Favorite Christmas Eve Traditions for Families
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The night before Christmas was always such a special time growing up. It was an evening full of Christmas Eve traditions. And when most of our family’s Christmas festivities happened. Christmas Day paled in comparison to all of the joy on Christmas Eve.
We started with dinner at our favorite fancy restaurant. Then, headed to church and finished up the evening opening gifts at midnight. Something about it being a German tradition – although I haven’t found much evidence of that over the years. I think my mom just liked it that way. These were her Christmas Eve traditions.
Since having a family, we have shifted most of our festivities to Christmas Day. But I have started a few Christmas Eve traditions that we enjoy every year. Here are some of my favorites and a couple others that we might be adding soon.
Put Out Milk and Cookies for Santa
This is a big one because what would Santa do without milk and cookies. Probably starve.
Before heading to bed on Christmas Eve night, we fill a plate with freshly decorated Christmas cookies and mug of hot cocoa. The kids decided awhile back that Santa must be cold after spending so much time flying on the sled. Instead of milk, they like to leave him a warm cup of hot cocoa. Topped with mini marshmallows, of course.
We also leave the reindeer some surprises – usually carrots. We recently picked up, though, from the movie The Santa Clause 2 (affiliate) that the reindeer love red peppers. So, we also leave some slices of those.
Sometimes the kids also write Santa notes to say thank you for coming or just a cheery hello. All of these special surprises are left by the fireplace for him to enjoy when he arrives.
To set up your own milk and cookies tradition this year, start with a plate for the cookies and mug for the milk. You can make Santa his own special milk and cookies plate here. If you aren’t as crafty, check out this adorable set here (affiliate). Also, don’t forget the tray! A Santa treat board (affiliate) keeps everything organized.
Watch a Christmas Movie
As mentioned above, growing up my family opened gifts around midnight on Christmas Eve (or technically Christmas Day). Usually my Dad fell asleep about fifteen minutes later, which left my Mom and I wide awake. One year, she gave me a Christmas movie as a gift. We decided to watch it together. This started a new Christmas Eve tradition. Watching Christmas movies in the middle of the night on Christmas Eve night.
These days we are hopefully sleeping a little earlier on Christmas Eve night. So instead, our tradition is to watch a movie on Christmas Eve afternoon as a family. It’s a great way to focus all of the kids’ energy away from all of the excitement to come.
Need a family friendly Christmas movie? We always enjoy a Christmas classic such as Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, Frosty the Snowman or Miracle on 34th Street (the original and new versions). Other fun family Christmas movie ideas include the The Santa Clause and Home Alone series, Elf, Prancer and The Polar Express (affiliates). You can find more suggestions in this list of favorite family Christmas movies.
First Gift of Christmas
One of our sweetest Christmas Eve traditions was inspired after we read The Polar Express (affiliate) together as a family. I loved the idea of having a first gift of Christmas. Following a family tradition of not opening Christmas gifts until it is actually Christmas, gifts that are given from friends or sent in the mail are always deposited under the tree. This way all gifts are opened on Christmas Day.
Except one. The first gift of Christmas. Although this started out as simply an ornament to hang on the tree, the tradition has grown into a Christmas Eve box. The contents of the box has varied over the years, but it usually contains an ornament, pajamas, hot cocoa packet or other Christmas treat and sometimes a story.
The first gift of Christmas has become an important event in our home and usually kicks off our gift giving. It’s also helpful to let the kids open a present – especially when they keep asking to open “just one”.
Wear Christmas Pajamas
As explained back in the fall, although I encourage the kids to choose their own outfits, there are a few times a year that I like our family to look coordinated. They are Pumpkin Patch Day, Easter and Christmas morning.
So, one of the surprises in the Christmas Eve box is a new set of Christmas pajamas. It’s so much fun choosing adorable Christmas pajamas and I love that everyone can coordinate their evening wear one time a year. Yes, we are that family.
Read a Christmas Story
After the milk and cookies are put out for Santa, we read a Christmas story together. There are so many wonderful Christmas children’s books to share together.
We like classics like The Polar Express (affiliate) and The Night Before Christmas (affiliate). For toddlers and preschoolers, Little Blue Truck’s Christmas, Merry Christmas Curious George and Twas’ the Night Before Christmas on Sesame Street are so sweet (affiliates).
