Every December, you can hardly step into a store or shopping mall without hearing the soothing sounds of Irving Berlin’s classic “White Christmas.” Whether it’s Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Kelly Clarkson, or Michael Buble performing it, this cherished holiday tune makes one thing clear: It’s not really Christmas without snow.
But what if you live in downtown Los Angeles, where it hasn’t snowed since 1962? In California, each December 25th comes and goes without a snowflake in sight. So each year, Angelenos create their own sun-filled traditions to celebrate the winter holidays. Instead of waiting around for “sleigh bells in the snow,” Californians hit the beach for a Surfing Santa competition in Orange County and the Santa Speedo Run in Long Beach.
Perhaps Berlin could have learned a thing or two by living in L.A. There are many ways to dream of Christmas, and Californians are a testament to our ability to adapt our traditions to fit our needs and environments.
The Importance of Traditions
Last year I interviewed Meg Cox, the author of The Book of New Family Traditions: How to Create Great Rituals for Holidays and Everyday for an article on bizarre Christmas traditions. We spoke about how traditions get started and why they’re important to us.
“We have traditions because we’re wired for repetition and because there is a deep satisfaction from repeating meaningful actions,” Cox told me. “Memory is the special sauce because we can remember doing those same things as we grew up. Thoughtful traditions help give us a sense of security and identity.”
Cox says there’s a big difference between a habit, which is mindless, and a tradition, which is meaningful.
“A habit is something we repeat mindlessly, and sometimes that’s cool,” she said. “As humans, we have a primal need for pattern and repetition. A ritual or tradition is something we do mindfully (not mindlessly) with an intent, a purpose to connect or celebrate and express something of deep meaning.”
Nearly every holiday has its own traditions on several scales: national, local, family, or individual. Many of these traditions are innovated and then passed down through the years.
“I interviewed a family once where the father goes up on the roof with jingle bells [at Christmas] and stamps around for a while after the kids go to bed,” she said. “And of course lots of people had very silly gift exchanges that involve recycled and tacky gifts; the weirder the better, with some favorite items [that] resurface every year: garden gnomes, ugly sweaters, and in one family, a pair of very large red underpants.”
Of course, Christmas isn’t the only holiday that breeds unusual traditions. Across the country, Americans find all kinds of ways to celebrate different holidays—whether it’s dropping a massive fiberglass potato onto the town square on New Year’s Eve, papering your small town in hearts for Valentine’s Day, or deciding to launch a car off a 300 foot cliff in honor of the Fourth of July. From Glacier View, Alaska, to Portland, Maine, here are some crazy holiday traditions from around the country.
Glacier View, Alaska: Fourth of July Car Launch
To its residents, Alaska can sometimes feel isolated from the rest of the United States, but there’s no denying they’re still Americans.
“Living in Alaska, it’s like the closest thing to living in another country,” says Arnie Hrncir, who has lived in Glacier View, Alaska, since 1996. “But we got Old Glory waving up there, and it’s all because of our veterans.”
Hrncir was instrumental in starting some Fourth of July traditions in Glacier View that have morphed in a very…unique celebration of American independence.
“We always like to refer to it as ‘F Day,’ because it’s all about freedom, and we totally salute our veterans, [both those] present and ones that have already gone before us,” Hrncir says.
Hrncir currently owns and operates an auction company in Glacier View. Before that, he owned a lodge called Hicks Creek Roadhouse. It wasn’t long after the lodge opened that Hrncir noticed it was always empty on July 4th as people celebrated elsewhere. So he decided to hold a parade to entice people to stay around. The celebration grew from there, and now Glacier View residents assemble for the parade, food, music, and even a five-plane flyover.
But the main event is when Hrncir and friends launch old cars off a 300-foot bluff to the delight of hundreds of people watching below. It all started when his wife hit a moose.
“The wife hit a moose with a Volvo car, and I got sick and tired of changing [the] #3 spark plug,” Hrncir says. After trying to modify the car and keep it running a few years, Hrncir finally gave up. “I said, man, let’s toss this thing over the bluff. So we put a big rock in the trunk, and we launched it, and it was fun.”
It wasn’t immediately apparent that launching cars off a cliff would become a tradition. But Hrncir’s auction company kept him supplied with plenty of old cars that ran well but weren’t necessarily roadworthy, so he saw the potential to keep the practice going. Now people look forward to the launch every year.
“Last year, after we had the parade, and we blessed the nation, and we had some good singing … I was going to have some big firecrackers set up on top of the bluff,” Hrncir says. “I said, ‘Okay, let’s move into the car-launching time,’ and there wasn’t a soul left to talk to, they were all already over there [to watch the car launch]. So they’re here to see that.”
Now, Hrncir’s focuses on how to make the launch bigger and better every year.
“We put a little ramp at the end, and that really made all the difference,” he says. “Instead of just running straight off, now [the cars are] climbing off into the sky. And then another year, we put like a 45 [degree angle] on that ramp, so now we’re trying to put like a barrel roll. So think, you launch this car out there and it hits, and now you’ve put like a corkscrew on it at the last second.”
No wonder people aren’t waiting around for the fireworks.
Ocean Beach, California: Fourth of July Marshmallow Fight
If, for some strange reason, seeing cars fly off a cliff doesn’t ring patriotic to you, how about an epic marshmallow fight? That’s what citizens of Southern California’s Ocean Beach neighborhood did for 28 years. In 1985, two families went to the beach to watch the fireworks and started to playfully toss the sweet treats at each other. From there, it grew into an annual tradition, with Ocean Beach businesses even handing out bags of marshmallows beforehand.
