astronaut wearing santa outfit and holding gift

Zero Gravity, Full Festivity: How Astronauts Celebrate Christmas in Space

Published on December 21, 2023

With Christmas just around the corner, excitement builds on Earth as we prepare for the festive season. Yet, high above us, astronauts living in space are embarking on a holiday celebration of their own distinct kind. Since the launch of the International Space Station (ISS), 23 Christmases have been celebrated in orbit, and these intrepid spacefarers have perfected the art of creating a holiday atmosphere unlike any other.

In a realm where ‘up’ and ‘down’ are mere concepts, these astronauts unite to share the warmth and joy of the season. This glimpse into their celebrations reveals how the spirit of Christmas not only survives but flourishes in the weightlessness of space. It shows that the essence of home and festivity can find its place in the most remote workplace in the universe.

astronaut kelly wearing santa hat

They do get the day off to celebrate

This day off provides them with an opportunity to step back from their scientific experiments and maintenance duties, allowing them to immerse themselves fully in the festive spirit. Being an astronaut, ranked as the third hardest job in the world by careeraddict.com, comes with immense challenges and health risks, yet surprisingly, the compensation often does not reflect the high level of danger and complexity involved.

Anyway, this pause in their usually rigorous schedule allows them to rejuvenate, celebrate personal and cultural traditions, and maintain their mental and emotional well-being, which is as crucial in space as it is on Earth

They’re allowed to call their families from space

Mental well-being is crucial for people working in a floating metal tin for up to 6 months and Space agencies understand the importance of facilitating communication with families during special occasions like Christmas, birthdays, and other significant events to keep the astronauts’ morale high.

The ISS is equipped with a computer featuring a Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) system, enabling astronauts to have video calls with their loved ones or anyone else on Earth. The process for initiating calls is flexible, with no specific restrictions on the timing or duration.

Coordination with the mission control at Johnson Space Center is essential to ensure that they can direct their call to the appropriate satellite. A notable limitation of this system is its one-way nature: while astronauts can initiate calls, their family members cannot spontaneously call them from a regular home phone.

holidays on the iss

They get a special Xmas dinner

The primary provisioning lab for space station food is located at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. Astronauts are allowed to make special requests for their favorite snacks or treats, which they receive in a bonus container each month.

The standard menu already includes traditional holiday foods like smoked turkey, candied yams, and green beans, with some items like mashed potatoes and cranberry sauce being provided by the Russian team. So they get to have a taste of both American and Russian festive traditions while in space.

Alcohol is strictly prohibited onboard the ISS, as is smoking, so the festivities are wholly focused on the joy of shared meals, cultural exchange, and the unique experience of celebrating in space.

An interesting fact is that Astronauts often find their taste buds are affected in space, likely due to congestion from fluid shifts affecting their sense of smell. This leads to a preference for stronger flavors and more condiments. Contrary to popular belief, astronauts don’t eat the freeze-dried ice cream often sold in science gift shops, as it doesn’t appeal much to adults.

International Xmas

On the International Space Station (ISS), Christmas is observed on December 25th in alignment with the standard Earth calendar. The station runs on Coordinated Universal Time (UTC), the primary time standard by which the world regulates clocks and time.

For American astronauts, this means they will be celebrating a few hours ahead of their families back home. Additionally, Russian cosmonauts may also celebrate Orthodox Christmas, which is traditionally held on January 7th.

Onboard the Tiangong space station, Chinese taikonauts have been continuously rotating crews for nearly three years. Although Christmas is not traditionally celebrated in China due to the small Christian population, which accounts for only about 5% of its people, the holiday has recently seen a surge in popularity, primarily as a commercial event rather than a religious one. As such, while the Tiangong space station’s taikonauts may acknowledge the day, it is unlikely to be marked with the same traditional festivities that we do in the US and Europe.

decorated iss

They get to watch movies

The astronauts aboard the International Space Station received a special holiday gift in December 2015: a digital HD version of the movie “The Martian,” directed by Ridley Scott. This offering coincided with the film’s digital HD release.

Who will be celebrating Christmas in space this year?

This year, the crew aboard the International Space Station (ISS) during the Christmas season includes members of Expedition 70. The crew consists of four astronauts and three cosmonauts.

The astronauts on the ISS for Expedition 70 are:

The commander of the expedition is Andreas Mogensen from the European Space Agency (ESA). Lastly, they are joined by Flight Engineer Satoshi Furukawa from the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) who unfortunately won’t be able to have KCF for dinner, a surprising yet very popular Christmas tradition in Japan.

The cosmonauts on board are:

  • Oleg Kononenko
  • Nikolai Chub
  • Konstantin Borisov

Note: If you click on the astronauts’ names, it’ll take you to their Twitter/X accounts. Keep an eye out for any christmassy pictures or videos they may share over the next few days. Additionally, you may send them a little holiday greeting to make them feel closer to home and appreciated during this festive season.

xmas day in space

How astronauts celebrated over the last 23 years on the ISS

  • Decorating: They adorn the station with artificial Christmas trees, tinsel, and decorations. For instance, in 1973 on Skylab 4, astronauts fashioned a tree from empty food containers.
  • Baking Cookies: In 2008, astronauts Michael Fincke and Sandra Magnus baked cookies, and in 2019, a “space oven” was used for experimental baking.
  • Christmas Dinner: Astronauts enjoy a special meal; in 2018, this included smoked turkey, candied yams, and other dishes, prepared by Sandra Magnus.
  • Gift Exchange: Presents are shipped ahead of Christmas. For example, in 2014, astronaut Terry Virts received a harmonica from cosmonaut Elena Sorova.
  • Wearing Festive Attire: Santa Claus and elf hats are common, as seen in photos of astronauts like Scott Kelly.
  • Musical Celebrations: Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield performed Christmas carols in 2012.
  • Spacewalks and Duties: Sometimes astronauts, like Mike Hopkins and Rick Mastracchio in 2013, perform spacewalks or other tasks on Christmas.

small christmas tree floating inside iss cupola

Tom Urbain

Space exploration has been a fascinating subject for me since a very young age. As a child, astronauts were my heroes, so it was inevitable that a part of my website would be dedicated to astronauts and their space missions.

Explore more astronaut stories 👨‍🚀​

This page is part of our collection of articles about astronauts. If you enjoyed the read, then you’ll love the following articles.