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What people remember and look forward to every holiday season isn't the gifts and goodies -- okay, not only the gifts and goodies. Folks eagerly anticipate the traditions and rituals that they celebrate together, especially those that go beyond the expected and become unique and special to a particular family or group of friends.
"The traditions that a family chooses or creates themselves will probably be sustained for a much longer time and have more positive effects than something imposed on them by the much-maligned Hallmark," says Barbara Fiese, PhD, professor and chair of psychology at Syracuse University.
What kind of positive effects? Fiese's research has shown that meaningful rituals contribute to family members' psychological health and emotional well-being. Also, children reared in families that ascribe a lot of meaning to ritual tend to feel less anxiety, a greater sense of belonging to a group, and a stronger sense of identity.
The same goes for groups of friends who create traditions together -- especially, perhaps, for those who do so in place of family rituals. "Creating a holiday ritual with friends elevates those pals to the status of surrogate family, and it makes you feel anchored to a place and people that you care about," says Marla Paul, author of The Friendship Crisis: Finding, Making, and Keeping Friends When You're Not a Kid Anymore (Rodale, 2004). And sometimes, she adds, "gatherings with friends are more stress-free, even more joyful, than family gatherings."
Many people do indeed find unique, and lasting, ways to observe the holidays with loved ones and friends. Borrow from them, or use the inspiration to create your own.Shopping & Bonding
"My only brother, who's also one of my best friends, lives in Africa. When he's home for Christmas, everyone wants to see him, leaving very little time for the two of us. So to create our official 'together time,' we do the grocery shopping for my mom. For an Italian Christmas feast, this is not a quick trip -- last year's list began with 12 pounds of mozzarella. Somehow, maybe 'cause he's a guy, it wouldn't work if we sat down across a table with the intention of having a big important chat. But under the disguise of counting out 45 cans of tomato sauce, we really get to talk." -- Jen, 32, Montclair, New JerseyBest of All Worlds
"My ex-husband's family celebrates Christmas; we celebrate Hanukkah. To ease the tricky comparison between the two for my son, I have created a little family ritual that tries to bridge that gap: every year, I create a bagel tree, hanging spray-painted bagels on a nice little pine." -- Marla, 37, New York CitySeasonal Sing-Along
After eating Christmas dinner at my parents' house, I blow off a little holiday steam at a Chinese restaurant's karaoke bar with some of my oldest friends. Christmas Karaoke was born in 1997 and since then, the same group -- give or take a few members -- always meets at that same Chinese restaurant on Christmas night. For some reason, I missed the first three years, but I can't imagine missing it now. When else can I sing "Last Christmas" to a bar packed with my slightly sloshed friends? -- Suzanne, 29, SeattleGifts with Purpose
"Six years ago, I went to the post office to mail out a giant box of scented candles and 'tub tea,' and I thought, 'This is ridiculous: $35 to mail junk to Arizona and get in return a box of organic soap and napkin holders.' I went home and e-mailed my extended family to suggest that we stop sending stuff from Macy's 'gift ideas' section and donate to charity instead. Now, every year someone different gets to choose the charity. We've given to a school program in Tucson, a mental health center in San Francisco, and a women's skill training program in Boston. It's so much more satisfying than waiting at the post office, and it brings the family together more than any material gift could." -- Sabrina, 34, New York CityHoliday Hike
"On the day after Thanksgiving, my husband, grown daughters, and I pack a picnic of leftovers, drive to Yosemite, and hike to a waterfall, and then have a picnic. Great exercise, yummy reward; we get to gorge ourselves on special foods, made the way my mom did, that I prepare only once a year. My daughters live in the city and miss the forest, rivers, and lakes -- and we miss them. I always cherish this time with my girls and this tradition gives me that much more to be thankful for." -- Bobbi, 51, Fresno, CaliforniaKick the Tree to the Curb
