A boy and his mother walk through a street lit with overhead Christmas lights.

12 family Christmas activities to get you moving

It’s that most wonderful time of the year.

A time filled with special moments with friends and family set against a backdrop of twinkling tree lights and delicious food. I love the holiday season and the cheer that it brings into the dark days of winter. However, I’ll be the first to admit that the holidays aren’t all candy canes and sprinkles. This time of year can bring a noticeable uptick in stress and overwhelm for families. Pair that with an overindulgence of rich sugary food and lack of physical activity and it’s no wonder why some of that holiday sparkle might seem a little dull. 

One way to hold on to that holiday cheer is to incorporate fun holiday traditions that get your family active and moving. Being active and playful with your family helps build positive connections and makes meaningful memories, which is perfect for the holidays. Regular physical activity also improves our mood by reducing feelings of anxiety and depression. It’s also a great way to burn off that excess energy after enjoying those holiday treats.

To help your family find more joy during the holiday season, I’m sharing 12 of my favourite holiday traditions that promote physical activity in a fun and playful way. Most of the activities in this list are simple and accessible, and for those that might seem a bit more challenging I’ve offered some easy alternatives to try. 

12 active holiday traditions for families 

1. Harvest a real Christmas tree

There are plenty of good reasons to harvest a real tree instead of an artificial tree. Not only is it better for the environment but it makes for a fun active holiday tradition. Strolling through a Christmas tree farm and picking out that perfect tree is a magical experience for the entire family. It also gets the heart pumping, especially if you have to trudge through knee-high snow. 

Over the last few years, however, getting a tree from a Christmas tree farm has been getting more and more difficult. The increasing demand for real Christmas trees and the decreasing number of Christmas tree farms mean that only a lucky few get to harvest their tree from a u-pick. But don’t despair! I have a secret to share with you.

Here in Canada, it is perfectly legal to harvest a Christmas tree on public (Crown) land. The only exception is in Quebec, where cutting down a tree could land you a hefty fine. Other than Quebec, families across Canada can harvest a wild Christmas tree by following their provincial guidelines. Some provinces require a permit and a small nominal fee (about $5) while other provinces don’t require permits at all. To find out how to legally harvest a Christmas tree in your province, do a quick internet search for “Christmas tree permit in [province]” or “Tree cutting permits for personal use in [province]”.

2. Join a local Santa Run

A Santa Run, Santa Shuffle, or Elf Walk is a fun holiday tradition for getting the whole family moving regardless of fitness level, age, or ability. A Santa Run is a short recreational run or walk, usually less than 5 km, where everyone dresses up in fun holiday hats or Santa costumes to help raise money for a community cause. Typically these events take place around the second weekend in December, but check your local event guide to find out when the race is happening near you. 

My kids really enjoy our yearly Santa Run. They like wearing fun Santa hats and enjoying hot cocoa at the end. When my kids were younger we walked the entire way, but now my kids will do a run/walk or slow jog as I try to keep up! If there’s no Santa Run near you, invite a couple of families and plan your own informal Santa Run around your neighborhood or nearby park.

3. Go ice skating on an indoor or outdoor rink

Strap on those skates for a fun family skating session. Skating is great physical activity for children. It helps them develop movement skills like coordination and balance, and gets their heart pumping too. What I love about family skate sessions is that they’re quite affordable. Skates can be rented or bought secondhand at a used sports store, and depending on where you live, you might have access to a free outdoor skating rink (man-made or natural). If the weather isn’t cooperating, indoor rinks often have a family skate drop-in time that’s either free or a few dollars per person.

If skating is new for your family, here’s a great list of ideas for how to make skating fun for the whole family. And for tips on how to skate on outdoor rinks, especially natural rinks like ponds or lakes, you may want to read Beyond the arena: get outside and skate!

Two sisters hold hands as they skate on an outdoor rink

4. Swim at the pool or join a polar bear dip!

Take advantage of public swim times at your community pool to splash in the water over the holiday season. Swimming is a whole body activity for all ages that’s great for coordination, strength, and cardio. It’s also a great opportunity for Mom or Dad to sneak in a much-needed moment of relaxation in the hot tub. 

For something more adventurous, sign your family up for the local polar bear dip. This chilly activity often takes place on Jan. 1 and has participants jumping into cold water outside for a brief moment. Kids can participate in a polar bear dip with parental supervision, but it’s a better activity for tweens and teens. Young children are at higher risk of hypothermia because they don’t have a great ability to identify how their bodies are feeling. 

