15 COVID-Safe (and Frugal!) Christmas Traditions To Try This Year

Many of your cherished family holiday traditions may not be possible this year — we can’t safely gather indoors with extended family groups, large public events have been cancelled, many businesses are closed or have limited access.

15 safe covid christmas traditions graphicUse this opportunity to consider adding these new or alternate traditions to your family’s holiday season — some you may have heard about before and others may be all new to you.

15 COVID-Safe Christmas Traditions To Try This Year

1. Holiday Meal

For extended family groups celebrating apart: everyone orders the same takeout meal or prepares the same meal in their home (or, each family prepares one dish out of the usual communal meal) and eats it at the same time together on Zoom. Follow it up with a group rendition of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” with each person assigned a line of the song. Finish the night with a virtual Zoom game like Photo Roulette, Heads Up, Quiplash or another fun family game.

2. Holiday Lights

Get into pajamas, grab some hot cocoa (either made at home or from a local coffeehouse), turn on 104.5 (the all-Christmas music, all the time radio station), your favorite playlist, or a holiday audiobook, and drive around looking at holiday lights. You can also use this printable scavenger hunt list to add even more excitement for your kids. Another family could travel in a separate car and compete to see who completes the scavenger hunt first.

3. Christmas Breakfast

For a special breakfast on Christmas morn that’s also relatively simple, try these Christmas tree waffles. Use a pre-mixed batter and skip the paper star to make it even easier!

4. Books!

In early December, browse the website of a local bookstore (or a list of top books of the past year). Make a Top 5 wish list. Then, exchange names with your family members so each person can buy one book from the wish list for their randomly-assigned family member to enjoy.

5. Hike

Start the year outdoors by taking a “First Day” hike on January 1 at a local city, county, or state park. Bundle up, and even if you make it less than a mile, you’ve started the year off on the right foot with an appreciation of nature, exercise, and family togetherness. Find a state park or check out one of these recommended hiking spaces outside of Iowa City. Last year we visited Mines of Spain and enjoyed these incredible views!

6. Get Crafty!

Make an orange pomander, which is a cheap, easy, time-honored (Victorian-era) winter craft. Merely an orange pierced by whole cloves, this craft is good for little hands (use a toothpick to pre-punch holes if the clove ends hurt fingers) will add fragrance and visual interest to your home over the holidays and beyond. Check out these instructions and design ideas.

7. Stockings of Love

Make “stockings of love” for individuals experiencing hardship or homelessness. Fill a Ziploc with a pair or two of new socks, along with a few dollars in cash, a few travel size toiletries, and a few food items (softer foods are better – things like chewy granola bars, meat sticks, and applesauce pouches). Keep them in your car and give them to folks using signage to ask for help, or stock the Little Free Pantry in front of the Catholic Worker House at 1414 Sycamore St., Iowa City.

8. Christmas Boxes

Make a personalized Christmas box for kids to open on Christmas Eve morning containing a Christmas movie, cozy pajamas, a mug and cocoa, a Christmas book, and a craft kit. Spend the day in pajamas enjoying the items from the box!

9. Affirmations

When you decorate your tree, write something to yourself, either individually or as a family: a list of affirmations or things you’re grateful for, special wishes or goals, or a letter to your future self. Slip it in the box where you keep your ornaments, and it will be there next year when you open the box, ready to be read and enjoyed!

10. Yule Log

Got a fireplace or backyard fire pit? Take a hike and pick up a downed, dry branch to use as a Yule log. Also pick up any little natural elements you like, such as small evergreen twigs, feathers, pinecones, or whatever your kids can find. Wrap the log in ribbon and tuck the other findings into the ribbons. Burn it after dark on the Winter Solstice. Optional: write down regrets, negative thoughts, or general emotional hang-ups on little slips of paper and ceremonially throw those on the fire. Also optional: drink a glass of mead while you do it. Learn more about the Yule Log and other Solstice traditions.

11. Picture Books

Wrap 24 holiday picture books and open one each night until Christmas. They don’t need to be new books – use the same collection of books every year. The surprise is finding out which one you’ll be reading at bedtime that night! Plus, it takes the edge off the anticipation of unwrapping gifts for kids and helps them be less antsy about Christmas morning gifts. Check out these 16 winter picture books to consider, and another 10 beloved Christmas childhood favorites to add to your collection.

12. Geminid Meteor Shower

Head out at night to watch the Geminid meteor shower, expected to peak December 13-14 (but it should feature a decent showing the weekend leading up to the peak days as well). You could see 150 meteors an hour! Head out to the country to escape light pollution, give yourself at least an hour of observation time, and know the meteors will be most active around 2 a.m. Learn more about the meteor shower.

13. Toilet Paper Bowling

Some families go bowling on Christmas Eve. Since that’s not an option this year, try toilet paper bowling. Arrange rolls in a pyramid and try to knock them down, or, to allow littles to practice math skills, have them write numbers on empty TP rolls and count the number of “pins” knocked down after each turn. For more physical activity, if there’s snow on the ground, visit a great sledding hill in the Iowa City area and hit the slopes (as long as they’re not too crowded!).

14. Campout

Have a family campout under the tree either on Christmas Eve or on a weekend night leading up to Christmas. The tree lights are magical in the quiet dark, but you can sleep on couches or slip away to your own bed once kids drift off if you’re not committed enough to magical Christmas memories to spend all night sleeping on a floor.

15. Stovetop Simmer Pot

Make a stovetop simmer pot to have your whole house smelling warm, cozy, and evocative of the winter holidays. This easy recipe that features oranges, cinnamon, and cloves. These ingredients in a pretty jar with an instruction label attached makes a nice and all-natural holiday gift, too!

We hope this list of 15 COVID-Safe (and Frugal!) Christmas Traditions To Try This Year inspires you to do something fun and new this year despite not being able to enjoy your typical holiday activities. Wishing you a safe and happy holiday season!

More 2020 Holiday Cheer

Check out ICM’s Iowa City Area Guide to Family Holiday Activities for a jam-packed listing of virtual and in-person holiday events and celebrations in 2020.

2020 has been a difficult year for so many. Browse ICM’s Giving Guide for Iowa City area nonprofits, organizations, and charities to learn how you can help this holiday season.

christmas lights displays in the Iowa City area2020 has been frightful, but taking a drive to see Christmas lights can be the perfect, cozy activity to do with your family during the dark evenings leading up to Christmas. Check out this list of Iowa City area Christmas lights displays. If you’re spending the holidays alone or away from family for the first time, be sure to read the post, “How to Celebrate the Holidays Without Family: Advice from an Expat.


Anne is a kinda crunchy, kinda unapologetically corner-cutting mom who has lived in Iowa City since 2004. She is a graduate student in Library and Information Science at the University of Iowa and works in the Children's Services department at the Iowa City Public Library. Before going back to school, she was a stay-at-home mom to her two daughters for several years, and took her children to the library multiple times a week. Basically, she has lived at the library for about a decade. Which is fine, because her biggest passion in life is books. When not reading, Anne also enjoys hiking, low-budget road-tripping, and drinking craft beer on a patio.


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