25 Ideas to Celebrate an Old-Fashioned Christmas

Channel the warmth of holidays past with these simple tips for having an old-fashioned Christmas.

Published November 18, 2022
Mother and sons reading Christmas book together

The magic of a tree full of lights in the living room and carols playing on the stereo can instantly take you back to the Christmases of your childhood. Sure, ordering gifts from your phone and picking up eggnog lattes from the cafe drive-through have an undeniable awesomeness (not to mention convenience), but supercharging your Christmas spirit sometimes involves taking a step back in time. Look to the past, whether it's your own childhood or the charming customs of the last century, to add some old-fashioned Christmas traditions to your celebration and make everything just a little merrier this year.

Deck the Halls the Old-Fashioned Way

The feeling of Christmas starts with the decorations. These days, you can buy a string of lights in just about any funky shape and have them delivered to your home overnight. While that's super fun, Christmas decorations of the past were definitely a bit less flashy - literally. Try these ideas to decorate your home the way people did in simpler times.

Use Tons of Natural Greenery

There's nothing like the sight and smell of a house decorated with fresh evergreens to call up all the beautiful Christmases of the past. Grab a few evergreen boughs, some pruning shears, and a little floral wire to make your own garlands. You can use the extra branches from the bottom of your tree, cut a few yourself on a nature walk, or score some free ones by asking at the Christmas tree lot. Just trim them and wire them together to give your home instant holiday beauty.

If you're short on time, many tree nurseries and Christmas tree lots have garlands for sale. You don't need a huge one to have a great impact on your home. Hang it over your front door or fireplace where everyone will see it.

Cut Your Own Christmas Tree

Couple with a tree cut from the forest

If you live near a cut-your-own tree lot, this can be a great way to channel those Christmases from long ago. Remember the joy of picking out that perfect tree and cutting it down? If your childhood didn't include this iconic holiday tradition, it's an easy one to get on board with. Just grab the kids or dogs, a sled, and a saw.

One thing that's great about cutting your own tree is that it's price-accessible. The tree farm doesn't have to cut and ship the trees, so they tend to be a little cheaper. Plus, fresh-cut trees last longer when they're in your home.

Light Real Candles

You don't have to have a fireplace to create that old-fashioned ambiance. Before electricity, people used candles and oil lamps to light their homes. They even used candles on the Christmas tree. While open flame, potentially dried tree branches, and pets and kids can be kind of a holiday hazard (what could possibly go wrong?), you can get this classic look with well-supervised candles on your table or mantel.

You don't even need to invest in special Christmas candles or candle holders to make this work. Just gather up the candles you have and scatter them around your living room. Turn off all the lights and enjoy the simple loveliness of the season.

Choose Vintage Ornaments for Your Tree

Vintage Christmas ornaments

Think back to your grandma's Christmas tree. She probably didn't have tons of flashy ornaments in coordinated color themes. Her tree most likely had a collected look with ornaments of different colors, shapes, and sizes hanging on its branches.

If you're lucky enough to have some of your grandparents' ornaments, hang those on your tree. If not, you can find great deals on vintage ornaments at thrift stores. They don't have to match or be in perfect condition. For that old-fashioned, eclectic look, it's perfectly fine to mix and match.

String Up Some Bubble Lights

Remember bubble lights? These lights replicate the charming look of candles on your tree without all the not-so-charming fire danger. They definitely had a moment back in the last half of the 20th century, and making them part of your holiday decor adds a ton of old-fashioned appeal.

Bubble lights work by heating a liquid in a little glass cylinder on top of the light. The bubbles give a sense of movement and magic. You can hang a strand of bubble lights on your tree or put individual bulbs in electric candle holders around your home. Keep in mind that these lights should stay up high on the tree and out of kids' reach, since they are glass and contain a liquid you shouldn't ingest.

Make a Few Fragrant Decorations

There's normal old-fashioned, and then there's old old-fashioned. Have you ever seen those oranges with cloves in them hanging from doorways or sitting in bowls during the holidays? Called pomanders, these decorations hail from the Middle Ages. Back then, they did more than just look pretty; they also kept bad smells away.

You can make some orange pomanders with a few simple and affordable items. You just need a fairly firm orange, some whole cloves, and a toothpick. Poke the toothpick into the orange to create some holes and stick the cloves into the holes to create pretty patterns. It's that easy, and it will only take a few minutes to complete.

Decorate a Gingerbread House

Siblings decorating gingerbread house

If you're going for old-fashioned, the ultimate holiday centerpiece is a gingerbread house you decorated yourself. Depending on how much time you have, you can make the actual structure out of from-scratch gingerbread, or you can also buy pre-baked kits at most grocery stores. This lets you focus on the part that's the most fun - the decoration.

You'll need white royal icing, which you can make or buy, plus all the scrumptious candy you want for decoration. Devote an afternoon or evening to the project if you have it. You can play Christmas music while you work on it.