These days, we enjoy more modern stories including Santa Bruce, The Christmas Selfie Contest and The Christmas Extravaganza Hotel (affiliates).
Although we love curling up to read Christmas stories all season long, it’s especially fun on Christmas Eve night. You can find even more Christmas story ideas for kids here.
One of the concerns that I’ve heard over the years is what happens if the reindeer can’t find our house. I’m not really sure why this is a worry, but it was solved by simple sprinkle of reindeer food on the front lawn.
Reindeer food is a mixture of oats, colored sugars and glitter (optional). Sprinkle it in the front yard on Christmas Eve night and it will help the reindeer find your house. So, the legend goes.
You can start your own reindeer food tradition with this reindeer food recipe. And if you want to gift the reindeer food, there is even a Free Printable Reindeer Food Tag to download.
Play a Christmas Game
Another fun thing to do on Christmas Eve is to play games. One of our family’s favorites is this Christmas charades game. They love acting out different Christmas themed words such as elves working, Santa Claus and making a snowman.
Other Christmas game ideas include this Roll a Christmas Tree (which we love to play in between dinner and dessert), Christmas charades or a game from this Christmas party games set.
Pin the Nose on the Reindeer (affiliate) would also be a fun option for little ones.
Some other fun classic Christmas game ideas include playing Bingo (affiliate), Christmas Mad Libs or this cool Guess Who I Am game (affiliate). We also love this snowman drawing game where you draw a snowman on top of each other’s heads. Turns out that it’s quite the challenge.
One of my new favorites that we have to try this year is this Guess the Christmas Smells Game. Fill jars with classic Christmas smells (our gingerbread playdough would be perfect for this game), blindfold players using a Santa hat (definitely keeps it festive) and see if they can guess the smells. Some ideas include cinnamon sticks, peppermint candies, pinecones, marshmallows, chocolate, vanilla and nutmeg. You can also soak cotton balls in different Christmas essential oils and see if participants can guess those smells.
One thing that there’s always plenty of on Christmas Eve is energy. A few years back, after going to the bakery to purchase cookies for Santa only to discover that they were out of cookies, we started decorating our own on Christmas Eve afternoon.
In order to make this Christmas Eve tradition successful, it is important to bake the cookies in advance. I found if we tried to bake and decorate the cookies on the same day, everyone was too exhausted to decorate them.
Since decorating is the thing we love to do best, I bake my favorite sugar cookies the day before. Then, on Christmas Eve, we decorate them. And eat some too. Each little gets to decorate one special cookie for Santa, which adds to the fun.
Drive to See Christmas Lights
This is an activity we usually do earlier in the season, but it’s a great idea for a Christmas Eve tradition as well. Once it gets dark on Christmas Eve night, gather the family in the car and drive around looking for Christmas lights.
Before going out, do your research to find beautiful light displays in your area to check out. Sometimes the kids aren’t overly patient when we are searching, so it helps to have a good destination in mind.
And if you want to add even more fun to your search, print out our Free Printable Christmas Lights Scavenger Hunt. It’s a great way to focus energy and encourage the kids to search for lots of different lights.
Sip Hot Cocoa
The official drink of our Christmas Eve is hot chocolate. And you never can get enough of it on Christmas Eve night. So, after dinner we gather in the kitchen and sip hot cocoa together while listening to Christmas carols. It’s so relaxing after a busy day and a wonderful way to end the day.
You can even make this Christmas Eve tradition feel more special by setting up a hot cocoa bar. Choose festive Christmas mugs (affiliate), whipped cream and other toppings to enjoy. Serve a large pitcher of hot chocolate and let everyone create their own unique hot cocoa drink. Check out these tips to setting up a simple hot cocoa bar. And, most importantly, don’t forget the candy canes to stir with.
While I grew up with the German tradition of opening presents on Christmas Eve, my husband enjoyed pierogi making around the kitchen table. Following the Polish Catholic tradition, his entire family would gather round, sprinkle flour and stuff crescent moon shaped dough dumplings. From what I’ve gathered, it was quite the party.
Although we aren’t able to get together with our entire extended family for pierogi making these days, we are trying to introduce this Christmas Eve tradition to our littles. On Christmas Eve morning, we knead, roll and shape the dough. Then, we make two fillings and stuff them and throw them in a pot of boiling water.
