As wintertime rolls out its chilly carpet across the U.S., many of us enjoy taking part in shared holiday traditions, whether we’re decorating Christmas trees with our families, touring local light displays or consuming copious cups of eggnog while baking cookies for Santa. These are all well and good, of course — they’re what we anticipate with nostalgic excitement each year. But sometimes it’s nice to shake things up, to elevate Christmas happenings with a bit of quirky fun.
To capture this spirit of holiday weirdness, plenty of communities around the United States have developed their own unique Christmas customs that range from festive and celebratory to charmingly strange. Ready for a little departure from tradition? Check out some of the most delightfully different annual Christmas traditions and holiday attractions around the country.
Arizona’s Tumbleweed Christmas Tree
While most town centers are putting up giant evergreens to mark the start of the season, residents of Chandler, Arizona, have developed a desert-appropriate tradition all their own. Each year, the town unveils its famous Tumbleweed Christmas Tree, a tradition that dates back to the 1950s and serves as a legendary nod to holiday ingenuity.
Popular lore insists that the idea to construct a huge Christmas tree out of tumbleweeds was born one fateful year when Chandler’s newly installed light poles proved too flimsy to hold up holiday decorations. Without a traditional tree, the townsfolk had to harness their creativity to keep things festive, which meant scavenging for natural supplies among their surroundings. The show-stopping result proved popular among residents — enough that they began transforming tumbleweeds into trees each year. If that doesn’t say “Christmas in Arizona,” we don’t know what does.
The Entire Town of Santa Claus, Indiana
You read that correctly — there is indeed a town that shamelessly embraces the Christmas spirit to the point that it’s actually named Santa Claus in Indiana. And the story behind it is a great one. Back in the 1850s, the town had finally grown big enough to formally request the installation of a post office, only to have the application rejected. This was because, at the time, the town was known as Santa Fee, which was just a bit too similar to nearby Santa Fe, Indiana.
So, the residents gathered in a barn on a snowy Christmas Eve to brainstorm new town names. Suddenly, a gust of wind blew the barn doors open and ushered in the sound of sleighbells, causing people to start shouting “Santa Claus!” Such was the accidental Hallmark moment that inspired the new name of Santa Claus, Indiana. The town took the theme and ran with it — it’s home to the year-round Holiday World theme park.
The Buffalo Bill Center’s Holiday Open House
If you’re ever in Cody, Wyoming, you owe it to yourself to stop by the Buffalo Bill Center of the West, which is actually five different museums featuring all kinds of enticing Wild West art and artifacts. If you’re lucky enough to visit in December, you can even score free entrance to the annual Holiday Open House.
Each year, the center throws open its doors and invites the masses to enjoy free hot cocoa, candy canes, holiday decor and visits with Santa. What could be cooler than checking out cowboy artifacts while eating peppermints? It might be the fact that the event is also a large food and toy drive that collects resources for families in need.
Wisconsin’s Caroling in the Caves
Whether you embrace them wholeheartedly or can’t wait until January when they’re no longer stuck in your head, Christmas carols are a delightfully inescapable part of every holiday season. But in Wisconsin, you haven’t lived until you’ve listened to your favorite wintertime tunes deep below the surface of the earth. Each Christmas, a concert takes place down in the Cave of the Mounds, a national landmark that happens to have fantastic acoustics.
Here, visitors can take in the natural beauty of all the stalactites and stalagmites while also listening as their favorite Christmas carols reverberate off of these massive mineral formations. The event’s been a tradition since 2006 and has proven so popular that people are starting to carol in caves and caverns all over the country, from Arkansas to California.
New York City’s Holiday Ghost Tours
New York City may have the Rockettes, ice skating and an iconic tree-lighting ceremony, but what if you’re in the mood for something a little darker during the holiday season? Look no further than Boroughs of the Dead, a ghost tour company that’s more than happy to show you around some local holiday haunts.
Its annual holiday tours combine some of the city’s scariest true ghost stories with fun cultural facts that reveal the history of Christmas in New York City. With excursions available starting in neighborhoods around Manhattan, it’ll make Scrooge’s encounter with just three ghosts in one night look like a quiet gathering.
The Skiing Santas of Crested Butte, Colorado
Each December, hundreds of Santas simultaneously hit the slopes of Colorado for Crested Butte’s Santa Ski and Pub Crawl. When the day of the event arrives, people of all ages show up in Santa suits and spend the day shredding the slopes on skis and snowboards, North Pole-style.
Afterward, they all gather for a little holiday cheer during the Santa Pub Crawl, which comes with a free Santa suit and five drinks. In 2015, the 827 participants even set a new Guinness World Record for hosting the highest number of skiing Santas in one place.
The same year, the residents of Mobile, Alabama, set out to break the World Record for having the highest number of elves in one location. While they didn’t quite overtake the 1,762 elves that came out of the woodwork in Bangkok, Thailand, in 2014, the whole thing made for some seriously adorable photos. Thanks to the event’s popularity, Mobile has continued the tradition in subsequent years.
North Dakota’s Cowboy Christmas
Want to party like it’s 1899? Head over to the old western town of Medora, North Dakota. Each year, the historic town decks its saloon halls for the annual Old Fashioned Cowboy Christmas. The festivities include cowboy poetry readings, Victorian arts and crafts, and even outhouse races. You can take an old-fashioned carriage ride, build gingerbread houses and visit Santa, too.
The event is gearing up to celebrate its 25th year and shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon. And that’s all well and good — if we can’t have actual sleighs, we’re happy to settle for porta-potties on wheels.
The Tuba Christmas Tradition
Tubas are often overshadowed by flashier instruments like saxophones and trumpets. But it turns out Christmas happens to be the tuba’s time to shine. Back in 1974, a man named Harvey Phillips dreamed up a tribute to his mentor, William J. Bell, and the idea became Tuba Christmas.
The practice involves getting an array of tuba and euphonium players together for a Christmas concert. The first Tuba Christmas was held in New York City’s Rockefeller Plaza Ice Rink on December 22, 1974, and it’s since become an annual tradition. To this day, tuba enthusiasts around the U.S. unite to put on annual Christmas concerts from coast to coast.
Aladdin the Christmas Camel
Apparently, George Washington was a fan of exotic animals, and in 1787, he paid 18 shillings to have a camel delivered to Mount Vernon to entertain his guests. It seems that the desert dweller’s presence was more than welcome; even today, each Christmas at Mount Vernon still boasts an annual visit from Aladdin the Christmas Camel.
When not hanging out at Mount Vernon, the current Aladdin lives at the Pony to Go ranch and petting zoo in Berryville, Virginia. The creature is known for loving the limelight and regularly books appearances at birthday parties and wedding receptions. While Aladdin is unavailable for comment due to the busy Christmastime schedule, reps recommend following the animal on social media for updates.
From basking in the colorful glow of a tumbleweed Christmas tree to skiing with Santa, Americans have dreamed up so many unique ways to make the season brighter. Does your community have any interesting holiday traditions? It’s definitely worth a look at your local city events calendar to find out!