Some regional Christmas traditions are well known, like Santa’s arrival at the end of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, SantaCon, the lighting of the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center, and the Rockettes Christmas show. We all know these, because they are televised. But there are places far away from New York City that carry on interesting and unique Christmas traditions you might not know about.
1. Chandler, Arizona: The Tumbleweed Tree
The city of Chandler, Arizona, uses tumbleweeds to construct its municipal Christmas tree. They’ve done it every year since 1957. Residents tell the legend of that Christmas, when a fire consumed all the evergreens and they had to make do. But the real story is even better.
The downtown light poles were replaced in 1957, the new ones couldn’t support the old lights, and the residents brainstormed ideas for more modern Christmas decorations. These included wreaths made of cotton bolls and a tumbleweed tree. Residents gushed over the lovely wreaths, but only a couple years later did they realize that out-of-towners were coming back to see the tumbleweed tree. Now the unique tree is the focus of Chandler’s Christmas parade and downtown festivities.
2. Madison, Minnesota: Lutefisk
Scandinavian countries have long preserved fish by drying instead of salting. To reconstitute a dried fish, you can brine it in a lye solution until it’s soft, then soak it in water to remove the lye. The result is lutefisk, or literally “lye fish.” It became a tradition to eat lutefisk for Christmas, possibly because of Catholic restrictions on meat consumption.
When waves of people from Nordic countries immigrated to the United States, they settled in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and further west. They kept the Christmas lutefisk tradition, even after it mostly died out in Scandinavia. Now, more lutefisk is consumed in America than in Europe. Madison, Minnesota, claims the title of “lutefisk capital of the world.”
During the Christmas season, churches and civic groups in Madison and across the Upper Midwest hold huge community dinners featuring the gelatinous seafood. It’s a tradition. For those who attend the dinners but cannot stand lutefisk, there will be plenty of meatballs, potatoes, and Scandinavian desserts.
Lutefisk is not the only American departure from traditional Christmas fare. In Texas and the Southwest, Christmas means handmade tamales, while in Mississippi and Louisiana, chicken or seafood gumbo makes a great Christmas Eve meal.
3. Saratoga Springs, New York: The Peppermint Pig
Beginning in the Victorian era, candy makers in Saratoga Springs, New York, produced hard peppermint candies in the shape of pigs. The tradition in the upstate region was to bring out the pig on Christmas Day, place it in a bag or under a cloth, and father would smash it with a hammer or other tool and distribute the pieces to each child. A variation would be for all the family members to take a whack at the pig, after pronouncing what they were thankful for that year.
How did the tradition begin? Long ago in Europe, pigs were a symbol of good luck, and marzipan candy in the shape of a pig was a Christmas tradition. But marzipan was hard to come by in America, so a confectioner in Saratoga Springs began making pigs of hard peppermint candy. Peppermint pigs died out in the mid-20th century, likely due to World War II sugar rationing.
Then in 1988, Mike Fitzgerald resurrected the peppermint pig at his candy factory, Saratoga Sweets. Older people who recalled the pigs from their childhood bought the candies and re-instituted them as a family tradition. Now Fitzgerald and his crew scramble to make more than 100,000 peppermint pigs every year. The pig has certainly been lucky for them.
4. West Palm Beach, Florida: Sandi
Every year, the residents of West Palm Beach, Florida, unveil a municipal Christmas tree, like so many other towns. But this tree is different- it is a sand sculpture. The tree is always named Sandi, and it has its own Facebook account.
The tradition came about after a sand sculpture exhibit in the town went over well in 2011. The next year, Mark Mason of Team Sandtastic returned to fashion a 35-foot Christmas tree out of 700 tons of sand, and he’s done it every year since. Each night during the Christmas season, Sandi is the star of her own light show.
This year’s tree has been vandalized by someone who climbed up and slid down the tree, but the damage was quickly patched up.
5. Louisiana: Bonfires on the Mississippi
The Great River Road stretches from Baton Rouge to New Orleans. On Christmas Eve, you’ll see numerous bonfires along the riverbank, which has been a tradition for hundreds of years. No one knows the exact origin of the tradition, but the current lore has it that the fires light the way for Santa Claus. The bonfires are built by stacking wood in pyramid shapes by families, friends, or co-workers, and the atmosphere is as festive as a tailgate party.
