30 holiday traditions that don't involve religion

Written by:
November 20, 2018
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30 holiday traditions that don't involve religion

The holiday season is the time of year for warding off wintertime blues. People can distract themselves by celebrating the winter solstice, Christmas, Kwanzaa, Hanukkah, and the changing from the old year to the new one.

Some cultural or faith-based practices go back to ancient times. Today though, many create additional ways to commemorate this season, turning them into personal, family, and community traditions. Some are quirky and not transferable to anyone beyond the microculture that practices them. However, others are creative, inclusive ways to celebrate life when the days are the shortest and the weather is the coldest.

Stacker presents this look at 30 fun ways to spend time this holiday season outside of a faith-based practice. See if any of these are on your list, or might be for this coming season.

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Cruising the light displays

Even if your own holiday traditions don't involve tree lighting, it is hard to resist cruising the neighborhood to admire lighting displays at residences or businesses. These might range from the understated strands of twinklers around the front door frame to inflatable reindeer on the lawn or throbbing music timed to a laser show. They'll give you ideas of what to do, and what not to do, next year.

Sharing annual family recipes

Holidays are the time to make and share traditional dishes with the family even if they aren't everyone's favorite. Sweet potatoes made sweeter with marshmallows, turkey dressing made with toasted Wonder bread, or green Jello embedded with pear can all evoke the spirits of loved ones from the past. Is it any wonder people want to pass them on?


Holiday open house

Now is the time to take care of all those social obligations you've racked up over the year. Throw an annual holiday open house, invite friends, neighbors, or business associations. The food preparations should be much less intensive than for a dinner party, and you can decorate your home in a way that showcases your own traditions. You can even do this as a part of a local fundraiser if you wish to open your home more broadly.

Shopping as a team sport

Shopping is not just about buying things. Sure, it's a way to acquire items you keep or give to others. However, holiday shopping is its own animal. It is a holiday bonding activity in which people forage for great deals on electronics, clothing, or gifts they might find a recipient. 

Watching holiday movies

If you like to head to the movie theater with friends and family, you'll have choices from family-friendly films like "Mary Poppins Returns" or action-fantasy films like "Aquaman." If you are a home-binger who likes to eat and talk through a movie, you can stay in the holiday season spirit with romances on the Lifetime and Hallmark channels. Also, don't forget those traditional choices, like "It's a Wonderful Life" and "A Christmas Story."

Watching college football bowl games

Why wait for the NCAA college Final Four playoffs to get into the action? Starting with the Celebration Bowl on Dec. 19 and ending with the national championship on Jan. 7, there are 40 football games during the holidays. That means plenty of chances for family and friends to gather around the big screen or head to the local sports bar to follow the action. For non-sports fans, these high-interest, big-money contests still have great commercials you can enjoy.

Getting off the couch and working out

In between all the holiday cocktails and snacks, there may be extra reason to work in some physical fitness. You can do this alone or with friends at the gym, or with the thousands of people who take part in holiday season motivational fitness challenges.

Taking holiday getaways

This might be a trip to grandma's house, but it is also a handy time to take the kids on a trip while school is out for winter break. Popular locations for winter travel are warmer places or locations. While predictions for 2018 are not yet available, last year AAA predicted 107.3 million Americans would be on the go from Dec. 23 through Jan. 1.

Playing board games

While on break from school and work, the long dark nights of the holiday season are a perfect time to turn off the TV and dust off those board games. There are great new games that can become a holiday tradition if you play them long enough. Remember, there's nothing like a rousing game of Twister to get the gang laughing and burning off extra holiday pounds.

Activities with the elderly community

Most communities have at least one long-term care center where residents may not have many visitors. Activity directors set up events where groups can volunteer together, sing carols, lead bingo sessions, or visit with other residents. See whether your workplace, church group, or social club would like to start this caring holiday tradition.

Events at the local library

Public libraries are more than a place to access the internet or catch up on the world by reading multiple newspapers shelved there. Libraries frequently hold free, family-friendly activities, and holiday time is an especially busy time.

Burning a bayberry candle

When the Colonists arrived from Europe, they relied on candles made of tallow, which smoked and gave off a foul order. It was a happy day when they discovered bayberry on the shores of the New World, which was a more preferable alternative to candles made of tallow. Today, lighting a bayberry candle on the eve of the holiday and letting it extinguish naturally is believed to bring prosperity and good luck.

Cleaning out the closet

Many receive new clothing at the holidays, so clearing out the closet to make room for these items is sometimes necessary. It also can be an activity for the whole family. Each member can contribute unneeded, gently worn items for the local charitable clothes closet. This activity is a sound reminder about helping others and keeping unnecessary items out of the local landfill.

Caring for wildlife

Feeding birds is a hobby many enjoy because it gives people a chance to see nature up close, often right in their own yard. While winter's cooler temperatures make treks to the bird feeder less convenient, it is even more important that wildlife have access to fresh food and water. Bird lovers are especially prone to put out extra special treats during the holiday season, such as suet, fruit, and mealworm. 

