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10 unique ways to celebrate Christmas and create new family traditions

So here’s my family’s seasonal dilemma: We love the holiday season, and particularly Christmas. Call it what you will: nostalgia, a fondness for tradition, an excuse to be part of a communal experience…but we, and now our daughter, delight in the decorating, the tree, the music, the lights. As far as my agnostic soul is concerned, December is one great big interfaith solstice celebration.

The only problem is that looking through the eyes of our two-year-old, we’ve realized that much of what we love about the season comes with a implicit anticipation of the Big Day, especially our beloved advent calendar. This means that if all that happens on the Big Day is presents, then no matter how restrained we’ve been in our purchases/creations or how studiously we’ve avoided the malls, we’ve nonetheless just taught our kid that the Christmas gift exchange is itself worth a month’s worth of ramp up. Ick.

We’re not going to ditch the gifts, but we figured we ought to add something else to the 25th to make it more of a day apart. Here are some ideas we’ve considered or others have done. What do you do?

  • Get up to watch sunrise.

    Face it: until it came north to the land of dark winters, Christmas (like Hanukkah) was a minor holiday. What better way to acknowledge the holiday’s pagan roots, celebrate the returning light, and set a mystical atmosphere over the whole day than to get up for sunrise? (Besides, your kids will get up early for their stockings anyway; might as well make the best of it.)

  • Caroling.

    Before it was tamed into nuclear-family Santa-worship, Christmas was a holiday of heavy partying and class-role reversal. Wassailing, which involved going door to door demanding food and booze from the rich folks in exchange for songs and plays whether welcome or not, would probably not be an advisable family tradition, but if you’re a singer and know a few others nearby, wassailing’s more decorous cousin caroling can be a delightful way to spread the Christmas spirit after the wrapping paper has come off. In the colder climes, bring a thermos of hot tea or cocoa.

  • Feed the birds.

    Another common Yule activity among neo-pagans involves decorating outside trees with strings of popcorn and pine cones covered in peanut butter and bird seed. To add an element of impishness and old wassailing spirit, decorate your whole neighborhood.

  • Remember the poor.

    Among the meaning-minded who aren’t headed to church, volunteering on Christmas is becoming something of a tradition. There are many options: special dinners, gift programs for poor kids, soup kitchens. On the other hand, beware: It’s become popular enough that slots can fill up fast. In LA you have to pay $100 for the privilege of distributing food, sleeping bags, and bus tokens that afternoon. And you may also incur the reasonable wrath (or just cold shoulder) of overworked nonprofit leaders who don’t want to bother to train volunteers who will only be there one day a year for the symbolic value.

  • Feast.

    Am I the only one who feels like Thanksgiving wasn’t that long ago, and having a pale imitation of it on Christmas isn’t that exciting? One way to make Christmas feasting special is pick one or two traditional foods that you wouldn’t have any other time of year – for example, mincemeat pies, chestnuts, plum pudding, roast goose, mulled wine, or from-scratch eggnog (or, apparently, if you’re Finnish, reindeer) – and serve ‘em up. Chestnuts roast fine in the oven, by the way, not just on an open fire. For Harry Potter flair, find a British import store selling crackers to place on each plate.

  • Make gift exchange about means, not just ends.

    Emphasize that the process of giving and reciving is more important than the quantity of loot by livening up the process with treasure hunts (good for things too big to wrap), deceptive wrapping competitions, guessing games, or other elaborate/goofy presentations.

  • Quality time.

    So here you are on Christmas afternoon, hopefully all together and with some time on your hands. You could all disappear into your new books/video games, but you could also make it special by picking something to do together that you only do on Christmas. The ritual recitation of How the Grinch Stole Christmas? The whole family watching your favorite Christmas movie together? Time to actually play a complete game of Monopoly? The options are legion.

  • Call relatives and friends.

    This is already part of many families’ Christmas days, and rightly so. Throw in a surprise call to someone who wasn’t expecting it.

  • Take a look back.

    Write down memories of the year together in a blank book and read over last year’s memories, take a yearly picture in a ritual place, or write a New Year’s letter together as a family (because, after all, it’s awfully hard to find time before Christmas to sit down and compose one of those).

  • Go see the lights.

    Some people don’t get their lights up until late; others take ‘em down early. So on the day itself you’re likely to get the maximum effect. As the effects of the feasting wear off, head off around the block, to that neighborhood with the crazy utility bills, or to the formal display in the park (but check first – as stupid as it may be, many formal displays are closed on the 25th).

Remember that for kids, the important thing about holidays is often more that there is a ritual than what that ritual is. Pick your poison, but as soon as the kids have come to expect something, you better be prepared to stick to it.

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