Remember the Old Ways of Gift Giving

Although Christmas doesn't always have to include gift giving, this is a pretty major part of the holiday for many people. There are lots of ways to give gifts that celebrate the joy of an old-fashioned holiday.

Do Your Christmas Shopping in Person

We have to acknowledge the convenience of online shopping and the way you can easily find just about anything these days. Need the exact unicorn sparkle lip balm your niece maybe always wanted? Check. Still, remember how fun it was to shop at the mall or in a little downtown area? There'd be Christmas music playing in all the shops, and everyone would be smiling and excited about the holiday.

One way to have an old-fashioned Christmas experience is to do at least some of your holiday shopping in person. You can support local businesses and get that lovely Christmas feeling as you check items off your list. Sure, it may take a little more time, but you'll be having fun while you do it.

DIY Some of Your Gifts

If you have the time, you can make some of the gifts for people on your list. You don't have to be the super crafty type to do this; a lot of DIY Christmas gift projects are really doable with some simple supplies and a good set of instructions. You can even use kits from the craft store. The key here is putting the extra time and effort into the present; you'll feel all the more Christmasy because of that investment.

Consider what you do well and center your homemade gifts around that. Are you awesome at baking? Whip up some special treats or food in a jar. You can also make a gift basket with ingredients for a favorite cocktail, special items for a family evening at home, or anything else that seems fun. It's all about taking some time and putting your own personal touch on a present.

Give Kids Gifts That Don't Need Batteries

Kids tobogganing on Christmas

Sure, your little cousin will love that mini drone, but she'll also love finding a brand-new sled under the Christmas tree. While the Christmases of years past did include some classic powered toys (Lite-Brite, anyone?), the really simple toys are one way to channel that old-time charm.

Think board games, dolls, stuffed animals, art supplies, you name it. Most of the toys that are really memorable and special don't need batteries or access to a nearby electrical outlet.

Cut Back a Little on the Presents

There's no need to be a total Scrooge about it, but cutting back a little on the gift giving may just make sense. Remember that the overflowing Christmas trees of today aren't what people experienced in the past. It's pretty hard to resist, but cutting back is one way to make your holiday a little more old fashioned.

If you exchange gifts with people on a regular basis, it's good to talk through any plans to get back to basics and reduce your gifting. That way, there won't be any hurt feelings or awkward moments.

Choose Vintage Gifts From the Thrift Store

One great way to give your holiday retro appeal is to give gifts that are old-fashioned because they're actually old. You can find some amazing thrift store gift ideas at any secondhand shop, or you can shop at antique stores or online retailers with vintage and antique items.

You can add a few new items to create a "kit" with your vintage pieces or simply collect some lovely antiques that you know someone will enjoy. Think about what the recipient loves and see if you can find the old-fashioned version of that thing. We're talking vintage kitchen tools, a retro-cool barware set, mix-and-match antique teacups, or anything else that's fun and funky.

Wrap Gifts in Natural Materials

Beautifully wrapped gift

Sparkling mylar ribbon and glittery wrapping paper are pretty, but they don't feel like classic Christmas. Instead, choose natural materials for wrapping gifts. These can be reusable fabric bags, simple wrapping paper, or a pretty piece of cloth.

Decorate gifts with things you find on nature walks, such as pine cones, greenery, or berries. You can also use vintage lace and ribbon, which tend to be quite affordable at many antique stores and thrift shops.

Prioritize Meaning and Mindfulness for the Holiday

You know how everyone always talks about how fast-paced the world is today? It's not that people don't have as much time as they used to. After all, we're not out there churning butter for the Christmas dinner or washing all the clothes by hand for everyone to wear to the feast. Instead, it's that people feel busy. Try some holiday traditions that help you be mindful of the joys of the season.

Start Christmas When It's Time to Start Christmas

These days, Christmas seems to start as soon as the Halloween decorations come down. And let's be honest - in some cases, it's even earlier. But just because the big box store has their decorations out long before the snow flies, doesn't mean you need to as well.

Keep Christmas in its season so you can enjoy it more. This lets the whole month of December be all about the holiday without diluting the Christmas spirit by spreading it out over three months.

Really Listen to Christmas Music

African American woman listening to music

Any time you head out to the stores or even wait for your car at the shop, Christmas music is filling in the background silence. It's easy to let it blend in and become holiday noise, but for many people, this traditional holiday music can bring powerful associations of the past. Remember your grandpa tapping his toes to "We Wish You a Merry Christmas"?

If you have a chance during the stressful holiday season, take some time to just sit back and listen to those old holiday songs you've known all your life. Even better, turn off all the lights except the Christmas tree and sit in the dark with your family listening to Bing Crosby and Nat King Cole croon all the classics.

Take a Drive to See the Lights

Did you have the holiday tradition of taking a drive to see the Christmas lights when you were growing up? Everyone in the car could sing or listen to carols and admire all the beautiful displays in your neighborhood. You can bring this childhood classic into the modern era by doing it with your own family or even on your own.

As you drive, remember to stay focused on the moment. Turn off your phone and keep the conversation focused on what is happening right now - let the magic of those lights make your holiday a little more incandescent.