Designing personalized holiday cards

Buying boxes of seasons greeting cards, signing, stamping, and sending is certainly an option for those with full plates. But the holidays are also a chance to create greeting cards with personal flair and style. It is just a matter of taking a photo and uploading it to a card design website for a one-of-a-kind greeting card to share.

Donating to food banks

While shopping for gifts during the holiday season can bring joy to loved ones, not everyone is so lucky: Some struggle to put a roof over their family's heads let alone presents under a tree. You might make a family tradition out of volunteering time or donating items during the holiday season. This is also a wonderful opportunity to meet like-minded people, and learn about other ways to make a difference throughout the year.

Learning about another culture

Most cultures are full of traditions to celebrate the holiday time. Unless one is part of that particular culture, however, it can be difficult to learn about those practices. Some families and classrooms use each new season to select another culture, read up about its traditions, and incorporate them into their own activities for the year.

Full moon skiing

Not everyone has access to snow or slopes, but those who can have started a tradition of skiing under a full moon. This can be done on cross-country skis, downhill skis, or snowboards. The full moon this year is Dec. 22. Even if you aren't a winter-sports buff, you could try a moonlight run instead.


Reading a holiday classic

For many reading is a solitary activity. However, that hasn't stopped book clubs from being enormously popular because people want to socialize over reading. Whether reading alone or getting together with a group, December is a great month to choose a holiday classic. Charles Dickens' “A Christmas Carol" is #1 on this list, so you can decide if the original is better than the more than 20 movie versions.

Throw an ugly sweater party

The opportunity to wear something ugly intentionally has found its purpose with the ugly sweater party. It might seem a little mean to poke fun of people who buy Christmas sweaters covered in cartoon reindeer, snowflakes, elves, and other emblems of the holiday season. Just make sure that whoever gave you that kitschy, but warm garment isn't on the guest list.

Creating handmade gifts

Crafting presents with your own hands can be a gratifying and meaningful approach to holiday gift-giving. It is also a way to get the kids involved: Together you could write, illustrate, and stitch together a book. Or you could make a calendar for the coming year complete with hand-drawn or collected images. With the holidays comes extra time with family you may not get to see frequently. Consider recording an interview with older family members for younger generations to enjoy. 

Annual Christmas bird count

Join the 119th National Audubon Society bird count, held from Dec. 14 to Jan. 5. Birds within designated areas are counted all day, giving an indication of the total number of birds in a particular location. Beginning birders are welcome to join in. However, certain methodologies need to be followed, so you'll need to register in advance.  

Cutting a fresh Christmas tree

Regardless of one's personal cultural practices, a light-and-ornament filled Christmas tree is a beautiful addition to seasonal decorating. Trees don't have to be the pre-lit plastic sort that come in a box. Head out to a local Christmas tree farm where trees are cultivated specifically for this purpose. You might also go to a local state or national forest where managers sell tree cutting permits for areas where tree thinning is desired.

Singing Christmas carols

Christmas caroling is what it is called now, but singing special songs during the dark days of winter goes back to Roman times. Today, many know the words to “Jingle Bells" or “We Wish You a Merry Christmas" by sheer force of repetition. 

Kissing under the mistletoe

Some ancient people considered mistletoe an aphrodisiac, associating it with vivacity and fertility. The custom of kissing under the mistletoe has been traced back to ancient Greece. Also, if you have a kissing partner at the stroke of midnight on New Year's Eve, tradition says you'll have fortune in the fertility department. If this practice leaves you feeling awkward and left out, you might like the Scottish version, called Hogmanay: There, you get to kiss everyone in the room.

Holiday gifts for four-legged family members

Many holiday traditions include inviting friends and extended relatives into homes, which means pets are likely present and involved. In fact almost three-quarters of dog and cat owners purchase gifts for their pets during the holiday season. From toys to treats to elf costumes, the possibilities are endless.

Traditional foods for the New Year

Ringing in the new year brings with it numerous traditions, including the foods used to smooth out the transition. For example, black-eyed peas are associated with African-American traditions. Pork is said to be a traditional New Year's meal because pigs have a forward, snout-first method of grazing.

Dream about spring planting

There's delayed gratification involved, but millions of gardening Americans receive seed catalogs in the mail or online every year, as close as possible to New Year's Day. For many, that's when warm sunshine and soft soil are a possibility. Gardeners in winter page through catalogs, dreaming of promising fruit trees, impossible tomatoes, or perfect perennials.


Fruitcake is as old as ancient Egypt. Later, the Romans prized baked good for their shelf life. Throughout the centuries and across many cultures, fruitcake became a repository for sugar, preserved fruits, and calories.

Plan an achievable New Year's Resolution

Saving money followed by losing weight and getting in shape were Americans' top two resolutions for 2018. Typically less than 10% of people keep their eyes on the prize past February. This list might give you some ideas of things you'll want to do in 2019 to make your holidays even richer. 

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