6. Greensboro, North Carolina: Christmas Balls
The Sunset Hills neighborhood in Greensboro, North Carolina, has a unique Christmas tradition: they hang huge illuminated balls made of chicken wire high in the trees. The tradition began in 1996, when the Jonathan and Anne Smith hung three balls in the trees outside their home. Neighbors liked it, and did their own in subsequent years. The project brought the neighbors together as they taught each other how to make the balls. The effect is magical, as you can see in this drone footage.
By 2007, Sunset Hills became a Christmas destination, so the neighbors decided to use the popularity of the decorations to stage a food drive. Each year, they collect thousands of pounds of food for Second Harvest. The Greensboro Christmas balls have their own blog, where you can follow the progress of the project each season. If you like the look, here’s how to make your own chicken wire balls.
7. Guam: Operation Christmas Drop
Every December, airmen at Andersen Air Force Base in Guam play Santa Claus in a C-130 Super Hercules. They load it full of crates carefully packed with toys, clothing, food, medicine, fishing nets, and school supplies. Those crates are distributed over the tiny islands of Micronesia, where people look forward to the gifts from the sky.
Operation Christmas Drop is the longest-running U.S. military mission, performed annually since the first airdrop in 1952 showered gifts over one island. The goods are donated by the citizens of Guam, who hold fundraisers for the mission all year long. This year, boxes were dropped to 55 remote islands. Since 2017, the air forces of Japan, Australia and New Zealand have joined in to spread the goodwill.
8. Dyker Heights, Brooklyn: Con Ed’s Warmest Heartthrob
Once upon a time, the Dyker Heights neighborhood was just one of several well-to-do neighborhoods in New York City that drew sightseers to view the wonderful Christmas lights. In 1985, Lou Singer monetized the decorations by running tours of these neighborhoods. The residents of Dyker Heights seemed to take that as a challenge, and quickly boosted their Christmas displays to outdo the other neighborhoods.
Within a few years, Dyker Heights became famous as the fanciest Christmas wonderland to drive through. There is no formal coordination of the decor; each household sets its own standards and some don’t participate at all. Those that do mostly use the services of professional lighting companies, and pay thousands of dollars for the decorations each year.
9. Lufkin, Texas: Rudolph the Red-Nosed Pumping Unit
While other towns light a municipal Christmas tree, Lufkin, Texas, has a different annual tradition. The town is home to Lufkin Industries, which makes equipment for the oil industry. Every year since 1966, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Pumping Unit is decorated with festive lights and goes on display, dipping his nose to the ground all day long.
Fully extended, the Mark 640 oil-pump is 45 feet tall, and it takes more than a thousand lights to fully illuminate him every year. Rudolph is attached to a 38-foot trailer carrying a large wooden Santa Claus with his gifts. The lighting ceremony caps off a three-day festival to begin the official Christmas season in Lufkin.
10. New Mexico: Luminarias or Farolitos
For more than 300 years, New Mexicans have been lighting the path to welcome the Christ child. The luminarias or farolitos began as small bonfires leading to churches, homes, and other places of celebration. When paper lanterns from China were introduced in New Mexico, they seemed like a possible innovation for the luminaries, but the lanterns were too fragile to use outside. Then flat-bottomed paper bags were invented in 1872, which, with the addition of sand in the bottom as an anchor, proved perfect for protecting candles from the wind.
The use of luminarias spread to California, Florida, and beyond, but they are still most prominent in New Mexico. If you travel to the state during the Christmas season, be aware that in Santa Fe and the northern part of New Mexico, they are called farolitos, while in Albuquerque and the southern half of the state, they are luminarias.
11. Alaska: Selaviq
Russian Orthodox Christmas in Alaska places a focus on the star that guided the wise men to Bethlehem with the tradition known as Selaviq, or Starring. After the January 6th Christmas Eve church service, a procession carries a large spinning star to various homes, where celebrations include singing and eating that can last for hours.