30+ Ideas for Family Holiday Traditions (Besides Elf on the Shelf)


One of the best things about the holiday season is the sense of tradition that comes with it. Either through religious beliefs or family memories, we all come into the season with a certain idea of how things should go. One of the best parts about being a parent during the holidays is that we also have a chance to shape our children’s memories of this time of year. You’ve probably chosen to carry over some traditions with which you grew up, but it’s also fun to create new ones together.

Here are ideas for big and little things to do at home and around the Bay Area to make your family’s holidays memorable, and check out our SF Guide to the Holidays for details on tree lightings, Santa visits, and more. 

What’s your favorite holiday tradition? 

At Home 

Make a family keepsake. Stamp your kids handprints on a piece of fabric and build a quilt. Save your children’s letters to Santa in a photo album. If you’re musically inclined, write an original song to sing each year. It doesn’t matter what it is, as long as it’s something that lasts year after year. 

Learn about the holiday. Whether you choose to focus on particular stories from your religion, learn how it’s celebrated in different parts of the world, listen to stories from older family members about their childhood memories, or choose an entirely new religion to learn about, find ways to connect your kids with the larger spirit of the season. 

Write holiday cards together. Instead of laying the burden of mailing cards entirely on yourself, find ways for the whole family to pitch in, even if it’s licking the envelopes. (Milk and cookies are excellent motivators)

Elf yourself. Everyone will get a kick out of seeing themselves as animated elves, and it couldn’t be easier to do. 

Track Santa. Starting December 1, the NORAD website has an official Santa tracker, so your kids can keep tabs on the big guy all the way through Christmas Day. If the North American Aerospace Defense Command can get into the Christmas spirit, then anyone can. 

Plan visits from the holiday fairies. Leading up to the main holiday events, plan something fun to do with your kids each day. Have your kids open an envelope from the “fairies” each morning with a special activity for the day. It doesn’t matter what it is, as long as it’s something planned to do together (and you won’t have to look much further than this list for your inspiration).

Decorate the house. Have your kids make an ornament each year to hang on the tree (plus extras to give to grandparents). String popcorn and cranberries for garland. Cut out paper snowflakes. There are so many ways this can be a family affair, all while listening to holiday music, of course.

Make food together. Whether you love to bake, make gift bags of spiced nuts, or cook latkes each year for Hanukah, doing it together makes it more special, and the smells of those foods will stick with your kids through adulthood bringing them right back to your kitchen. 

Watch old movies. Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, and YouTube make it possible to watch even the most obscure movie from your childhood. Find your favorite and share it with your kids.

Write a letter. The old standby recipient of letters is Santa, of course, but it’s also fun to have your kids write to themselves to open the following year. Pre-writers can dictate to you what they want to say, and you can write to your child if they’re not yet verbal. Store the letters with your holiday decorations, so it’s easy to find next year. Or, choose another relative to write to. In this electronic age, keeping the tradition of written letters alive feels perfect for the nostalgia of the holiday season. We love ted&kate stationary for special correspondences. 

Give your child a special present on their first holiday. Maybe it’s their very own menorah or a special ornament, but having something that you pull out each year, prompting the story of when they were little, will make them feel special. 

Wear matching family pajamas. If at least one of your holiday traditions isn’t making someone in your family roll their eyes, then you’re not doing it right. Nothing beats Hanna Andersson for a picture-perfect family jammy fest.

Out & About

Volunteer together. There are so many opportunities to volunteer and give back to the community. Here are a few ideas:

Go caroling. Gather a group of friends or neighbors and spread holiday cheer. Print out the lyrics to classic songs here, and loosen up everyone’s inhibitions with thermoses full of this eggnog recipe. Or, contact a local seniors center and volunteer your vocal talents.

Take professional family photos. You probably have thousands of pictures of your kids in your phone, but do you have a truly frame-worthy one of your whole family? Whether you splurge for a professional photo session or snap a family picture with Santa, make a point of getting a high quality photo of all of you. 

Visit Santa. The long lines are worth it, even if your child’s picture ends up looking like this: 

holiday family traditions
Photo used with permission.

See a holiday show. There are so many family-friendly performances happening this time of year. Some of our favorites:  

A Charlie Brown Christmas at the SF Symphony

Grace Cathedral Christmas performances

A Christmas Carol at the American Conservatory of Theater (ACT) 

The Velveteen Rabbit performed by ODC

Deck the Hall at Davies Symphony Hall 

Visit Zoo Lights at the San Francisco Zoo. The zoo is always a perfect day trip with the kids, but it is truly magical this time of year. Plus, Santa and reindeer.

Check out ‘Tis the Season at California Academy of Sciences. Snow flurries inside, reindeer up close and personal and an ice rink are crowd favorites at this annual tradition. 

Go ice skating. Besides Cal Academy, Union Square, and the Embarcadero set up popular rinks.

Go to a Tree Lighting ceremony. There are many in the city, and we’ve listed them here for you.

Enjoy The Great Dickens Christmas Fair. The Cow Palace goes back in time to Victorian England and the world of Charles Dickens, including a special kids section with a Victorian-styled Santa.

Visit WinterFest at California Great AmericaThis amusement park is completely transformed into a winter wonderland. If it doesn’t get you in the spirit of the season, we don’t know what will. 

Holidays on the Farm at Dell’Osso Family Family Farm. Think of this as your one-stop shop to jam pack holiday cheer into one day. Santa, ice skating, snow tubing, a country store and more, all with free admission.

Tour the Christmas lights around the city. Take a walk around your neighborhood or hop in the car and gaze at the famous Victorian houses and other landmarks dressed up for the holidays. Tom and Jerry’s over the top decoration of their Noe Valley house is not to be missed.

Delight in a Christmas Tea Service. What a special treat to get dressed up and dine in a fancy, beautifully decorated restaurant. Check out the best known services here.

Hand out candy canes with a Happy Holidays message to passersby. On your next walk through the neighborhood, come stocked with candy canes attached with a friendly message. It’ll brighten the day of so many people in your community.

Take a train ride. The Niles Canyon Holiday Lights Train and the Napa Valley Wine Train Santa Train are magical experiences for the whole family.

Pick out a Christmas tree. Whether you go to a tree farm or a lot nearby, getting the family’s input on this centerpiece of the season is a must.

Watch the Fisherman’s Wharf Lighted Boat ParadeBoats covered in holiday lights and decorations will parade through the water for a festive celebration of the holiday season.

Visit Filoli GardensThe grounds here are stunning all year round, but they are extra special for the holidays. Reserve your tickets early, as every holiday occasion here is a popular one. 

Share your favorite holidays in the comments below! 



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