These wacky Christmas celebrations are worth packing your ugly sweater for.
Maybe it’s the spiked punch or just a hearty helping of festive cheer, but Christmas tends to bring out wacky celebrations. Across the U.S., elves gather en masse, Santa rappels down a 535-million-year-old “chimney,” and revelers give traditional holiday meals regional spins—all in the name of the merriest holiday. Here are 10 unusual Christmas celebrations worth packing your ugly sweater for.
The largest gathering of Santa’s elves—1,762—was in Bangkok in 2014. Not to be outdone, Mobile, Alabama, has taken a run at this Guinness Book of World Records mark every year since. Although the record has remained elusive, that doesn’t stop more than a thousand elves from gathering for Elfapalooza each December in the city’s historic city park, Bienville Square, for the official count, followed by the city’s Artwalk.
INSIDER TIPIn the Bangkok record attempt, 14 participants were disqualified for not being elf-y enough. Don’t let that happen to you! Official rules state the costumes must have pointy ears and a hat of any material with seasonal red and green.
Tumbleweed Christmas Tree
What has 1,200 tumbleweeds, 20 gallons of flame retardant, and 65 pounds of glitter? Chandler, Arizona’s 30-foot-tall tumbleweed Christmas tree, of course. The tradition started in 1957 after Chandler resident Earl Barnum saw an Indiana tree made of cone-shaped chicken wire and pine boughs. But pine isn’t plentiful in the desert, so every year since the city has gathered tumbleweeds from the city’s outskirts, sprayed them with white paint, and topped them with a star to light up the Phoenix suburb.
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Other towns have Santa pub crawls, but that wasn’t enough for Crested Butte. Instead, the Colorado ski town leveled up to set the informal world record for the most skiing Santas with its annual Crested Butte Santa Ski Crawl. Each December, the red Santa-suit bedecked skiers and snowboarders gather mid-mountain at the Ice Bar for a group photo before some 750 Santas head down the mountain together. In 2014, après ski, they gathered for a dance party to the song, “I’m Sexy and I Know It.” Because, why not?
For kids growing up in the bayou, the traditional stories of St. Nick with his reindeer and sleigh seem particularly farfetched. In Cajun country, Father Christmas travels in a pirogue (a shallow-water canoe) pulled by a team of magic alligators. On Christmas Eve, Louisiana parishes light 20-foot tall bonfires to illuminate the path for Papa Noel.
INSIDER TIPDuring the holiday season, “Papa Noel” is code for discounted rates in New Orleans hotels.
Shrimp and Grits and Gumbo
Standard Christmas main courses like turkey have little Southern flare, so Mississippi families—especially along the Gulf Coast—opt for tender local shrimp and spicy sausage served over grits. The food may be more every day than holiday, but it’s certainly comforting. Cajun Mississippi families simmer a big pot of gumbo with chicken, sausage, and seafood for their holiday gatherings. Just don’t forget to pass the Pimiento cheese dip.
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WHERE: New Mexico
Or is it luminarias? There’s a regional debate in the Land of Enchantment about what to call these bagged beauties. Whatever you call them, each Christmas Eve, the lanterns made of paper bags and tea candles line streets and adobe roofs across the state. Canyon Road in Santa Fe, the plaza in Taos, and Old Town in Albuquerque mount impressive homespun light displays. Traditionally, farolitos (or luminarias) are thought to guide the spirit of Christ into homes.
WHERE: North Carolina
How does Santa Claus perfect his chimney entrances? Perhaps by rappelling Chimney Rock at Chimney Rock State Park. It’s been an annual tradition for at least 20 years since general manager Mary Jaeger-Gale and “Santa” ginned it up to celebrate the holiday in the region’s outdoorsy style. On the first and second Saturday each December, a rock-climbing Santa rappels from the 315-foot-granite monolith on the edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
The standard nativity scene gets a twist in Pennsylvania Dutch country. The Moravian sect’s tradition of the “putz” (from the German word, “putzen,” meaning to decorate or adorn) enlivens the standard crèche. In a putz, the figure of Sir Galahad searching for the Holy Grail may join the Holy Family and Wise Men, or the background may be made of live plants and running water. Somewhat fittingly, the town of Bethlehem organizes a Putz Trail.
Tamales (corn masa and chile-marinated pork tied up in corn husks and steamed) look a bit like holiday packages. They’re part of traditional Christmas Eve meals across Texas and much of the Southwest, where regional cuisine borrows from traditional Mexican fare.
INSIDER TIPDon’t be like President Gerald Ford: Unwrap the corn husk from the tamale before trying to eat it. In what became known locally as “the Great Tamale Incident,” the president bit into a tamale—shuck and all—while visiting the Alamo in 1976.
Feast of the Seven Fishes
WHERE: New Jersey
The Feast of the Seven Fishes has roots in Southern Italy, where Roman Catholics abstained from meat on Fridays and holidays. The tradition lives on in the Garden State’s Italian-American families. For their Christmas Eve meal, they might pick up shrimp, flounder, sea bass, and calamari. But getting to seven fishes often means incorporating more unfamiliar finds from under the sea, like grilled eel or octopus. You’ll have to decide for yourself if getting smelt in your stocking is better or worse than coal.