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Holiday Rituals That Break the Mold

Holiday Rituals That Break the Mold
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Many people throughout the country – and the world – love the holidays because it brings them together with their family and extended family. But not everyone is so lucky. We live in a world where children don’t necessarily stay close by their parents and families are often far-flung. And, for that matter, not everyone is lucky enough to have a family that comes together – or wants to. For whatever reason, people – either singly or a group – often search for holiday activities that break the mold. They either want to be around people who aren’t part of their families, to help others, or have an unusual adventure.

Here are some ideas if you are searching for a different kind of holiday ritual.

Serve others

After my brother’s son moved across the country, and couldn’t always take time off of work to come home for the holidays, he and my sister-on-law made a tradition of feeding the homeless on Thanksgiving. They live in a beach town close to Santa Barbara with a tight knit homeless community, so after just a couple of years, they knew everyone and it felt like family to them. When my sister-in-law passed away, my brother kept up the tradition. By this time it felt like home to him.

Cruise Christmas markets

If you want to get far away from home, but really feel the spirit of the season, consider a Christmas market cruise, or visit. Christmas markets have been an annual tradition in Europe for centuries, but they have only opened to cruises in the last few decades. In the late 13th century, winter markets offered a way for townspeople to stock up on supplies before the long, cold season. They’ve since been replaced with the hallmarks of the season in which residents and visitors routinely rejoice: holiday cookies, toys and trinkets, ornaments, hot food and plenty of mulled wine. Called Christkindlmarkt in German, these festive pop-up markets made their way to the United States through German immigrants in recent years, but the most elaborate (and original) markets are still going strong throughout Germany, Austria, Hungary, France, Switzerland and beyond.

One of the best ways to visit several holiday markets on one trip is to take a cruise. Almost every river cruise line (and some British ocean cruise lines, as well) offers designated Christmas market itineraries. You’ll usually see these broken down by river: the Rhine and the Danube for instance.

Viking,, offers tours that visit Vienna, Cologne, Budapest, Nuremberg, Rüdesheim. Several markets are on the itinerary offering a wonderful feast of tasty treats and inspiring handcrafted gifts. Shop for local items – from handmade Christmas decorations and nutcrackers to scented candles, woolen clothing and homemade gingerbread – and sample warm, spicy glühwein (mulled wine).

Sing from your soul

Karma Martell, the owner of a boutique digital marketing company in Brooklyn, New York found that her holiday has morphed lately. She says, “My ritual isn’t that unusual but it does fly in the face of Christmas commerciality. I was caught up in the usual Italian-American Christmas eve fish fest and Christmas Day dinner. When I broke up with my long time significant other, I got more involved in my local church. I joined the choir – I am also a semi-professional singer (I say semi, because I do not gig or record consistently anymore.)

What has evolved is the joy of rehearsing for two months culminating in singing beautiful music for midnight mass – a two+ hour affair, and then getting home in the wee hours, catching a few hours’ sleep and then getting up to sing the Christmas morning mass. What this means is that I no longer participate in the dinners, and I cannot travel very far. What I have gained is being in touch with the true meaning of the holiday, and the high from singing the beautiful Christmas liturgy, and the contribution to others’ holiday experience is priceless and fills me in a way a gourmet dinner cannot. We are a small choir, so every voice counts, and we are a very close unit. In some ways this has isolated me from my family during the holidays, but I realize as I get older that I cannot control other people and that being true to oneself is the greatest gift.”

“Adopt” a family

When my kids were in preschool there was a great project during the holidays in which families would get detailed information about a family in need: ages of all the members of the family, what kinds of things they needed, preferences, etc. We would then buy the kids toys and clothes, sheets and towels, cooking utensils, for the whole family. They were practical – needed – gifts and, while we didn’t get to meet the family – we at least knew that our gifts were going to go to good use. The kids really got a sense of helping people less fortunate then them. Our program was through Para Los Ninos in Los Angeles, but to find a similar organization near you, you can google “adopt a family,”

Eat Chinese food if you’re Jewish. You’re in good company

The writes, “If there’s a single identifiable moment when Jewish Christmas— the annual American tradition where Jews overindulge on Chinese food on December 25—transitioned from kitsch into codified custom, it was during Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan’s 2010 confirmation hearing. During an otherwise tense series of exchanges, Senator Lindsey Graham paused to ask Kagan where she had spent the previous Christmas. To great laughter, she replied:  ‘You know, like all Jews, I was probably at a Chinese restaurant.’

Never willing to let a moment pass without remark, Senator Chuck Schumer jumped in to explain, ‘If I might, no other restaurants are open.’ And so goes the story of Jewish Christmas in a tiny capsule. For many Jewish Americans, the night before Christmas conjures up visions, not of sugar plums, but plum sauce slathered over roast duck or an overstocked plate of beef lo mein, a platter of General Tso’s [chicken], and (maybe) some hot and sour soup.”

Join in some unusual traditions from around the world

In Japan, Christmas is synonymous with… wait for it…. Kentucky Fried Chicken. Only one percent of Japanese actually celebrate Christmas, but ever since KFC launched a hugely successful campaign in 1974 promoting its Christmas meals, droves of Japanese flock to KFCs across the country on Dec. 25.

Czech women predict on Christmas whether they will marry in the next year by throwing a shoe over their shoulder while standing with their backs to the house door. If the shoe lands with the heel toward the door, the woman will stay single for another year.

In Caracas, Venezuela, as in in many Catholic countries, people go to mass during the holidays. The only difference is that here they roller skate. The streets are closed off in the early mornings between December 16 and December 24, no cars or buses, just skaters on their way to church.

In Estonia, Christmas is a mix of pagan traditions celebrating the Winter Solstice and Christmas. Christmas is usually celebrated on Christmas Eve and then most Estonians start off with a visit to the nearest sauna where they usually bathe nude.

In Finland, people visit a cemetery over Christmas. It’s a beautiful sight as hundreds of graveside candles are lit and glow in the snowy woods. Lighting candles at the graves of deceased relatives is a long standing Finnish tradition for those who are religious and those who are not. People will visit a local graveyard at Christmas even if no relatives are there, because it is such a beautiful and tranquil setting.

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