Since we moved to Virginia four years ago, my husband and I have attended the annual National Menorah Lighting on the Ellipse, in Washington, D.C. A military band accompanies three cantors while they give the blessing and sing, and latkes and sufganiyot (a type of doughnut often enjoyed on Hanukkah) are served. Afterward we go to our favorite Mediterranean restaurant. I am pregnant with twins due this month, and I can’t wait to share this tradition with them.
Oak Hill, Virginia
When my two siblings and I were very young, our nana started the tradition of hiding a small plastic bird in our Christmas tree (it was notable for the Band-Aid on its left leg, courtesy of a run-in with the family dog). The three of us would search high and low to find the bird, which was supposed to bring the finder luck in the coming year. Once we were adults, our mom wanted us to continue the ritual with our own families, so she gave each of us a replica of a red cardinal. And ever since we’ve enjoyed watching the next generation search for these birds.
New York, New York
A marshmallow fight. It always happens after dinner on Christmas Eve, and usually one of my cousins starts it. Everyone joins in, from the toddlers to the grandparents, until someone waves the white flag.
Jessica P. Sanchez
La Mirada, California
During Hanukkah, we do a Yankee swap, a gift exchange. It has always been great fun, but a few years ago my husband and I decided to make it even more interesting by sneaking decoy gifts into the mix. They look like normal presents from the outside—we wrap up things like CD cases, gift-card envelopes, and wine bottles—but once you look inside, you see that the original item has been replaced with a note card bearing an instruction, such as “Switch gifts with a person of the opposite gender” or “Choose a new gift—and no one can take it from you.” This little twist was a surprise to everyone the first year, but now it is our favorite part of the ritual.
Pearl River, New York
Every December, my friends and I visit a nearby resort that hosts a holiday gnome hunt. Twenty of these white-bearded men, which range from 6 to 12 inches tall, are hidden throughout a giant atrium. Our group of 12 splits into teams of three, and we give ourselves a two-hour time limit to scavenge for the gnomes. The folks who find the largest number of them win free ice cream or hot chocolate, depending on the weather that night.
While we decorate the tree, our family devours a spread of doughnuts and Champagne. We always save the wire cage from the top of the bottle, write the year underneath the cap with a permanent marker, then affix the cage to a high branch. My husband and I have done this since we got married, nearly three decades ago, so this year there will be 27 Champagne cages adorning our tree. They are unusual, to say the least, and add a fun pop of color.
Madison, New Jersey
One tradition that my clan adopted from our hometown of Maracaibo, Venezuela—in fact, it’s common in several Latin American countries—is to wear a new pair of yellow underpants on New Year’s Eve and into the following day. It’s supposed to bring good luck. My husband, who is American, was amused to hear of this custom when I told him about it back in 2006. Later that same day, he came home with two pairs of underwear: Mine were simply yellow, but he could find only a pair of SpongeBob Square-pants boxers for himself. Two pairs of lucky underwear now top our holiday shopping lists every year.
Baton Rouge, Louisiana
After a few glasses of wine on Christmas Eve, my family and friends play Name That Tune using my late mother’s collection of wooden nutcrackers. The rules are simple: You “crack” out the song using the jaw’s lever, and the group has to guess what it is. Christmas carols are typically easy to identify-—I can pull off a mean version of “Jingle Bell Rock”—but opera, which was my mom’s favorite, and blues, my uncle’s music of choice, are nearly impossible to recognize.
Our tree is covered with mementos instead of ornaments. We have key chains from trips (Germany, the Grand Canyon); my grandmother’s credit cards from high-end stores, like Harrods in London; and the hook my brother wore when he played Captain Hook in second grade—all of which are hung with green ribbon. During the year, we keep the more fragile items (origami swans, napkins with funny quotes scribbled on them, business cards) pressed between the pages of a Life magazine from the 1960s, which is when my parents started this tradition. Flipping through that magazine is a beloved part of the occasion now, too.
Saratoga Springs, New York
Our New Year’s Eve would not be complete without bagna cauda, a southern Italian dip. Its literal translation is “hot bath.” To make it, you combine anchovies, tuna, garlic, and heavy cream in a sizzling skillet. (A word of warning: The overpowering smell may ward off some guests.) Still, we believe, as the Italians of Calabria do, that you must consume at least one cabbage leaf soaked in it or your luck in the coming year may be jeopardized.
Prior Lake, Minnesota
I trace my kids’ hands on our red flannel tree skirt with fabric-paint pens and also include their ages. I have been doing this for the past seven years. My boys, ages 13 and 11, have loved witnessing how their hands have grown. The skirt is now half-full. Someday we’ll add their spouses’ handprints, or just wait for their children to be born.
Rebecca Wheat Townsend
We collect dry milkweed pods in the fall. Then we open them during the holidays and blow the fluffy white seeds all over our tree. It looks like snow on the branches.
Vicki Ann Shannon
At midnight on New Year’s Eve, our family and friends join us to bang on the light post in front of our home. Using hammers and wrenches, we hit the post for about two minutes straight while shouting, “Happy New Year!” Hopefully, we don’t drive the neighbors crazy.
Our tradition is eating plum pudding and hard sauce, which is a topping made of butter, sugar, and alcohol. While my sisters and I were growing up, my Irish mother always bought a particular brand of pudding. When the company stopped making it, we tried other versions, but nothing tasted right to us. Mom experimented until she came up with a recipe that was reminiscent of the original. Nowadays, we live far apart from one another, but one thing we all do during the holidays is whip up her matchless holiday treat.
Every January, my family cuts the base off the Christmas tree in order to display it in a glass-topped coffee table. It’s a long process: To keep the wood from rotting, we dry it out for several months, then coat the entire thing in polyurethane. We then use rub-on numbers to mark the year. There is the base of the tree my brother pulled down as a toddler, and one from the tiny tree my dad had when he was serving in Saudi Arabia. The nearly three dozen bases make up a family time line like no other.