"One of my favorite traditions at my parents' house is -- no kidding -- when my dad and I throw the tree out the window. When the sad day comes to un-decorate the tree -- the sign of the end of Christmas, the start of winter blahs -- we're all feeling pretty crabby. So instead of dragging it back downstairs, we take it onto the small balcony on the second floor and throw it out into the front yard and drag it to the curb from there. I know it sounds loony, but tossing the tree out the window gives the day a merrier feel, a bit of absurdity that makes it more fun. It started as a joke, but that's why I think it stuck." -- Claire, 25, ChicagoThe Rerun That Never Gets Old
"My husband and I always make mulled cider and popcorn and watch It's a Wonderful Life together on Christmas Eve. So as not to spoil the enjoyment, we avoid the other multiple airings of the movie that start in November -- even though now, of course, we've seen it a million times. When life is so crazy, it's so nice to know that some things, and that movie, never change." -- Shana, 40, Ridgewood, New YorkGiving "Skanks"
Every year my friends and I get together for "Skanksgiving." It's for all us "kids" -- read: singles -- who, for whatever reasons, are not traveling home for Turkey Day. It's an all-day affair, about noon till midnight. Attire is sweats, or the pj's you woke up in. We watch football all day, then the cheesiest movie we can find. Through all this, we're drinking cheap beer and mixed drinks, and eating things like Frito pie, refried beans, and potato chip casserole. We love Skanksgiving because it is so not like Thanksgiving. A traditional Thanksgiving celebration may make you homesick because it reminds you of your family Thanksgiving, or the family Thanksgiving you wish you had; there is nothing nostalgic or reminiscent about Skanksgiving. It's such a kick to turn a tradition on its ear, in such a way that lets us revel in our adulthood and our singledom. -- Rose, 30, St. Louis
"A tradition in my own family is the annual Ullery Family Christmas Quiz. On Christmas Eve my five children and two granddaughters sit around the tree and their dad and I pass out a questionnaire for them to fill out. The questions range from "What are the names of every pet we ever had?" to "What was Pete's Jersey number when he played football in high school?" to "What did John think he was getting for Christmas in 1979 because he peeked at his list but was disappointed when he didn't get it after all?" It's a trip down memory lane for the kids and we have a lot of laughs." -- Helen, 57, Bolingbrook, IllinoisNo Reveler Left Behind
"My husband and I have created a tradition of 'orphans' Christmas -- a non-religious, no-presents get-together at our place for friends and friends of friends who otherwise might not have anywhere to go on that day, either because they're far from home or because they don't usually celebrate holidays. Everyone brings something yummy, and I get to meet interesting people right in my own living room." -- Juliet, 36, New York CityProgressive Decorating
"When my three kids were little, we would decorate the house one day at a time beginning the day after Thanksgiving. I would get all the Christmas boxes down from the attic but only bring out one decoration each day: candles, dishes, stockings, etc. Some nights as I tucked them into bed I would let them decide what the next day's decoration should be and some days I would surprise them. The kids loved it, and it made getting ready for the holidays fun and easy because I didn't have to feel overwhelmed by the thought of having to get it all done at once, by myself." -- Brenda, 49, Beaver Dam, WisconsinFewer Gifts, More Fun
"My family replaced our shopping woes with a much more fun gift-giving game. All participants bring a wrapped gift, valued at say, $50. Everyone draws numbers. Number 1 goes first, and chooses and unwraps a gift. Number 2 can either choose a wrapped gift, or 'steal' Number 1's gift (in which case 1 chooses another new one). Number 3 and the rest follow suit. The last person gets his or her pick from all the opened gifts, or choose the last unwrapped one. It's always a hoot. Now our family gift-giving tradition is something we look forward to, instead of dreading, year after year." -- Jill, 34, Yardley, PennsylvaniaA Very Liquid Feast
"I have A Very Boozy Thanksgiving party most every year the weekend before Thanksgiving so I can share my favorite holiday with all my friends before we go our separate ways. Last year I had a 20-pound turkey with a full buffet of fixins -- and there are always plenty of cocktails (mulled cider with Maker's Mark!). -- Hillery, 29, Minneapolis