After they are cooked, we enjoy the pierogis as an afternoon snack. (I know, all of that work for a snack.) But it’s a wonderful reminder of our Polish roots and the Christmas Eve traditions of the grandparents and great grandparents.
We love singing Christmas carols – especially on Christmas Eve. Take the joy of singing outside and invite friends and neighbors to carol around the neighborhood with you.
Too chilly to go outside? Instead of heading outdoors, set up some Christmas karaoke indoors. Gather the kids around and sing some classic Christmas tunes (affiliate). Such a fun way to celebrate the holiday season.
Christmas Eve Dinner Out
This has been a Christmas Eve tradition since I was a child. My mom didn’t like cooking on Christmas Eve since she also served a Christmas Day dinner. So, instead our family would go out for Christmas Eve to a local restaurant.
We have continued this Christmas tradition by taking the family out to dinner after church on Christmas Eve. It’s a fun way to kick off the Christmas holiday and I love the break from cooking.
One thing to keep in mind, though. Make reservations early. We have ours a year in advance (I wish I was kidding). Christmas Eve is a very popular time to eat out and seating is limited. So, the early you can book the better.
Make Gingerbread Houses
Gingerbread house making is one of our favorite holiday traditions. Every year, we host an annual gingerbread house decorating party for friends and neighbors. It’s a much anticipated event filled with warmth, conversation and lots of sugar.
If you’re looking for a fun way to spend Christmas Eve, decorating gingerbread houses could be it. Start by prebuilding the gingerbread houses using a kit. This is much simpler than baking from scratch. I love this one because it comes with four different houses to decorate. (affiliate)
Then, make some royal icing, grab an assortment of decorations and start decorating.
One important note, though. Construct the gingerbread houses in advance. It can take some time for the frosting to fully dry. And coming from experience, there is little fun in watching a gingerbread house dry.
My favorite Christmas craft project is making Christmas ornaments. I love getting creative with tree decorations.
Although Christmas Eve might seem late to start crafting some ornaments, it’s a great activity for excited hands. Find a Christmas ornament project that the whole family will enjoy – like these Christmas pasta ornaments or peppermint candies – or even purchase an ornament making kit (affiliate) to enjoy together.
Then, set up the craft space and let everyone start making. Don’t forget the hot cocoa.
One of the questions that I’m asked the most on Christmas Eve is “When is Santa going to get here?” My usual answer is a reminder that you need to be in bed first. Unfortunately, that doesn’t always quell the curiosity.
Instead when you get that question on Christmas Eve night, hop onto Norad’s Santa Tracker to find an update of his progress around the world. For 60 years, Norad has aided kids to following Santa’s location on Christmas Eve. (The rest of the year they focus on aerospace defense.) You can watch the video feed together or follow the photo updates on social media.
And I figure when he does get close, it’s a great time to head to bed.
Say Farewell to your Elf
Our family was excited to welcome our first Elf this holiday season. As much fun as it’s been to have an Elf in the house, Christmas Eve is a time for him to prepare to go back to the North Pole.
Since it just doesn’t seem right that he disappears into thin air, I’ll be adding to our Christmas Eve traditions this year with an official farewell for him (or her). We will write him a goodbye note or make him elf sized cards, read him a final Christmas story and help him gather some souvenirs to share with the other elves upon his return.
We might even send him back with some special notes to Santa.
Then, we will set him by the milk and cookies plate so that he can hop a ride in Santa’s sack. What a magical way to say adieu.
Although most Christmas festivities are reserved for Christmas Day, one way to extend the joys of the holiday season is starting some Christmas Eve traditions. Christmas Eve has always been such a special day for us. It’s amazing to share some of these Christmas Eve traditions with our own family.
How does your family like to spend Christmas Eve? Do you have Christmas Eve traditions that you enjoy every year? If so, we’d love to hear about them. Be sure to share in the comments below.
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Great post with awesome traditions ideas. Now I want to have Christmas traditions for our family. Cookies and pajamas sounds fun ?
Thanks so much for stopping by! Cookies and pajamas sound great. You could choose one recipe to make year after year or try something new each time. What a great way to make memories together. Enjoy!