the kiddos to decide what toy or household item should be hidden this season and decide a prize for one who finds the “treasure.”

41. Create a Special Advent Calendar 

Did any other millennials totally miss out on the advent calendar growing up? Make up for lost time with one of many advent calendars available, which are a sentimental touch for the holiday season. Personalize the calendar to your little ones’ interests with themed calendars or customized toys.

42. Help the Little Ones Create a Breakfast Buffet 

As a child, there were few things I loved more than getting a chance to “be a grown-up” and cook in the kitchen. I jumped at the chance to make my mom breakfast in bed — even if, in retrospect, I fed her some questionable combinations. Give the younger ones in the home a little (supervised) freedom in the kitchen and allow them to curate a breakfast menu for the family. 

Traditions for the Home & with Your City

43. Attend a Community Theater Production

Check your local theater company for a list of upcoming plays and productions. The purchase of a ticket goes towards supporting local arts and artists — and you can make a full night of it, complete with dinner and aftershow drinks.   

44. Create a Special Red Blend for the Holiday Season

Imagine showing up to a potluck with a red wine with notes to compliment the menu? It feels uber-luxe but is much more accessible than you might imagine. Depending on your city, you can find a winery or local business that specializes in creating custom blends based on your palette. Save a few bottles and start a small collection in your home.

45. Curate a List of Holiday Recipes for Mocktail Mondays

For those who aren’t drinking this season or don’t love the taste of alcohol — not to worry, mocktails shine in the fall and winter months. There are countless options for every taste palette, from non-alcoholic espresso martinis to mulled wine to sparkling ginger mocktails.

46. Develop a Signature Candle Scent for the Season

If you didn’t get into making banana bread last year, there’s a decent chance you made DIY soy candles. Reflect on how you want to feel this season and choose scent notes that evoke such a feeling. You can find candle-making kits via Urban Outfitters, The Wooden Wick, and Etsy.

47. Schedule a “Proper” Snow Day — With Paper Snowflakes 

Years ago, I watched O.G. YouTuber Jenna Marbles prank her boyfriend by turning their home into a winter wonderland — in August. Bored during quarantine last year, I finally took pen (and scissors) to paper and did the same thing to our Texas home. 

48. Plant a Tree With a Special Meaning for Your Family

I’ve recently begun to plant trees to celebrate a loved one’s life or an important anniversary. Like with traditions, I suppose my thought process is that the tree will be standing long after I’m gone. In the past, I’ve chosen trees based on function and sentimental value. For example, for our one-year anniversary, I planted a tree that had significance to my husband’s childhood home and would do well in Texas. Crabapples, hawthorns, and dogwoods are beautiful trees that can grow in varied climates.

49. Create a Bouquet With Only Carnations and Budget-Friendly Flowers 

One of life’s most simple pleasures is a grocery store bouquet. Add fragrance to your home with hand-picked carnations from your local grocer. You can dry the flowers out and frame them toward the end of the season for a keepsake.

50. Pickle Your Favorite Vegetables

Upgrade your next charcuterie board with vegetables you pickled yourself. The easiest veggies to pickle in the comfort of your own home? Beets, cauliflower, carrots, onions, and cucumbers. 

51. Go Department Store Window Shopping 

A classic seasonal outing includes a luxurious cup of coffee, walking shoes, and time to spare. When I was broke after college but wanted to live out my Blair Waldorf fantasies, I treated myself to a $5 coffee (often sponsored by a gift card given to me by a coworker), and would walk around the high-end department stores looking at the decorations.

52. Buy DIY Gift Supplies From Local Businesses 

If you’re looking to gift loved ones with homemade gifts this year, stock up on supplies from local businesses where you can! From wrapping paper to care packages of your favorite local establishments, it’ll be all the more meaningful if you source materials from within your neighborhood.