8 Timeless Holiday Traditions We Learned from Grandma

What's the best way to spread holiday cheer? Keep your family's traditions going strong.

Don your aprons and grab the eggnog! From baking special treats to stuffing stockings to reconnecting with family and friends, some holiday traditions are definitely worth keeping.

1. Make It Personal

“Write Christmas cards!” —Cate K.

When was the last time you received a handwritten card in the mail? How did it make you feel? Long before emails, texts and Instagram, friends put pen to paper and hand-wrote Christmas cards. Years later came the computer-generated family letter highlighting blissful family moments and all the stellar accomplishments of perfect children. I realize we’re all busier these days, and with the lack of time and increase in postage, this holiday tradition has all but gone by the wayside. But why not buck the trend? Set aside one night to address and stamp cards (let the kids do the stamps!) while sipping hot chocolate or mulled wine. Sending cards is an easy, inexpensive way to give your friends and family a reason to stop for a moment and smile amid the bustle of the season.

2. Toast to the Holiday

“It was my grandpa, not my grandma, who used to make a big batch of grasshoppers the week of Christmas and keep it in the freezer. Anytime friends and family stopped by, we had something fun to offer them as a treat. We’d scoop out a glassful of the yummy ice cream drink and put a candy cane in it to stir it into a drinkable texture. My friends still expect grasshoppers around the holidays even though my grandpa has been gone for many years now.” —Shannon R.

Whether it’s wassail, eggnog or hot buttered rum, having a festive drink at the ready is a great way to welcome holiday guests. It doesn’t have to be alcoholic—a warm Christmas punch works fine to shake off the chill. Just make sure you have enough to go around.

3. Bake Something Special

“My Grandma Carpenter made butterhorns every year for our Christmas Eve spread. The entire family devoured them. Now my mom is the only one in the family who can make them just like grandma. I’ve watched and helped my mom make the famous butterhorns several times throughout the years, but have yet to attempt a batch myself. So much pressure to get it right! Someday I’ll try!” —Kirsten S.

From iced sugar cookies to yeast rolls to fruitcake, if grandmas know how to do one thing, it’s bake. Whether it’s the aroma of freshly baked gingerbread men wafting from the kitchen, or the box of cookies mailed by a grandma far away, those treats make Christmas special.

Why not have a cookie-baking day with your friends or relatives and bake everyone’s vintage family favorites, or—if you won’t divulge the recipes—host a cookie swap and share samples of Gran’s best? One thing’s for sure, if you inherited Grandma’s vintage spritz maker, use it! Your family will thank you.

4. Cook the Roast Beast

“My Grandmother Emma’s Christmas tradition was to cook a big Christmas goose. While it was cooking, we kids would run up and down the back stairs. It was pitch dark and, since the stairs weren’t heated, they were sometimes used for cold storage prior to dinner. I can still feel my foot going into the pot of sweet and sour red cabbage waiting there. To tell you the truth, no one really loved goose that much, but it was sort of like Charles Dickens, and it caught my imagination even then.” —Chris M.

Whether roast turkey, crown roast, juicy prime rib or another family favorite is on the menu, gathering around the table for a big Christmas feast is a holiday highlight for many of us. It’s a chance to take a breath, reconnect with loved ones and savor our time together. That’s why Grandma spent hours in the kitchen preparing this special meal.

Don’t have that kind of time? Try this make-ahead turkey recipe, invite guests to bring a dish to share, and don’t be shy about asking for help in the kitchen. Looking for something more ambitious? Here are a whole host of impressive Christmas dinners to get you started.

5. Celebrate Your Heritage

“Our family continues a tradition from my great-great-grandmother in Sweden that was brought to America by her daughter, my great-grandmother. We gather for a traditional Swedish dinner on Christmas Eve. Each place setting includes a small candle in a brass candle holder. The candles are lit at the start of the meal and burn throughout dinner. We wait to see who has the candle that burns the longest, which brings that person good wishes for the coming year.” —Laurie P.

German stollen. Buttered lefse. Tangy pickled herring. Crispy potato latkes. Black-eyed peas. Celebrating the holiday traditions of your ancestors at the table helps connect families through the years. If you’re lucky enough to have your grandma nearby, learn how to make those traditional family recipes—don’t forget to write them down!—so you can share them and pass them on to future generations.

6. Decorate the Tree

“Every Christmas, my grandmother explains ALL the ornaments she’s gathered over the years, from the ones my father made as a kid to her new (extra flashy) Red Hat Society ones. Her tree is decked!” —Nicole D.

My mother has been fortunate enough to travel all over the world, and she always bought a Christmas ornament from each country she visited. Now her tree is like a little travelogue of her life. I know when I inherit those ornaments someday, I’ll smile at the fond memories of her explaining where each one came from. Carry on this tradition with your family when you travel today, and you’ll leave a lasting legacy of your adventures together that they can celebrate every Christmas.

7. Stuff the Stockings

“Every year my grandma would give each of us grandkids Christmas stockings packed to the brim with individually wrapped gifts, trinkets, candy, chocolate, toys and a dollar bill (sometimes a five or a 10!). We LOVED unwrapping them. Of course once we were done we had to double-check our bill count. If anyone came up short, we’d dig through all the torn wrapping paper looking for that missing dollar bill! It’s a tradition that I definitely plan on passing down to future generations.” —Aria T.

Even now, many years later, my mother stuffs the Christmas stocking she handcrafted for me as a child (repaired many times over) with an orange, an apple, assorted candies and a small gift. It’s the one gift we can open Christmas morning before making breakfast, taking showers and preparing Christmas dinner. And now I know why. The Christmas morning stocking routine is a great way to give kids something to unwrap and to tide them over until company arrives. (Here are some sweet stocking stuffers for inspiration.)

8. Sing “Silent Night”

“My fondest Christmas memory is attending Christmas Eve candlelight service with my family at 11 p.m. The service always ended with the congregation softly singing “Silent Night” while each person held a lit candle. My family attended this service every year, even when we kids were little. I can remember my mom waking me up (I had fallen asleep during the service) so I could participate in the candlelight part.” —Kerri B.

Whether you have a religious affiliation or not, there’s no denying the power of holiday music to bring people together. The tradition of worshipping as a family is one way to celebrate the sounds of the season. Attending a yearly concert of Christmas music is another. Or maybe it’s old-fashioned caroling with neighbors and friends. No matter how you choose to celebrate the holidays, the joy of music makes them even better!

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Dana Meredith
Dana is an editor and writer who shares her passion for travel, food and the beauty of American landscapes. When she's not wielding her red pen, she can be found tending her flower gardens, remodeling her house, creating one-of-a-kind jewelry or dancing to "Uptown Funk."