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Unique ways Americans celebrate the holidays, from skiing Santas to Festivus feats

Skiers participate in last year's "Santa Sunday" event at the Sunday River resort in Newry, Maine.
Marina French
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Sunday River
Skiers participate in last year's "Santa Sunday" event at the Sunday River resort in Newry, Maine.

This holiday season, many Americans will be decorating Christmas trees, lighting Hanukkah candles, building gingerbread houses and savoring time with family and friends.

And across the country, many people will be celebrating with less conventional — but no less beloved — local traditions, from lighting lobster trap trees in New England to caroling in caves in Wisconsin to watching Santa surf in California.

In Denver, people keep their Christmas lights on until the National Western Stock Show ends in late January. (When to put them up, however, is both a matter of personal preference and widespread debate.) In St. Louis, costumed Santas perform flash mobs in busy streets and swim with aquarium sharks. Kansas City holds an annual mass trombone concert at its historic Union Station.

Many communities celebrate with Christmas trees decorated with — or made out of — materials and products unique to their state. The Genesee Brewery puts up a "keg tree" in Rochester, N.Y., while Jack Daniels lights up a "barrel tree" in Lynchburg, Tenn. There's a 30-plus-foot tumbleweed tree in Arizona and a 700-ton sand tree (named Sandi) in Florida.

Families, companies and religious groups are putting their own spin on holiday festivities, from lighting menorah ice sculptures to gathering around a real-life Festivus pole. And, as organizers told NPR's Morning Edition, they've created some uplifting new traditions in the process.

Here are some of them:

In North Carolina, Santa rappels down nature's chimney

Santa rappels down a natural chimney several times each December at Chimney Rock State Park, near Asheville, North Carolina.
/ Chimney Rock Management
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Chimney Rock Management
Santa rappels down a natural chimney several times each December at Chimney Rock State Park, near Asheville, North Carolina.

While most people can only dream of catching Santa sneaking down their chimney, lucky residents of western North Carolina can watch him rappel down an even taller one: Chimney Rock, a 315-foot freestanding rock spire.

Chimney Rock State Park, which is about 25 miles southeast of Asheville, offers plenty of hiking trails, educational programming, and rock climbing year-round. But Chimney Rock itself is only open for rappelling two days a year, and to one special guest.

"We like to say that Santa uses Chimney Rock, one of the largest natural chimneys in the world, to prepare for his big job on Christmas Eve," said Olivia Slagle, the communications and promotions specialist for Chimney Rock Management.

On two Saturdays in early December, Santa rappels down the rock three times, at the top of every hour. The whole process usually takes about five to 10 minutes, depending on the winds and other factors.

"We've had Santa on the Chimney days where it was 60 degrees and the elves were kind of sweating in their velvet costumes," Slagle said.

Spectators cheer as Santa rappels down Chimney Rock in 2022. The day is also filled with events like guided hikes and nature crafts.
/ Chimney Rock Management
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Chimney Rock Management
Spectators cheer as Santa rappels down Chimney Rock in 2022. The day is also filled with events like guided hikes and nature crafts.

Spectators stand below and cheer as red-robed Santa makes his descent, with a little help from the local climbing school, Fox Mountain Guides.

The event grew out of a partnership between the park and the climbing school in the '90s. It's since grown to include other activities — like elf-guided hikes, live animal encounters and nature-themed crafts for kids — to keep spectators busy between Santa's rappels.

Slagle says some people come to spend the day at the park, while others are just there for the main event. What matters, she says, is that people are spending time together and in nature.

"Hiking, climbing, like all of that is certainly not unique to our area, but it is something that's really special about it," Slagle added. "So I love seeing that become a part of people's holiday traditions."

Hundreds of Santas ski for charity in Maine

Last year's "Santa Sunday" event — which also included a few Grinches — raised more than $3,000 for a local charity.
Marina French / Sunday River
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Sunday River
Last year's "Santa Sunday" event — which also included a few Grinches — raised more than $3,000 for a local charity.

Every December, scores of skiers dressed in Santa attire converge on the slopes of one of Maine's largest ski resorts. They come not only to kick off the holiday season, but to give back to their community.