If you’re looking for a fun holiday challenge that’s a step up from the pool but not as extreme as a polar bear dip, try putting on your swimsuits and going for a quick jump in the snow—brrr!

5. Try a new or favourite winter sport together

Trying a new or favourite winter sport is a good way to overcome the uphill battle of getting the family outside during the holidays while also spending time together. Cross-country skiing and snowshoeing are two affordable family-friendly winter activities that are worth giving a try. Alternatively, make a winter obstacle course in your yard or local park and invite friends to join in on the fun. For more family-friendly winter sport ideas here are 6 of the best winter outdoor physical activities for kids and 12 cool winter activities you’ve never heard of—but need to try!

6. Enjoy a holiday lights walk 

Most towns and cities have a neighbourhood with eye-catching displays of holiday lights and decorations for everyone to enjoy. Instead of doing the typical holiday lights drive-by, find a spot to park your vehicle and enjoy a walk through the neighbourhood instead. When your walk is done, head to a local coffee shop or home to enjoy a warm cup of tea or hot chocolate together. 

7. Do an “active” act of kindness

The holiday season is a wonderful time for showing kindness to those around us. Doing an “active” act of kindness is an opportunity to spread some holiday cheer while getting active as a family. Think of some physical activities that might be challenging for sick, disabled, or elderly people to do in winter weather. Here are some ideas: shovelling snow, spreading salt on walkways, taking a dog for a walk, and collecting the mail. Try to come up with some of your own “active” acts of kindness that you can do together as a family. 

Two children bundled up in winter coats and snow pants shovel snow

8. Explore winter with an outdoor scavenger hunt

Winter is a magical time. Like every other season, there’s plenty to see and explore—you might just have to look a little closer. One of my favourite ways to explore nature with my kids is by doing an outdoor scavenger hunt. This simple tool lets us slow down and appreciate the beauty of nature all around, whether it’s in a city, town or in the country. You can find a free winter scavenger hunt printable here

9. Decorate an outdoor tree for wild animals

Winter can be a challenging season for wildlife and the holidays can be a great time to give them a helping hand. Every year, around the winter solstice or Christmas, my children and I decorate an outdoor tree for wildlife. We make homemade birdseed ornaments and popcorn garlands and hang them on a small tree for birds to enjoy over the holiday season. Anything leftover after a couple weeks we remove and compost. Decorating an outdoor tree will encourage active time outdoors in a fun and unique way that your children will treasure.

10. Sled down a hill

One thing that we have going for us in Canada is snow! With a few exceptions, like Vancouver and the southern tip of Vancouver Island, most people have access to snow over the holiday season. While the thought of bundling everyone up can be overwhelming enough to warrant staying indoors, time spent outside gives a big boost to our health and well-being, something we all need more of over the holidays. Here are some helpful tips for overcoming 5 common roadblocks that get in the way of winter play.

Sledding is a winter activity that’s fun for everyone. Most communities have a hill or two to get in some sledding over the holiday season. My kids are avid sledders, and I always insist that they wear helmets while sledding to protect their little noggins. 

11. Build a snowman, snow fort, or snow sculpture

Continuing with the snow theme, snow is also a great medium for building with and sculpting. Rolling big snowballs to make a snowman is a great workout, and so is building a snow fort. These activities offer opportunities to build strength and coordination, and to encourage creative play. If the snow is light and dry, pack a bunch of it into a big container, let it sit overnight, and tip it over in the morning. The snow should have hardened enough to make a nice snow carving block.

12. Go on a outdoor winter picnic

Delicious food and the holidays go hand-in-hand, but one way to enjoy some tasty treats while getting in some active time outdoors is to go for an outdoor winter picnic. This can be as simple as bringing hot chocolate and cookies to enjoy at a park or hiking into nature and setting up a more elaborate picnic lunch in the woods. If your children are younger, bring food that’s easy to eat with mitts on (granola bars, sandwiches, muffins, carrots) so those little fingers don’t get too frosty. And don’t forget to bring along a picnic blanket to sit on!

Do you have some favourite active holiday traditions? Be sure to tell us about them in the comment section below. Or let us know which of these active holiday traditions your family will be enjoying this holiday season. 

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