Unfortunately, the fight started to get out of hand in recent years after gaining more and more participants thanks to social media. When people reportedly started throwing frozen marshmallows and even stuffing batteries in them, OB town leaders started a “Mallow Out” campaign to curb the practice.
Crisfield, Maryland: Labor Day Hard Crab Derby
Labor Day is traditionally a day for people to recognize the labor movement, so what better way to commemorate it than a hard crab derby? Nearly 8,000 people from Crisfield, Maryland and the surrounding area have gathered for a crustacean-centric three-day weekend for years.
Events include a Miss Crustacean pageant at the local high school, a 10K Run/Walk that ends at the city dock, a crab cooking contest, and a boat docking competition. But the main event is the derby, in which 400 blue crabs race for the title of fastest crustacean in front of Crisfield’s Post Office.
“Today, crabs are brought to Crisfield from all over the Chesapeake Bay region and are raced at Somers Cove Marina on a slick, flat track in view of hundreds of spectators,” wrote Mindie Burgoyne on the event’s website.
“Fifty live crabs at a time are launched from the wooden ‘crab cake track’ onto a wet flat surface pitched at an angle. The first crabs off the surface are the winners of that heat. Heat winners continue to compete. The highlight of the race is the Governor’s Cup Race, named for Crisfield’s native son, Governor J. Millard Tawes, who served as Maryland’s Governor from 1959 to 1967.”
Portland, Maine: Valentine’s Day Bandit
For over four decades, something mysterious has happened overnight on Valentine’s Day eve in Portland, Maine. A mysterious “bandit” has been leaving signs with hearts all around town.
“Walking through the Old Port, down Congress Street and sometimes driving over the Casco Bay Bridge, a sea of hearts appear every Feb. 14,” wrote Kathleen Pierce in the Bangor Daily News. “From giant banners on the Portland Museum of Art to smaller versions on cafes and even affixed to the floating DiMillo’s on the Water, the red hearts seemingly are everywhere.”
To this day, the identity of the person, or people, behind the act remains a mystery. People who live in the town of almost 70,000 say the banners help give their town an extra dose of charm.
Georgetown, Delaware: Return Day
For all of America’s insistence that voting is the foundation of our democracy, there’s not a lot of pomp and circumstance around Election Day. But in Georgetown, Delaware, the county seat of Sussex County, members of both political parties celebrate “Return Day.”
According to the event’s website, Return Day may have started as early as 1792, when the state moved the seat of the coast to the more geographically centered Georgetown. Voters were required to cast ballots in the new region and would return two days later to hear the results.
Now the event, which happens on the Thursday after Election Day, contains concerts, an ox roast, and a ceremonial “burying the hatchet” between political parties. At the end, all attendees receive a free roast beef sandwich.
Guilford, Connecticut: Neon Turkeys
Each November in Guilford, Connecticut, both children and adults delight in visiting Gozzi’s Turkey Farm, which displays turkeys that have been dyed in bright neon shades of pink, green, yellow, and purple.
According to Today.com, what started as a fun thing to do for the local town children in the 1940s has now become a major roadside attraction. Visiting the farm is a family tradition, with people who once visited the turkeys as children now bringing their own.
Boise, Idaho: New Year’s Potato Drop
If you’re in the Midwest and can’t make Times Square’s New Year’s Eve ball drop, maybe you can make the next best thing: Boise, Idaho’s Potato Drop. Each year, thousands of people gather to watch a massive spud lowered from a crane as the countdown to midnight ticks on.
Dylan Cline, CEO and founder of the Idaho New Year’s Commission, had the idea when thinking about ways Boise could ring in the new year. That’s when he noticed a building going up in downtown Boise.
“They had this big crane that they were using, and he said, ‘Gosh, wouldn’t it be cool if somebody dropped something from that crane, like a potato?’” says Sandi Nahas, CFO for the Commission. “I kind of laughed at him and said, ‘Well, just because there’s a crane, you don’t need to drop something from it.’”
Cline, however, was undeterred. The potato drop officially launched in 2013. It now drops its famous seventeen-foot potato in front of the Idaho State Capitol.
“The first potato was made of an industrial foam, and it was hung vertically,” says Nahas. The one they use now is made of fiberglass and internally lit with over 10,000 lights.
Nahas estimates that anywhere from 10,000 to 40,000 people attend New Year’s Eve in Boise, which is unticketed and runs from 1 p.m. to 1 a.m. The New Year’s Commission works all year long just to put on this one event. “With it being a free event, we have to get sponsorship, and there’s always that need with an event to want to be better every year,” says Nahas. “Because of that, obviously your expenses go up with those dreams.”
It’s no longer just a night of waiting for a potato to drop. There’s also music, food, ice sculpting, vendors, and a USASA-sanctioned snowboarding event. “Riders actually come and they can get pre-qualifying points for big things, like the Olympics,” says Nahas. The potato is raised in the early afternoon for children who won’t be awake to see it drop, which the commission uses as an opportunity to raise awareness for a local non-profit.
Boise’s Potato Drop is the perfect example of how holiday traditions can show off local pride. “I think there’s a sense of pride trying to show people from outside the country and other states what that particular region is proud of,” says Nahas. “Idaho is more known for potatoes than pretty much any state is known for anything. ‘Idaho potato’ kind of goes together.”
Yet Nahas says that New Year’s Eve is about more than potatoes, too.
“We wanted to make it about the drop, but also about the winter sports, and the non-profit community, and local vendors and what other things make up Idaho.”