Sunday River in Newry, Maine has been hosting some version of its "Santa Sunday" event for nearly two decades, according to marketing director Luc Burns. He expects roughly 300 Santas to hit the slopes on Dec. 10.

Participants pay a relatively small fee (this year it's $27) for a lift ticket for the day, and also get a second ticket to come back for another day before Christmas. Those proceeds go to the River Fund, a non-profit that supports youth education and recreation in the area. Last year's event raised more than $3,000, says Burns.

The resort's website says there are only a few requirements for those who want to join: They must wear a red jacket, pants and Santa hat (with a white pom-pom), as well as a white beard. Burns notes there have been some exceptions in years past.

"Sometimes you get a Christmas tree, sometimes you get a Grinch and so on, but you just get a whole crowd of Santas skiing down right to the bottom of South Ridge," he said. "It's quite a fun spectacle. And it kind of is the unofficial kickoff to the winter Christmas season here in Maine."

The Sunday River chairlift is overtaken by Santas for a few minutes every December.
Marina French / Sunday River
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Sunday River
The Sunday River chairlift is overtaken by Santas for a few minutes every December.

The morning of the event, the Santas gather at the base of one of the slopes to pose for a photoshoot and present a check to the River Fund. Then they flood the chairlift — which is closed to the public for about ten minutes — and ride to the top of one of the beginner routes.

"We hold everyone back 'til everyone's there, and then we let them loose and it's just a free-for-all of Santas skiing down the slope," Burns said.

He says there are plenty of viewing opportunities for other skiers to stop and take in the fast-moving scene. The prime spot, he says, is to watch from the chairlift as the Santas ski below.

Burns says the event attracts a diverse group of skiers, including entire families and grandparents too. The holidays are about being happy and with the people you care about, he adds, and Santa Sunday really embodies that.

"I hesitate to use the word jolly too much in a Santa-themed event, but everyone just has a very happy air to it," Burns said. "It's happy, it's fun. And at the end of the day, it's a good thing to do."

A Texas bar hosts a Festivus event, complete with feats of strength

Mark McKee (L) and Jason Talkington (R) hold McKee's framed poster of <em>Seinfeld</em>'s George Costanza outside The Ginger Man bar in Irvington, Tx., which hosts an annual Festivus event.
/ Maygen Hiser
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Maygen Hiser
Mark McKee (L) and Jason Talkington (R) hold McKee's framed poster of Seinfeld's George Costanza outside The Ginger Man bar in Irving, Tx., which hosts an annual Festivus event.

Festivus may have its roots in the Seinfeld universe, but the made-up holiday gets plenty of play in the real world.

Frank Costanza (played by the late Jerry Stiller) introduced the secular celebration — "for the rest of us" — in a 1997 episode of the sitcom. While it's traditionally observed on Dec. 23, it avoids the cheeriness and consumerism usually associated with Christmas. In fact, it takes the opposite approach.

Instead of a Christmas tree, there's a sparse aluminum pole ("the Festivus pole"). Instead of trading gifts, the head of the household challenges a guest to a wrestling match ("feats of strength"). And rather than sharing happy memories or words of thanks at the dinner table, friends and family members must take turns sharing how others disappointed them that year ("airing of grievances").

Festivus has become a real-life tradition for some families and communities. There's a "Phoestivus" holiday market in Phoenix, for example, and Facebook groups where people can share their own Festivus decorations and stories.

In Irving, Texas, a bar called the Ginger Man hosts a Festivus event that's grown quite the local following over the last two years, according to general manager Maygen Hiser.

The Ginger Man sets up a customarily sparse Festivus pole, as well as an open mic for people to air their grievances.
/ Maygen Hiser
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Maygen Hiser
The Ginger Man sets up a customarily sparse Festivus pole, as well as an open mic for people to air their grievances.

The bar sets up a mic stand and a roughly six-foot-tall brass pole — donated by one of its regulars — in the middle of the room. On the night of Dec. 23, patrons sign up to air their grievances, open-mic style.

"Usually about 20 to 30 people come out and let their friends and family know what they've done to disappoint them throughout the year," Hiser said. "Some people bring a couple of items, and some people bring two pages' worth."