Write Your Holiday Cards by Hand

Woman making Christmas card list

Sure, everyone loves to receive beautiful holiday cards with professional family photos and typed messages. There are so many gorgeous designs, and they do give you a sense of how families you know are growing and changing and where they've been over the course of the year. Still, there's something missing that used to be part of the holiday - the handwritten note.

Sitting down and writing a real letter to the people in your life can be an important way to be mindful too. It takes time, for sure, and the holiday season can be a bit of a stress spiral when it comes to demands. Still, that moment of really thinking about what you want to say to those who matter is an old-fashioned tradition that can help re-center you on what really matters. You can always include handwritten messages with a few of your cards if you're short on time.

Embrace the Old-Fashioned Christmas Traditions

Modern Christmas traditions are fun, but you can amp up the holiday cheer by working in a few favorite oldies but goodies. Try bringing in one or more of these classic ideas.

Dress Up for Christmas Dinner

No one wore jeans to holiday dinners back in the early part of the 20th century. Even when your parents were little, dressing up was probably part of the Christmas celebration. What you wear can change how you feel about what you're doing; dressing up means something is worth dressing up for.

We're not talking dusting off your old prom dress here. Just ask everyone to spruce up a little and maybe wear holiday colors. It will make Christmas more of an event, the way it used to be back in the old days. You can even get a family picture of everyone looking dapper.

Watch the Christmas TV Specials From When You Were a Kid

Santa Claus ready to watch TV Christmas Specials

You might not think of TV as old-fashioned, but the truth is, it's been in a lot of living rooms since the 1950s. Remember all those weird Christmas specials? Some of them were made decades before you saw them.

For a little old-time fun, have a Christmas TV special night. You can invite friends or just watch with family. Either way, pick out some of your favorites from decades past and enjoy the primitive animation and wholesome entertainment that used to be a regular part of the holiday season.

Make Some Homemade Christmas Candy

Buying Christmas candy is easy. When you go through the aisles at your grocery store, there are so many festive options for raising your blood sugar that it's easy to get overwhelmed. There weren't so many choices in the old days. In fact, many families made their own candy.

You can do this at home. One great place to start is Christmas truffles, which you can customize with your own favorite flavors. You can also make caramels, toffee, peanut brittle, or anything else that sounds like the holiday sugar rush your heart desires.

Put Christmas Crackers on the Plates at Dinner

An old-fashioned tradition from England, Christmas crackers are the ultimate interactive treat. Wrapped in colorful paper, the crackers double as a table decoration if you place them on plates at Christmas dinner. When you pull the ends and open them, you'll get the surprise of paper crowns, little toys, and jokes or fortunes.

You can find Christmas crackers at most stores during the holiday season. You can also buy them online.

Go Christmas Caroling

Three women Christmas caroling

Another great way to bring the beauty of the past into your modern Christmas celebration is to go caroling. People used to get together and go door to door singing Christmas carols in their neighborhood. If you know your neighbors, this can be a fun way to bring the past into the present.

You can also get together with community groups to sing carols. Some small towns have caroling at the town square or downtown. Other places hold caroling at churches, community centers, or schools. Getting together to sing your favorite Christmas songs is fun in a decidedly retro way.

Read The Night Before Christmas Out Loud

A Visit From St. Nicholas, or as it's commonly known, The Night Before Christmas, is a long poem originally published back in the 1820s. Authored by Clement C. Moore, it talks about a man seeing Santa Claus filling the stockings in his home. You have almost definitely heard it many times, but if not, you'll be surprised by how many of the images in this poem define what we consider an old-fashioned Christmas. Visions of sugar plums? Yes, please.

You can find the poem in book form in any bookstore during the holidays or online via the Poetry Foundation. Start a tradition of reading it out loud and letting the magic in its pages add to the charm of your Christmas.

Make Some Actual Sugar Plums

If reading The Night Before Christmas makes you a little hungry, try your hand at making an old-fashioned holiday treat. Sugar plums are actually pretty easy to make at home.

This sugar plum recipe calls for dried fruit, sugar (of course), spices, and brandy. It doesn't take a lot of hands-on time, so if you're rushing around doing other holiday tasks or just your normal adulting, you can multitask while the plums are chilling.

Hold a Holiday Game Night

Family playing a board game at Christmas

Playing games with family and friends is a Victorian Christmas tradition, and it's also an easy one to bring into you modern celebration. Winter evenings can be long, so incorporating a game night just makes sense.

You can play old-fashioned games like checkers, chess, or cards, or you can update it with your favorite board games or strategy games. Either way, it's a great way to spend quality time together over the holiday.

Add Some New (Old) Traditions

With a few new (old) traditions, you can make your Christmas feel timeless and truly special this year. Think about what really adds meaning to your holiday and work those little things into your celebration. Most of them are too easy not to try, and the Christmas spirit payoff is huge.

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25 Ideas to Celebrate an Old-Fashioned Christmas