She remembers one woman who didn't have any complaints about her family at all: "It was mostly traffic issues."

The Ginger Man's version of feats of strength is an arm-wrestling match between a bar manager and a patron. Anyone who manages to pin the organizer wins some sort of "beer swag," as Hiser describes it, from t-shirts to steins.

She says her favorite part of the event is the airing of grievances, both because of the complaints and the reactions from the crowd.

"Even though it seems a little negative, everyone's faces just light up and they have such a fun time," she said.

Irving resident Mark McKee, is a regular at the bar and a self-described Seinfeld superfan. So he was thrilled when he saw the flier advertising that first event: "I thought, you've got to be kidding me!"

He's been there every year since, lobbing grievances at the half-dozen friends he brings along and rolling up his sleeve for the wrestling match, which he describes as more of a championship among tablemates.

McKee says he truly believes that everyone in attendance is there "for the purpose of Festivus" — why else would they venture out of their cozy homes the night before Christmas Eve, especially on a weeknight?

That shared interest, he says, is what makes the conversation so good and the night so special.

"If somebody knows Festivus ... well enough to show up to a Festivus party, then they got a friend in me," he added.

'Chanukah on Ice' is a beloved tradition in this Tennessee city

Rabbi Shaul Perlstein gets help lighting the ice menorah in 2018.
/ Kits Photography
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Kits Photography
Rabbi Shaul Perlstein gets help lighting the ice menorah in 2018.

For decades, many U.S. cities and towns have celebrated Hanukkah with public menorah lightings and parades of cars with menorahs strapped on top.

Chattanooga, Tenn., is home to one especially unique such celebration, called "Chanukah on Ice."

The event, which is put on by the local Chabad chapter, starts with a parade of dozens of cars with menorahs on top, playing Hanukkah music. They drive about a mile and a half to the city's outdoor ice rink, where community members and leaders light a six-foot-tall menorah chiseled out of ice.

Rabbi Shaul Perlstein, the co-director of Chabad of Chattanooga, says the city's Hanukkah festivities have expanded significantly since he arrived in 2009. That year, he recalls, about 120 people showed up to a menorah lighting with the mayor.

The event was well-received, which inspired organizers to think even bigger in the years ahead — and eventually led them to commission a massive menorah ice sculpture. The car parade was born a little while later, after some community members saw the menorah on Perlstein's car and wanted some for themselves.

At first there were just a few participants. But Perlstein says it's "gone viral" over the years and morphed into something like a car show, with its display of vintage and expensive vehicles. He adds they now have to cap the number of entries: "We only have 45 menorahs."

The Chattanooga menorah-topped car parade, pictured in 2021, has become something of a vintage car show over the years.
/ Kits Photography
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Kits Photography
The Chattanooga menorah-topped car parade, pictured in 2021, has become something of a vintage car show over the years.

Perlstein estimates there are about 2,500 Jewish people in Chattanooga, which amounts to less than 1.5% of the city's population. But he says the Hanukkah festivities don't only attract members of the Jewish community.

"There are just people who want to show their support, who want to be a part of it," Perlstein said, adding that many people tell him it's their favorite holiday of the year. "There was someone last year who was scheduled to be out of town, and changed his ticket to come back because, he told me, he would never miss this event for anything."

Perlstein says there's been a notable outpouring of support this year, in the aftermath of Hamas' Oct. 7 attack on Israel and amidst a sharp uptick in antisemitic incidents across the U.S. He says local police proactively reached out to him to ask if the event would still take place and assure they could provide extra security for it.

Perlstein acknowledges that some in the community are feeling fearful this holiday season, and says it's important to not let those concerns stop them from celebrating Hanukkah, with the right precautions.

And he believes the act of coming together and sharing the message of the holiday — which is about bringing light to the world in dark times — is more important than ever.

"That little bit of kindness we can share with a neighbor, regardless of who it is, goes a whole lot further than all the arguments and debates that we can try and create," Perlstein said. "Just that hug can do a whole lot more. And I think that's what the world needs to hear."

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.

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